Eight years ago, Zac Young was working at Radio City Music Hall in the wig department and as something fun to do, taught himself how to bake cookies. What started with the purchase of a cookie book at Williams-Sonoma became an obsession.
“I’d wake up at 6 in the morning before a four-show day and bake two batches and slowly cooked my way through that book,” he said.
At the end of the Radio City season, and not having anything else lined up, his mother suggested he go to culinary school because cooking was all he could talk about.
“It never dawned on me that I could actually do this for a living. I could make cookies for a living.”
But once in school, he quickly realized that it wasn’t just about making cookies.
“You go to culinary school but you don’t really realize the whole kitchen culture. I came in totally green, didn’t know etiquette or protocol. I just liked making cookies. To see people disciplined was inspiring. It’s a lifestyle in and of itself. Different hours, you talk about techniques, ingredients. It’s your life.”
Out of culinary school, he landed a job at Bouchon Bakery. A few years of steadily working and carving out a niche for himself within New York culinary circles, when he was working as the pastry chef at Butter, a producer from Top Chef contacted him about being on the show. Young was immediately ecstatic, until Butter’s executive chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli reminded him that he didn’t cook regular food. Realizing this probably wasn’t the time for him, he decided to wait.
“I was really revved up about the competition thing and I knew I could kill it in the desserts but was reminded that you actually have to cook protein on the show. So Alex was the one that said, ‘Just wait. I guarantee you in a few years, they’ll do a pastry version and you will do it and you will win.’ She was right about a couple things. She wasn’t right about the end, but it’s OK.”
Just as Guarnaschelli predicted, the Top Chef brand expanded in 2010 to a include “Top Chef: Just Desserts.” Young was included in the first class of cheftestants.
“It was awesome to see how everyone else worked,” he said. “You’re really isolated as a pastry chef so it was really exciting to see how other people do things. The challenge of the show was waking up and having to do it all over again the next day. You have to come up with something totally new, with no recipes, and pull it out of nowhere. It’s really challenging. Day after day. You watch the show once a week, but we film every day. There were no breaks. It’s hard to pull that energy. It’s nice that I’m an Energizer bunny and it didn’t wear me down.”
Young’s reason for going on the show wasn’t fame or fortune. He’d begun to make a name for himself in the New York restaurant and food scene, but he couldn’t tell whether that was because of his personality or because of his ability to cook. So when he joined the “Top Chef: Just Desserts” cast, he went in with the intention of seeing how he stacked up against other people in his field.
“I still remember the first episode and they called us [Young and two other contestants] in first. I didn’t really know what was going on because I didn’t really watch the show, and I just knew I was going home. I was crying before we even walked in to Judges’ Table. So we walk into Judges’ Table and they have to get these establishing shots. So you’re standing there staring at the judges for 10 minutes and the tension is just building. Tears are just streaming down my face and at some point a production assistant handed me a tissue because I was just bawling. Then Gail [Simmons] said, ‘Congratulations, you have our favorite dishes,’ and I just lost it. Really? To get to hear time and again that they liked it was why I went.”
Young barely missed the finale. He had to ‘pack his tools and go’ one challenge shy of the final challenge.
“I know I would have killed it,” he said of the finale challenges. “Part of me said, ‘I can’t believe I blew it,’ but I got what I wanted out of the show. I got some real personal satisfaction out of doing it. That’s what really mattered to me. It didn’t hurt that the media enjoyed me too, but that was not the point. The point was to go on and cook.”
After the filming of the show was over, another challenge awaited Young and the other cheftestants.
“We had to sit for six months while they edited it. They have hours and hours of interviews and footage and we all said some not-so-nice things at some point and you wonder how you’re going to come across when it’s edited. It’s all real; there’s no poking or prodding from the producers. It’s you. You are who you are. Then every week when the show aired, it was so awful. It was like being there all over again. I had to drink heavily to watch it. It was funny to watch but really nerve-racking.”
His thoughts on this most recent season?
“We were the guinea pigs,” he explains. “They’ve done nine seasons of regular Top Chef. They know how to do that, but pastry chefs are really a different breed. We’re very particular in our ingredients and even the brand of our ingredients, and with our equipment. We have all these things we’re comfortable with and our recipes are based on those. For us to walk into a different kitchen with ingredients that are not pastry specific, it was really challenging. I think the producers learned what the chefs need. But it was fun because you know what they’re going through.”
These days, Young — who says he rarely bakes at home — works as a pastry chef at two Flex Mussels locations. Through the holidays in Grand Central Station, he also manned Flex Donuts, a pop-up shop showcasing his creative take on donuts.
He’s also filming season two of “Unique Sweets” for the Cooking Channel and teaching master classes to cooking students, something that allows him to showcase his personal style.
“We’ll start with a key lime pie and then instead of a graham cracker crust we’ll make a honey graham cake,” he said,” then we’ll make a key lime semifreddo on top of it and then we’ll do some toasted marshmallow and add some glitter-covered blueberries on top to show from start to finish how I approach a dessert.”
Those glitter-covered desserts have become somewhat of a calling card for Young since his appearance on “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”
“The funny thing about the glitter is,” he said, “I brought it with me [to “Top Chef”] and wasn’t sure where I wanted to use it. It’s usually on sugar flowers and I actually got the idea from Ron Ben-Israel, who is a cake designer. I saw it on his sugar flowers and thought I could interpret it on a chocolate decoration or something. So I figured I would just dust the dessert in it and it stuck. So now it’s my trademark.”
While the hours are long and work is tough, it’s the love of cooking that keeps him going.
“I cook because I have no other talents. OK, that’s not true, but I honestly can’t see myself happy doing anything else. It almost feels like I’m having too much fun doing what I do and maybe I need to get serious and hunker down,” he said. “It’s weird to now do what I love, get paid for it and have people enjoy it. I think I hit the jackpot.”
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