No way around it. Zac Young is obsessed with baking. His obsession actually began while he was working in the wig department at Radio City Music Hall. After purchasing a cookie book at Williams-Sonoma (“I’d wake up at 6 in the morning before a four-show day and bake two batches”), he worked his way through the book and when the Radio City season ended, he went to culinary school.
When Zac and I talked in 2012, he was making donuts at a pop up shop in Grand Central Station. Today, he’s the Pastry Director of Creaveable Hospitality Group and you’ve no doubt seen him on any number of baking shows on TV. Named one of the Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America by Dessert Professional, he’s brought his joyous personality to shows like Cooking Channel’s Unique Sweets and Food Network’s Chopped and has no intention of slowing down now.
Ryan: A lot has changed since we last talked shop. Tell me what a day in your life looks like right now.
Zac: What I love about my job (…jobs? I feel like I wear 13 hats) is that no one day is ever the same. It’s perfect given my high energy level and low attention span. Let’s take today for example:
8:00 Wake up. I don’t eat breakfast. Something about chewing the morning seems exhausting.
9:00 Arrive at The James Hotel in SoHo to finalize the new menu rolling out tomorrow. Bake some biscuits and cookies.
11:00 Shoot with BLEEP Magazine. Yay!
1:00 Review equipment and ingredient list for Palm Desert Food & Wine demo. Really upset that I have to go to Palm Springs in two weeks… actually no. No I’m not!
3:30 Site visit with my partners for a really exciting new project.
5:00 Sneak away to yoga. It keeps me sane.
6:30 My new Chef’d dessert kit arrives at home. Unpack it, review it, cook it, take pictures. Make an Instastory about it to make people jealous and hungry.
8:30 Friend comes over. Order dinner via seamless. (Mexican. Carnitas) Eat leftover dessert from Chef’d. Watch more Queer Eye. Cry heavily.
11:00 Take Pippin out for a walk. He’s a really good listener. Actually, I think he’s just in it for the treats.
So you’re a little busy. And meticulously scheduled. That leads me to ask about your work on TV because you’ve been on screen with increasing frequency. You’re now judging the competitions rather than competing in them. [Young was a contestant on Top Chef: Just Desserts in 2010] You’re obviously bringing your personality to the shows, but how has the transition from the kitchen to being on TV challenged you?
It sounds strange but the hardest part about TV is actually being yourself. “Just act natural!” Okay, well it’s not natural to have 10 cameras, audio, producers, hair and makeup, wardrobe, a culinary department, and a network executive all staring at you, waiting for you to say something revolutionary about a cupcake.
I have to admit that I’m a super fan when it comes to the holiday-themed baking shows. I will cancel plans with people so I’m home to watch them. I know we’ve known each other for many years at this point but I have to say as a fan, you were so much fun to watch on Halloween Baking Championship.
Thank you! Halloween Baking Championship was legit the most fun I’ve had on set. I mean, costumes and sugar! Carla Hall and Lorraine Pascale are not only my friends, they are two of the finest, most genuine, kindest humans on the planet. I’ve also been a super fan of John Henson since he was on Talk Soup. It’s a good thing it was Halloween because he made us all cackle. My stomach hurt most days, not because of the sweets. John’s just that funny.
Now more than ever, there are cooking and baking shows on all the time. They’re winning Emmys, they’re creating international stars, they’re all over our TVs every minute of the day. As someone who has competed, judged, and is a fan of these shows, what do you think is the key to these shows’ continued and ever-increasing appeal?
The baking shows work so well because they are so visual and they also showcase skills most people don’t have at home. People love watching the process. There’s also been a change in tone of these competition shows. There’s more civility and less cattiness. It’s great to watch talented cooks and chefs working together and appreciating each other’s work.
You’re the king of another holiday as well. PieCaken has taken the Thanksgiving holiday by storm. How did it feel when you realized it was becoming a sold-out sensation?
It’s kinda crazy. It was truly an organic success. It just took off. One day I woke up and Kelly Ripa was talking about it and then my phone exploded. If this is my culinary legacy, I guess I’m fine with it. I mean, it’s basically me in a cake form: big, complex, over the top.
Working with it all day, every day, how do you keep the love of pastry while not becoming burned out by it?
I love that the pastry and food world is an ever-changing, ever-evolving medium. There’s always something new to learn—a new concept, a new direction to take. At the end of the day, dessert is a luxury. It’s an indulgence and it makes people happy. Even if you are “eating your feelings,” it’s really hard to be sad when you have dessert.
I’m fascinated with pastry across the board. I love the science of it, I love the art and architecture of it, and I love to eat it. I also have so many new projects coming up that include a little bit of everything from high-end to quick-serve concepts.
One of those recent projects included guest judging on the new Netflix baking show, Nailed It, which is a truly wonderful show. I watched the entire season in one sitting.
It was so much fun. It’s a show that’s basically taking novice, very enthusiastic home bakers and having them try to recreate those cool looking Pinterest desserts. Unicorn cakes, emoji cake pops—the sorts of things you see online and think “I could make that.” Well I guest judged an episode and I have to say, Nicole Byer [the host] is freaking hysterical. I couldn’t breathe I laughed so hard. She really is that funny. The cooks on the show are great because they’re equally enthusiastic and self-deprecating. It’s not a show where the cooks are being made fun of, but these desserts are tough to make for a novice and it’s all in good fun. It’s about being able to laugh at yourself and have a good time trying this new thing.
I’m sure everyone asks you this but I will too. How are you juggling everything that’s on all your plates?
Luckily, all of my jobs fall under the same umbrella. It’s all for the same result. It’s never a conflict between work in the restaurants and filming for a show. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough hours in the day. If I could add an extra four more for sleep, I would. Right now, I feel like I’ve worked really hard for 13 years at this and I’m finally at a place now where I’m really happy with what I’ve done. But there’s so much more coming. I thought I made it to the top of the mountain but there’s a another whole peak ahead that I can see and that’s exciting. I’m not going to sit back and rest with what I’ve done so far. There’s more to accomplish.
What’s been key in helping you maintain your drive to accomplish those new goals?
In the past two years, I’ve finally been able to find a balance and try to have a bit of a life outside of work. I try to run away to the gym in the middle of the day because that’s something for me. I never did that. It was always work, work, work, get a little sleep, work again. I’ve found that taking a little more time for me makes me more productive and a much better human.
Most importantly, are you happy?