Sherry Yard is large in personality and small in stature. Blond, Brooklyn-born, 5 feet 2 inches tall, Yard is one of the most respected pastry chefs in the country and, in her trademark bubble gum–pink coat, one of the easiest to spot. But standing in the gaping 4,000-square-foot space at the Helms Bakery complex that soon will house her new venture, Yard looks especially small, and her personality seems especially large. Because what she's talking about, what she envisions for this giant empty space, is one of the most ambitious food projects in L.A. history.
Best known as the longtime pastry chef at Spago, Yard worked for 19 years with Wolfgang Puck in that restaurant's kitchen, and also on many other projects in his massive restaurant empire. In that time she wrote two cookbooks, won a James Beard Award and mentored or influenced an entire generation (or three) of pastry chefs, who now fan out all over the world.
She is finally striking out to do something of her own. With Sang Yoon, chef and owner of Lukshon and Father's Office, Yard is planning to redefine the old Helms Bakery complex.
Next January, Sherry Yard will turn 50. Her gift to herself will be Helms Hall and Bakery.
In an industry where male chefs who work with savory ingredients get the lion's share of the glory, Los Angeles is somewhat unusual. There is a strong maternal line in the history of our best chefs and restaurants, and it goes right back to the pastry kitchen at Spago.
Spago's first pastry chef was Nancy Silverton, who went on to open La Brea Bakery and Campanile with then-husband Mark Peel and, after that, her Mozza empire with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Later, in the Spago kitchen, Sherry Yard trained an incredible number of chefs, from Karen Hatfield, who now owns and operates Hatfield's and Sycamore Kitchen with her husband, Quinn Hatfield, to Food Network personality Giada De Laurentiis (see "The Incredible Shrinking World of L.A. Pastry Chefs," by Amy Scattergood). It's hard to find a well-regarded chef in L.A. who didn't go through the kitchens of Spago or Campanile, and harder still to find one who wouldn't admit to being influenced in some way by Silverton and/or Yard.
You could read up on all of Yard's accolades, her many awards, her best-selling cookbooks, her badass reputation. But what might be more illustrative, what might give you a better idea of why she has all these accolades, would be to spy on her at the farmers market as she talks to a farmer about Ring of Saturn peaches.
Yard: "You only have three cases? I want all three."
Farmer: "No, you can only have one. I need to save some for the other chefs."
Yard, in the tone of a hustle, quick-tongued, full of passion and bravado: "No, no, you can have all of them. Keep them. Tell me the person that's going to do something better with them than me. He can have them; she can have them. But if you say sorbet, pie, cobbler or crisp, they're automatically out. Because how could they not respect the fruit? How could you not look into it and say, 'What is it meant to be?' "
She picks up a peach and pries it open. She talks about its perfume; how, at this point in the season, it doesn't smell like almond. It's too young, so it smells like pistachio. She says she'll take the peach and blanch it, dip it in flour, then dip it in egg, then dip it in biscotti crumbs because they have pistachio and anise in them. She'll bake them in the oven, to order.
She gets all three cases.
The first time you eat a Sherry Yard dessert, the experience may be somewhat stupefying.
You may have heard of Yard's raspberry chocolate-chip soufflé at Spago, but you'd still be unprepared for the almost childish sugary glee of it, the hot pink mousse-y interior, the melted chocolate, the extra chocolate sauce poured over this insane, puffy ode to sugar. This is dessert with a point of view, but it's the antithesis of the self-serious architectural creations offered by other famous pastry chefs. There's no turning away from the idea that dessert is meant to be fun, that at its heart it's an indulgence and therefore shouldn't become too solemn. This is a celebration of the part of us that, as children, would have risked life and limb — or at least stern punishment — to get our hands on that sweet sticky stuff, and it is the purest expression of that notion (without falling into the trap of mawkish, saccharine overkill) you may ever encounter.