Sherry Yard's Sweet Independence: After 19 Years With Wolfgang Puck, She's Creating Her Own Empire
PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN
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.
Restaurant critics often hear readers complain, "Why don't you write more about desserts?" The problem is that generally there's only so much you can say about creme brulee and flourless chocolate cake and fruit tart. More often than not, any given version is just like everything else everyone else is serving. The highly technical stuff lacks heart; the rustic stuff you could often make yourself at home. Week after week, it's hard to come up with exciting new ways to say something emphatic about another bread pudding.
But Yard's work is different. When Spago reopened after its latest renovation, the savory food and the stylish new decor both were striking, but what made you stop and pay attention and actually feel something were Yard's desserts. Playful, surprising and intensely technically accomplished, they seared themselves into your sense memory like nothing else at Spago, and as very little else has the capacity to do.
Sherry Yard grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, the daughter of a firefighter. Her grandparents were a fishmonger and a turndown maid at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. She was the second of four girls. You can see some of that Brooklyn firefighter still in Yard's demeanor and attitude; she has the swagger, the twinkle in the eye and the no-bullshit bearing of Sheepshead Bay. Yet so much of what influenced her earlier in life was what she calls the "simple pageantry" of her grandmother's rituals.
"She had Czechoslovakian china, which she served our eggs on in the morning. Our juice was served in crystal glasses," Yard says. "We lived in a house in Brooklyn that was two steps above a shanty, but she gave us this sense of glamour. Because she was a turndown maid, everything was about doing things properly. Setting the table properly. I learned that things taste better on pretty plates."
Yard also credits her grandmother with teaching her how to taste. "She would blindfold us and get us to taste and tell her if she'd put coffee in the ice cream, or what kind of soda she'd bought. She'd say, 'What does it taste like?' "
Yard went to a Catholic girls school and received a scholarship to nursing school at 18, but her mother told her, "Give it back. This is not who you're going to be, and you're taking it from someone who can use it."
She worked at catering halls and at McDonald's and at a dentist's office and at a medical center, and along the way she started baking for people. But she didn't really get bit by the restaurant bug until the mid-'80s, when she went to apply for a job at the newly opened Rainbow Room, during a time she was taking classes at New York Technical Institute. They hired her, first as a cigarette girl, then as a waitress; when she confessed to pastry chef Albert Cumin that she wanted to be a pastry chef, he offered her a spot in the kitchen. "I went to the back of the house and made as much in one week as the pastry wench as I had made in one day in the front of the house."
Over the next decade, Yard went to culinary school three times (dropping out once, graduating twice), received a scholarship to study in London, worked at some of the best restaurants in New York and then San Francisco, met and worked with and rubbed shoulders with almost every legendary chef you've ever heard of, and made a very good career for herself as a pastry chef. But none of that prepared her for a phone call she got out of the blue in 1994.
She was working as pastry chef in Napa, at Jan Birnbaum's Catahoula. "I got a phone call from some guy with an Austrian accent." She assumed it was a prank call. "I thought it was my crazy friend Bob from back East. I called Bob and he said, 'You're drunk. Don't drink and dial me.' I played the message back, I took down the phone number. It was Sunday night — I called the number and they said 'Spago,' and I hung up the phone."
On Monday morning she got up the nerve to call back. Wolfgang Puck told her a mutual friend had said she was looking for her next gig. And he needed a pastry chef. "He asked me when my next day off was. I told him we were closed Monday and Tuesday and he said, 'OK, I'll see you tomorrow. Hold on.' See you tomorrow? But he got me on the phone with his assistant, and she said, 'There's this flight out of Oakland tomorrow, we've got your ticket, and we'll have someone pick you up at the airport.' They picked me up at the airport, and 19 years later ... ."
But there was more to it than that. Yard had long been fascinated by Austria, and had traveled there and obsessively studied the culture. When she showed up in L.A., she apologized for not bringing a résumé. What she did have was little cards with color drawings of her desserts, which she had laminated in order to show people in the kitchen how to plate them. She spread the cards out on the table for Puck to see and his eyes lit up. He grabbed a menu to show her his own colored drawings of dishes, which decorated Spago's menus in those days. "They looked identical to mine," Yard says. "There was a pear tart on mine, and a pear tart on his. He said to me, 'I have crayons, I have markers. You can share.' "
For his part, Puck says he had no idea when they first met how well it would work out — much less that their collaboration would last 19 years. "It's like with anything," he says. "You can fall in love with someone, and then a week later it's over — it's the same with finding people to work with. But the main attribute that I always appreciated, from the beginning, was her enthusiasm and her spirit."
He gives that spirit a lot of the credit for why they worked so well together for so long, as well as the fact that he tries to give everyone who works for him the freedom to be creative and successful.
But Puck and Yard very much share an enthusiasm for the customer-service side of the business. "Sherry's personality is fantastic," Puck says. "When I wasn't there in the restaurant, she was happy to go out and talk to the customers, make them something special, be that face of the restaurant. She was really my No. 2 for many years in that respect. There are many people who can make great desserts, or are great cooks. But she's not only a great pastry chef, she has an amazing passion for hospitality."
Sherry Yard and Sang Yoon have known each other for years, since the days when Yoon worked as a cook at Chinois, Wolfgang Puck's Santa Monica fusion restaurant. They share many things in common: their initials, their love of Champagne, their lucky number (11). They are both left-handed but both play sports with their right hands. These things are important to Yard — she's a strong believer in fate, in things feeling right.
Two years ago, Yard and Yoon ran into each other at the James Beard Awards in New York City. Yard was on the verge of signing a lease for the spot in the Grove that is now Umami Burger, and she told Yoon about her plans for a bakery. "It dawned on me — holy shit, she's actually leaving Spago," Yoon says. "So I told her about the space at Helms, about how I had always wanted to open a bakery there." Yard told him she'd do it with him. They pinkie-promised. "She told me, 'My pinkie promise is better than a written contract.' " When she returned to L.A., she called off the deal at the Grove.
"If Sherry hadn't agreed to do this with me, I might not have wanted to do it at all," Yoon says. "But if Sherry Yard says she wants to do something with you, you do that thing."
At first, it was just going to be a bakery. That alone made a nice headline: "Sherry Yard and Sang Yoon Bring Baking Back to the Historic Helms Bakery." But somehow, in the two years since that first pinkie promise, the project has morphed into something else entirely. Yes, there will still be a bakery.
"My initial thought was, this used to be a grand bakery, so let's mass-produce some things and be really well known for one thing — maybe it's a cream puff, maybe it's a doughnut," Yard says. "Then I got an office at Helms. Once I got an office on-site, and I really started to get to know the neighborhood, I started to look and say, 'What do they need here?' And the truth is: How much can I bake? How many people are going to walk through the door? When I started to do the math, with all my experience in catering and mass production, I can do a lot of baking in a very small space. So, with 4,000 square feet, to create a bakery, I realized that a lot of that product is going to have to go out the back door," meaning wholesale rather than retail.
"I don't want that," she says. "I'd rather bake 14 times a day than bake one time a day and have all the bakers go home and then everything's 14 hours old by the time anyone eats it. No."
So her plans for the kitchen space began to change, to shrink. She realized that part of what the neighborhood needs is somewhere to eat. She wanted a great sandwich. She wanted a place to sit down.
Somehow, over the months, that conversation between Yard and Yoon led to a plan not just for a bakery where you can get a great sandwich but also a full-blown food hall. Helms Hall and Bakery will be a bakery, yes, but right now the plans are for it to also have a coffee and pastry bar, a deli, a wood-fired oven, hot and cold stations, a rotisserie, a carving station, seating, a long cookie and confections counter, and over in one corner a beautiful little glassed-in dinette. The dinette, which Yard giddily describes as being "like a three-star Michelin restaurant but a diner," will be open for breakfast and lunch. The rest of the hall will be open from early morning until 8 or 9 p.m.
The original Helms Bakery operated from 1931 to 1969. Started by Paul Helms, a New York baker who had moved to Southern California, the bakery began with 32 employees. Helms products were never sold in stores; instead they were distributed fresh each day by trucks called "coaches." The coaches operated much like ice cream trucks, driving through neighborhoods and sounding a whistle. They also stopped at houses: People displayed blue "H" signs in their windows to alert drivers to stop. There were 11 routes in 1931 when Helms opened — at the height of its success in the 1950s, Helms served more than 950.
Many things lead to the demise of Helms — the advent of the supermarket, women joining the workforce, the rise of cheaper, mass-produced breads. Despite the fact that Helms ceased operations in 1969, the brand name, building and trucks remain powerful symbols for people who grew up in Los Angeles, who remember that whistle and its promise of cream puffs and doughnuts and bread baked that morning.
In 1971 the Marks family, led by Wally Marks Jr., bought the complex. In the past 40 years, it has held everything from an antiques mall to a jazz club.
In recent years, Wally Marks III, Wally Jr.'s son, has made a concerted effort to expand the complex, curate tenants and create a space for design and food. In 2005 HD Buttercup, the largest furniture store in Los Angeles, opened in what had been a giant antiques store. The following year, Yoon opened Father's Office, his temple to beer and upscale bar food. Since then, many more furniture and design stores have opened, and in 2010 Yoon opened Lukshon, a sleek, modern take on Southeast Asian food.
Father's Office and Lukshon have given Helms some serious food credibility, but the Helms Hall and Bakery could make the place a food destination on a whole different level, getting people to think of Helms in food terms the way they currently think of it in design terms: as one of the city's major hubs.
Yoon admits he's nervous about taking on such an ambitious project. "We're trying to look at it like it's five separate food businesses under one roof, each of them separate, individual pieces. When you look at it that way, it's a divide-and-conquer thing. But yeah, it's a big thing to take on no matter how you look at it."
Not only is the food hall a lot of different moving parts, but Yard and Yoon also envision the bakery aspect somewhat differently from a regular bakery. "Sherry hates what she calls the 'adoption process,' where there are a bunch of cakes and pies sitting out waiting to be adopted," Yoon says. "It breaks her heart. She's invested in doing everything fresh."
Yard echoes this, saying, "If someone wants to order a cake, I might say, 'OK, when do you want to eat it? What time are your guests arriving? Six p.m.? So you might be done with dinner around 8:30? Fine, you can pick up the cake at 4. Any earlier than that, it won't be good, it won't be fresh.' "
What isn't as clear is how she plans to do this for every single item in the bakery, from cookies to bread, pies to cream puffs. Talk to her about any single item they plan on serving in the hall and Yard gets worked up about how things should be done, about the history of that item, about the ways she will do it better. She can talk for 10 minutes straight and a mile a minute about toast — about how thick toast should be cut, about how toast should be buttered, about why no one ever gets toast right. Oh, and she plans to mill her own flour on-site. "I'm trying to learn and absorb everything I can right now about grains," she says.
The most interesting thing about Helms Hall and Bakery might be how these two perfectionists will handle a giant operation with so many moving parts, 50 employees and three reputations — hers, his and the Helms complex — resting on their success.
So what took Yard so long to strike out on her own? Someone with so many ideas, so much passion and the force of personality to drive a hundred successful businesses — why did she stay with Puck for so long?
"I still have the original red file folder from 1995, when Wolfgang and I were going to open a bakery together," she says. "From the very beginning, he said to me, 'You love bread so much. I'll help you open a bakery.' "
It wasn't that he wasn't serious, either; it's just that every time an idea, a location, a plan was put into place, for some reason it fell through.
Five years ago, Yard had to get some work done on her teeth and one of the dentists at the practice caught her eye. "The next time in, I asked the receptionist, 'Is Dr. Ines single?' She said he was, so I asked him out."
Three months later, they were engaged. Maybe it was her marriage that got her thinking about creating something of her own.
Or maybe it was just time: time to remember the pastry chefs. Time to indulge our sweet tooth a bit. And high time Sherry Yard got her due.
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