If you think Executive Pastry Chef Bill Corbett of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco has always dreamed of making desserts, you’d be wrong. If you think he enjoys indulging in dessert on his days off, you’d be wrong about that, too. And if you think he can’t get enough of deep, dark chocolate, well, you’d be striking out three for three.
Despite those contrarian characteristics, Corbett, a native of Waterloo, Canada, has done all right for himself. Indeed, the 36-year-old, who probably would have been a heavy metal musician if he’d had his druthers, has made quite the name for himself, having worked at such esteemed establishments as WD-50 in New York, Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco, and Coi, also in San Francisco.
Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Corbett at Absinthe, where he started in January to oversee the sweets there, as well as at Arlequin Café and Comstock Saloon. I also had a chance to try a couple of his elegant desserts: an Earl Grey pavlova with vivid mint ice cream, and a modern take on German chocolate cake with coconut foam that totally changed my mind about the traditionally too-gooey version.
Q: What brought you to the United States?
A: I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do for a living when I was a kid. I was into music, especially punk music. I worked in a video store in Canada. When it closed, a friend got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant. So, I did, too.
I’d still love to be in a band now. If I could be in a heavy metal band, I’d do it in a heart beat. But I’d have to set aside time to actually learn to play an instrument. (laughs)
I moved to Florida from Canada, because I had friends in bands there. I had no work visa and only $800 in my pocket. So, I worked at a café in Tampa and was paid under the table. It was called the 7th Heaven Psychic Café. We served salads and sandwiches, and there were psychic readings.
Florida was where I met my wife, too. I ended up moving to Toronto for a year to work in an all-you-can-eat buffet place. But then I moved to New York because my wife was going to school there. She’s a graphic artist.
I started to realize that I couldn’t just collect a paycheck, even if it meant I could buy records. And the more I learned about cooking, the more I started to really love it.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the sweet side, rather than the savory one?
A: Forced into it is probably the wrong way to put it. (laughs) I wanted to cook. I was trying to get into culinary school in the United States. I could work here, but I couldn’t get loans here.
I was working at a bar in Brooklyn when I was 28. One day, a woman told me that Lincoln Carson, who is now the corporate pastry chef for Michael Mina, had a place and that I should go do a stage there. I barely knew what ‘stage’ meant. The fact was that nobody wanted to hire me because I had no culinary school training and no New York experience.