Take Five with Pastry Chef Extraordinaire Emily Luchetti, On Leaving the Savory Side for the Sweet One

San Francisco Pastry Chef Emily Luchetti. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Gleason)

The name, Emily Luchetti, is synonymous with desserts so luscious you want to seriously lick the plate even after swallowing the last forkful. Civility, be damned!

That’s not surprising given her reputation. The 51-year-old Luchetti is executive pastry chef of Nick’s Cove in Marshall; and Farallon, Waterbar, and Epic Roadhouse, all in San Francisco. A veteran cookbook author, she also was named James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2004.

Recently, I talked with her about why she made the switch from line cook to pastry chef, the one baked good she’s been unable to master, how she stays trim around all that butter, and the incredibly sweet tale of how she met her husband, Peter.

Q: You were working as a cook in the private dining room of Goldman Sachs in New York and Peter was a trader. You dated, and then decided to head to France without him for a year to study cooking. And at the end of the year, he picked you up at the airport, and you two have been together since? That is way too romantic.

A: (laughs) But he didn’t tell you that the first time he asked me out, I said ‘no’!

I had just broken up with a guy. I needed a break. It was nothing personal. But the second time that Peter asked me out, I thought he might not ask a third time, so I said ‘yes.’

Q: So did you court him with your cooking?

A: I was doing savory food then. I was at Goldman’s because I needed a job to pay the rent. Cooking was something I always loved to do, but I didn’t consider it as a career. This was in 1979, back when cooking wasn’t as popular as it is now. But the more I did of it, the more I fell in love with it.

Maybe I did keep Peter interested because I fed him. Plus, I think he liked my enthusiasm.

Q: When did you start doing pastry professionally?

A: I was at Stars in San Francisco then (in the mid-1980s). I knew I wanted to do desserts. The woman who was doing pastries there was pregnant and wasn’t going to come back. I didn’t have pastry training, but I figured I had nine months to convince my boss to give me the job.

Q: What was it about pastry making that you enjoyed?

A: Peeling shrimp or cooking a bunch of salmon fillets didn’t excite me. I didn’t like cooking on the line, not knowing what was going to happen each evening. So much of my destiny seemed out of my control. When you do desserts, you plate them to order, but a large part is done ahead of time.

I’m a day person, too, not a late-night person. Plus, I married a guy who was a trader, and he was getting up really early, too. You can’t have opposite shifts all the time in a relationship or you’d be like two ships passing in the night.

Q: Were you one of those kids who baked all the time?

A: No. My sister and I would make Boston cream pie out of a box, and cake mixes. The only thing I backed from scratch then was Toll House cookies.

My Mom and Dad loved to cook. But looking back on my childhood, there aren’t any desserts that I can say, ‘Oh, Mom made best apple pie in the universe’ or ‘Grandma made the best bread in the world.’  But I’ve always liked desserts. I’m more of a sweet person than a salty person.

Q: Did you have an Easy-Bake Oven?

A: No. My cousin did. I was so jealous. I tease my cousin to this day that the reason I became a pastry chef is because I didn’t have an Easy-Bake Oven.

Q: What has been your worst baking disaster?

A: Those you block out. As soon as you clean up the mess, you’re past them. Believe me; I know I’ve had them. But you try to forget them.

Q: Any dessert that’s stumped you?

A: Those Nabisco chocolate wafers. I tried for years to make something like them. You put them with whipped cream, and you have a cake. They’re pretty darn good. Then again, it’s probably all the preservatives in them that make them so good. And then you think, ‘Why bother making them when they’re already available?’

Q: Do you eat sweets every day?

A: If I’m working at one of the restaurants, I’m a picker, which can be really bad. If I have an office day, I can go all day without dessert.

When you’re around sugar all day, though, your body craves it. Sometimes I dip into the baking supplies during the day, and have a little 70 percent dark chocolate.

I don’t crave desserts after dinner so much because I’m already full. The time I really want dessert is 3 p.m. I don’t even need to look at the clock to know what time it is when I start getting that craving.

Q: At family events, does everyone just leave the dessert-making to you?

A: They usually leave the whole meal to me. But my husband is a good cook. And people help, and bring things. People in my family like to cook. But I’m like the CEO of the kitchen.

Q: How do you stay slender, given all the temptation you have to work with?

A: I’m not one of those people who can eat 10 pounds of chocolate and not gain an ounce. I’m not my sister who can have two pints of ice cream in the freezer and not touch them.

We do eat healthy at home. It’s usually a lot of soups and salads. If we go out, or have friends over, then we have dessert. But we don’t have dessert at home unless I’m doing testing for a book.

I exercise a lot, probably five times a week. I used to run, but my hips aren’t happy with that anymore. I tried rollerblading but I couldn’t go fast enough to get my heart rate up. I’m into spinning classes now.

Q: OK, if you had to choose, would it be ice cream or cake?

A: Ice cream. Without a doubt. It’s so good. You can have ice cream without cake, but you can’t have cake without ice cream.

Q: Chocolate-chip cookie or chocolate truffle?

A: Who made the truffle? It would depend on that.

Q: Old-fashioned rhubarb pie or deconstructed, molecular gastronomy-created strawberry shortcake?

A: Rhubarb pie. I’m not into molecular gastronomy because it’s not my style. I do appreciate it as a style. I recognize when it’s really well done. But sometimes, it just doesn’t satisfy the inner urgings. Sometimes I think that food, and especially desserts, shouldn’t be so intellectual.

Q: ‘Top Chef’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy’?

A: To be on? ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’

There’s too much emphasis on competition when it comes to food these days. Maybe it’s a girl thing, but I think, ‘Why can’t we all win’?

More: Emily Luchetti’s Gingerbread with Warm Apples and Cider Sabayon

More: My Q&A with Pastry Chef Yigit Pura

More: My Q&A with Pastry Chef Bill Corbett

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