Take Five with Yigit Pura, On His Sweet Victory on “Top Chef Just Desserts”

Yigit Pura dishes on his victory in "Top Chef Just Desserts.'' (Photo courtesy of Pura)

If you tuned into the insanely wild first season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Just Desserts,” you know that Yigit Pura brought sweet victory home to San Francisco. The executive pastry chef of Taste Catering and Event Planning triumphed over formidable challenges and plenty of histrionics to win a cool $100,000.

A native of Turkey, Pura has felt at home in the kitchen ever since he was a tot, helping his mom make dark caramel and other sugary goodies. Self-taught, he worked in New York at Le Cirque 2000 and Restaurant Daniel, before moving to San Francisco, where he now works on a variety of events that range in scale from a dinner for eight in a private home to a Major League Baseball fete for 5,000 people. Following his win, the board of supervisors even proclaimed Nov. 17 as “igit Pura Day” in the city.

This week, I had a chance to talk to the 30-year-old Pura, about life before, during and after the show.

Q: I’ve watched ‘Top Chef’ since its inception and I have to say I’ve never seen such drama as on ‘Top Chef Just Desserts.’ Is the world of pastry really that over-the-top?

A: (laughs) Pastry chefs tend to be more meticulous creatures, and with that comes a need for more of a sense of control. We’re definitely more eccentric than the savory side.

Q: Why did you want to do the show?

A: I got approached by Bravo. I had always watched ‘Top Chef,’ so it was a tempting offer. I couldn’t say ‘No.’ I thought it would be an interesting platform to showcase pastry chefs’ work instead of just having it be an afterthought after the savory courses, as it usually is.

For one of the challenges, Pura created this elegant hazelnut dacquoise with milk jam and salted caramel ice cream. (Photo courtesy of Bravo TV)

Q: What was the hardest challenge?

A: There were a few of them. The ‘Celebritea’ challenge, where we had to create a dessert based on a celebrity couple. (Pura chose Madonna and Guy Ritchie.) I had a hard time grasping that in my core. I felt I wasn’t in my body then. After the restaurant wars challenge, I was a mess. I tend to be pretty grounded, but with the lack of sleep, I just felt the floodgates open. It was definitely not my finest moment. But I finally was able to channel all of that to just get re-inspired in the competition.

Q: What surprised you most about doing the show?

A: I tend to plan things a lot in my work when I create recipes and do events. Confronted with such time constraints and limitations on the show, I was amazed I could be so spontaneous under such conditions.

Q: Of all your competitors, whose pastries/desserts would you most want to eat on your day off?

A: They were all kind of brilliant. But I’ll give you a three-fold answer. On my day off, I’d want to eat Erica’s desserts because they’re so delicious, cozy and you don’t want to stop eating them. If I went to an elegant dinner, I’d want Heather H.’s desserts. And if I were in the mood to be shocked and surprised, I’d want Zac’s desserts.

San Francisco's Yigit Pura wins the first season of "Top Chef Just Desserts.'' (Photo courtesy of Bravo TV)

Q: Did you think you would win?

A: The day before I left for the show, I had this momentary calmness in my head, where I thought I could win this. Then, I said ‘Don’t think about it, don’t think about it. Don’t get distracted.’

Q: What drew you to pastry making as opposed to being a savory chef?

A: I started in savory. I did that for a year and a half. Then, I decided to do a stage in the pastry kitchen.

In savory, I used to love being in the kitchen, but some aspects never clicked with me. Doing dinner service in a restaurant, no matter how organized, is always chaotic. I like to have a grasp on things. In pastry, you plan everything. When I did my stage in pastry, with all the precision involved, I felt right at home and I knew that was it for me.

Q: What was it like working for Daniel Boulud?

A: Daniel is a brilliant man, an incredible mentor and almost a father figure to me. He takes no prisoners. You work really long hours, six days a week, but what you get out of it if you survive is great knowledge and backbone. It was the best experience I could have ever had.

Q: What made you leave the restaurant world for the catering one?

A: I had gotten a promotion at Daniel to be the executive pastry chef at Daniel Boulud Brasserie Las Vegas. I was there for seven months and Las Vegas was just not my cup of tea. I happened to take a long vacation in San Francisco, and while I was there, I sent out a few resumes. I immediately clicked at Taste.

Q: Was it easy going from the restaurant world to the catering one?

A: No. For the first four months, I wanted to bash my head against the wall. Maybe that’s too strong. But in a restaurant, you create a menu, it’s your vision and you create the food. Here, we can’t have just eight desserts on the menu. We have 50 with many different petit fours. That’s because every client has their own tastes.

All that food is still within my style. It’s definitely helped me push myself and extend my repertoire.

Q: So you originally intended to go to business school?

A: Since I was three years old, I was banging pots in the kitchen. But my Mom would kick me out, saying that’s not a man’s place. I went to junior college to study business. It was my father who encouraged me to go with what I knew I really wanted to do. Cooking and pastry-making feels so natural to me. I can’t imagine doing any other career.

Q: Do Turkish flavors/ingredients play a role in your desserts?

A: Yes, I use a lot lavender, teas and spices. I’ve always been fascinated by cultures, so I borrow a lot from Japanese and other cultures, too.

Q: What do you plan to do with your $100,000 winnings?

A: Taste and I plan on opening a pastry shop in 2011. I hope to bring a European flair that I think San Francisco will appreciate having.

Q: What’s the first thing you bought yourself after your win?

A: I still haven’t yet, if you can believe that. I also won as ‘fan favorite.’ When my sister was visiting, I did take her and my best friends out to dinner. I still hope to have a trip to Hawaii somewhere in there, too.

Q: Since you’re around sweets all day, what do you crave most when you go home to eat?

A: Sweets. I know, it’s absurd. When I’m home, I try to cook healthy. Last night, I cooked, and then left home to go buy something sweet. It’s crazy, I know. My dentist thinks so, too.

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More: My Q&A with Pastry Chef Emily Luchetti

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