Lafayette's Jennifer Yee on Pastry Inspiration and Keeping the Art Alive
"Everything I'm doing here and in the dining room just hits on every little one of my vanities or fetishes about pastry."
Pastry chef Jennifer Yee has a lot to keep together at Andrew Carmellini's Lafayette—a menu of plated desserts, sorbets, and ice creams to take care of for the dining room, in addition to a bakery café overflowing with miniature cannelles, muffins, mousses, tarts, éclairs, croissants, and cookies. All look to die for, and our resident sweet tooth Niko has openly expressed his high respect for Yee over the years.
With all that production obviously comes a great amount of organization and precision, so we sat down to discuss where she gets the inspiration for her French-inspired menu, how she keeps her style focused, and what she thinks it will take to keep the pastry arts in New York thriving.
What most excites you about what you get to do here? I love that I can take from all the classic French desserts and really twist them into something that's uniquely Lafayette. It doesn't have to be very traditional and is still grounded in classic French pastry, but I can put all my own twists on things; the plating can be pretty modern, simple, and very colorful. The only sort of rules or guidelines are to not have any crazy, polarizing flavor combinations, but other than that there was really no limit to what I could do here.
How would you define your personality or spin on those classics? I am very much into sort of intensely flavored yet light desserts. I love to juxtapose different flavors—tangy, sweet, spicy, creamy—but I don't want anything to be too cloying and I always want there to be some brightness in my dish. Because you are eating it at the end of the meal I want it to lift your palate.
You've noted your degree in interior architecture as a contributor to your style. But how has that developed? My style's been shifting around. Obviously with an architecture background you focus on structure and verticality and maybe in the beginning that translated into my food, but now I'm going further and further away from very structured desserts. I like to see a clean plate, so my food right now is much, tighter, neater, and cleaner than what I was doing four years ago, but still interesting to look at. To have a clean plate still takes skill. It may look simpler, but it allows me to focus more on the flavors and textures of the actual food then where the streak of sauce is going.
Our New York Sugar Rush writer Niko particularly loved your Chocolate Mint Rocks at SHO. Are we going to be seeing more from that style here? The rocks really fit SHO, since all the plating and aesthetics of the food was geared towards nature, so that's how that happened. I definitely do play with my food, and I think here you see more plays on tromp l'oeil in the bakery, but I try not to be too gimmicky with it. I'm not going to make chocolate trees or chocolate dogs or anything!
How has New York and the pastry scene here played into your education or growth? Is there anyone you feel you've particularly learned or grown from? I work a lot and I don't eat out as much as I would like, but eating out is 100% an education. I see new ingredients I may not have used before, things I don't and do like, maybe a plating technique that's kinda cool. I think when you eat out you start a dialogue with other pastry chefs, and get inside their heads a bit to see where their thinking is, to see if it will change my thinking or improve my work. I haven't eaten out in a while, but I've been a big fan of Brooks Headley at Del Posto for a while now. His stuff looks great, it's uniquely him, and it's uniquely Del Posto. I was just looking online at Malcolm Livingston's food and I just took a class with him at Valrhona, and I thought that was interesting and it kind of got the wheels turning in my head. I just went to Estela a few weeks ago where Alex Gruner is consulting, and he has really simple desserts—like, three components—and they were mind-blowing because of how delicious and simple they were. I get inspiration from something as technically difficult as what Malcolm's doing and something as simple and pure as what Alex is doing.
You have a massive amount of production at Lafayette—plated desserts, the wide variety of the café and bakery. What does that diversity satisfy for you? Plated desserts are one aspect of pastry, baked good are a very different aspect, and then all the stuff in the showcase—the entremets, the éclairs, the petits gateaux—that's all pretty classically driven. It all allows me to play with different forms of pastry. I am on an éclair kick right now—I, like, dream about them at night, different incarnations. Pretty soon we're going to do a group of éclairs based on American pie flavors, so that will be exciting. I have a soft spot for tarts. Everything I'm doing here and in the dining room just hits on every little one of my vanities or fetishes about pastry.
It definitely takes a lot of organization, planning and communication with my sous chefs and cooks, and with the café to make sure the front of house are able to explain everything clearly and sell product. In that way it's very challenging.
What would your advice be to young pastry chefs, to continue the relevancy of the pastry arts? Diversify as much as possible. Not every restaurant is going to need a pastry chef, so you better know how to do more than just plated desserts. Not everyone's going to need a cake decorator, so you need to make sure you are versed in as wide of a range of pastry as possible. And obviously you need to put yourself out there in terms of media and exposure, because you don't want to get lost in the shuffle. There are so many really talented pastry chefs that don't get as much recognition as they deserve or are having a hard time finding the right home for themselves because they haven't had as much exposure, so people don't want to put their trust or money into them. I really do hope that the New York pastry scene is going to thrive. I think it's still in a very infantile stage, but I hope that the bakery will stay, and will keep the pastry chef alive.