Rising Stars Interview with Pastry Chef Catherine Schimenti of Michael Mina – San Francisco, CA

June 2010

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Catherine Schimenti: I have a very large family from Long Island, New York. It was very Italian-based. Everything revolved around food in my family. I was the youngest of five kids so I was always helping my mom cook. We would have large parties. A hundred people would come over for Christmas. I would stay up until 5am on Christmas Eve making cookies with my mom. I took a cooking class in high school and I was actually good at cooking. My teacher told me I should go to culinary school. All my friends were going to ivy league schools. I applied to culinary school. I took a pastry class at the end of my first year and switched my major to pastry, so I have the fundamentals of cooking and pastry techniques.

AB: Do you recommend school to aspiring chefs?
CS: I went to Johnson & Wales. It was great—good experience, a great foundation. It let you know what you're in for. I think every chef is different. Like any career, it depends on how far you want to take it and how hard you're willing to work. A lot of my friends in culinary school wanted to work in the best restaurants. We'd spend summers in the city working hard and playing hard after work. I knew it was what I wanted to do and I loved it.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What did you learn from them?
CS: I worked under Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern. You can tell. Keeping things natural and adding a little extra but not too much. I would say she's my mentor. She's the first pastry chef I worked for after culinary school and she was awesome. Sebastien [Rouxel] at Per Se too. Per Se was like finishing school. I learned a lot while I was there. It was an amazing experience. Working for different chefs, it’s amazing to see all the things they've learned and what they're willing to teach you.

AB: What advice would you give to young pastry chefs just getting started?
CS: I think it's important to be well-rounded. Working in different aspects of baking and pastry, I worked in production, I worked in fine dining restaurants, I made bread, I've rounded myself out working at French restaurants, I worked at a rustic modern Italian restaurant. I think it’s really important to give 110% all the time. If you're not in it for the long haul, it's hard work, that's for sure.

AB: Is there an ingredient that you feel is particularly underappreciated or underutilized?
CS: Vanilla is my favorite, I don't think it's an underutilized ingredient, but it's like my pepper or salt, I think it changes the flavor of everything, It heightens the flavor as well as salt [does]. My mom used to hide the salt shaker when I was little because I would put so much salt on the food. I'm a big salt user, I put vanilla in a lot of stuff. I try not to make things too sweet, and to keep the integrity of the flavors.

AB: What's the hardest thing you've had to do in your career?
CS: Working too hard, not spending time with my family and friends.

AB: If there was one thing you could change or do over, what would it be?
CS: I don't think I would change anything. I would like to stage abroad. I would have liked to work in a cake shop, I never got to do that. I taught myself how to make chocolates and cakes. I would have liked to work in a specialty shop like that. I was always so focused on working in a restaurant. There are certain pastry chefs who want to be bakers and take their time. I like the rush of the restaurant, but making beautiful desserts—you don’t get that fast-paced restaurant feel in a bake shop.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
CS: I like to make desserts, obviously, that taste good. I like to make desserts that have produce in them. I'm not a big sugar person. I like to have fruit and heighten the flavor without manipulating the integrity of the fruit. Having different textures and flavors; I like layering flavors and building flavors in desserts. I have to tell myself to stop sometimes. I love ice creams and sorbets. I don't like to throw anything out so even the trim of an apple I'll juice and compress so the apples are compressed with their own juice and cinnamon. I work like a cook with a sweet mind. A lot of people think pastry chefs need to be so delicate. I am in some respects.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
CS: I'm not as involved as I'd like to be. I definitely have hopes of meeting more pastry chefs and chefs and getting out more. I've just been working since we moved here. That and spending more time in the markets. Going to the culinary school, I haven’t been able to go there and meet any of the students. I've been staging, my service staff are brand new. They've been with me for two months now. With the turnover of pastry chefs, things change. I'm definitely getting my groove. I had a couple of stages come in last week, I’m just looking for the perfect person. I want someone who is professional and serious, but you have to laugh too. Strict but fun. Not too stuffy. You have to have a sense of humor, if you're going to spend your life in a kitchen.

AB: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
CS: Focus, be passionate about what you do, and go out to eat.

AB: What’s next?
CS: Hopefully a specialty pastry shop with all the desserts I've been making for the past couple of years, not in to-go form, but a bake shop with chocolates and ice creams and fried doughnuts and little cakes and tarts you could pick up for a dinner party and nice packing and stuff like that, probably purple or pink. Still in San Francisco.

The move to California, we weren’t sure if that would be it or not but the produce and markets, and the chefs out here are awesome. San Francisco is kind of like New York but with a little bit of LA. I didn't like LA for the first year, but it grew on me and I think San Francisco is the best of both worlds. California taught me to not take myself so seriously. I think it's a good fit for us.