A Sweet Life of Influences and Mentors: Pastry Chef Sherry Yard

by Amanda McDougall
April 2010

Chefs to Know Fast Facts

  • Pastry chef most admired:
  • Little Debbie. She was the trailblazer for sweet treats!
  • Favorite underappreciated ingredient:
  • Alcohol, for levity and flavor
  • Indispensable kitchen tool:
  • Tongue
  • Most Telling Interview Question:
  • Do you want my job?
  • Where you’d like to go for culinary travel?
  • Argentina, just for an ice cream run.
  • How do you describe your pastry?
  • Focusing on the integrity of the ingredient. It’s as simple as that.

From Girl Scout cookies to farm fresh raspberries, the influences in Sherry Yard’s sweet career are myriad and many. Brooklyn born and bred, Yard has memories of rainbow cookies and Manhattan’s Rainbow Room chocolate velvet mousse that have not only helped shape her culinary career, but also found their way into some of her iconic desserts.

Yard got her first break into the restaurant world at legendary restaurateur Joe Baum’s then-famous Rainbow Room in Manhattan. But the position she landed first was that of a cigarette girl. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Yard made her way into Pastry Chef Albert Kumin’s kitchen. Though the fledgling pastry cook was only at Rainbow Room a short time, she credits both Baum and Kumin as mentors from whom she learned showmanship and excellent techniques, respectively.

Working under Pastry Chef David Blom at Montrachet is where, as Yard puts it, she went from being a pastry chef to a dessert chef. She learned the nuances of fine dining, not to mention a healthy dose of pastry perfectionism. Yet again, her time in this influential kitchen was short; Yard was soon off to London on a culinary scholarship, a trip that not only exposed her to a taste of European dessert-making, but also marks a turning point in her aspirations to become a serious pastry chef.

Fellow culinary comrade (and future chef-icon) Michael Mina lured Yard westward to San Francisco in 1989. She quickly secured a spot in the pastry kitchen of Campton Place Hotel where she went from part-time pastry line cook to lead pastry chef. The cornucopia of California produce opened the Brooklyn-native’s eyes to the beauty of fresh fruit and the flavors it imparts; Yard reveled in the bounty and started to find and define her own style of desserts.

The next phase of Yard’s dessert development was in the wine country of Napa at Jan Birnbaum’s Catahoula restaurant. Needless to say, Yard’s virtually unlimited access to wine, the laid-back attitude of a more country lifestyle, and the rhythm of the harvest had a lasting impact on the pastry chef’s dining philosophy. Her desserts turned toward comfort and homey-ness, and everything paired with wine.

Her success and long tenure at Catahoula wasn’t unnoticed; in 1994, Yard was tapped by Wolfgang Puck himself to helm his pastry kitchen at Spago. She overhauled his dessert menu, streamlined it—she convinced Puck that soufflé could indeed be done a la minute—and soon became a devotee of the Santa Monica farmers market. It was the beginning of a new era of fruit-driven desserts for Yard and Puck encouraged her every step of the way to forge relationships with the farmers and get the best possible produce from them.

A trip to Puck’s native Austria was another turning point in Yard’s career. She staged and observed in multiple Viennese pastry kitchens and picked up one of her most well-known and beloved desserts, her version of the Austrian classic kaiserschmarren. A kindred spirit to Puck if there ever was one, Yard continues to lead his restaurant group’s dessert and baking programs, overseeing everything from soufflés to last-minute wedding cakes to breads and confections—each one embodying a bit of flavor from Yard’s sweet influences and mentors.