Interview with Pastry Chef Carlos Salgado of Commis - Oakland, CA

April 2010

Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Carlos Salgado: I grew up in a restaurant family. My parents are restaurateurs. They had a series of Mexican restaurants in Orange County. That’s where I got my start a long time ago.

AB: Did you go to culinary school?
CS: I never worked in my parents’ restaurant except helping in summers. I had a different career for eight years. I was a web developer way back when. Then I went to culinary school about four years ago now.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
CS: Absolutely not. I think one day there will be a culinary school that is worth a damn.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
CS: I think my first very serious restaurant job outside working for my parents was working for Vernon (Morales) at Winterland. He was very influential to me in terms of work ethic and a highly personalized approach to food. My time there was short. Daniel Patterson has been the most influential person on me professionally. I worked at Coi for the last three years; I was the pastry chef there for the past two, just before coming here [to Commis].

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
CS: I guess you would choose someone who has lived through a lot of seasons and a lot of cultural shifts in cuisine and learn as much about their approach as possible. The only other way to learn is to have those experiences for yourself.

AB: What is your pastry philosophy?
CS: I think I chose to get into pastry because I have a natural affinity to sweetness but sweetness tends to be an afterthought. Its delivery is uncomplicated or unchallenging and I think I like to use sugar as a surprise element rather than as the main element. And I like to find a lot of pleasure in natural sweetness and natural balance.

AB: Where do you fit into your local culinary community?
CS: Since we opened Commis, apart from the fact that I get to see many faces in the community by virtue of working in the open kitchen, my involvement is pretty minimal. My network of friends and professional acquaintances is further-reaching now, but like any other working chef we're all friends, we all communicate, we all bounce ideas off each other. I have every pastry chef in the city on my phone. I go to the San Francisco farmers’ markets every week.

AB: How does the market influence your cooking?
CS: More than anything I use it as an indication of the color or the hue of the season. I think that’s the frame of reference that diners in the Bay Area use as far as seasonality so its important to use that as a key frame of the seasons.

AB: What are your top three tips for culinary success?
CS: First and foremost memory, texture, and balance are I think the three most important variables that you're dealing with. Memory, because pastry—maybe more so than savory food—is very dependent on preconceived notions, so its important to reference them without changing them too much.

Texture, because the nature of the things we like to eat for dessert are easily overwhelming—sugar, too cloying; chocolate too rich; things of that nature. Learning to work with these essentially rich flavors and break them up with texture is really important.

Balance—sweet and salt. I can’t tell you how many pastry or cookie or cake recipes that don’t have salt in them, whether it’s a household cookbook or professional pastry chefs recipe from a published book.

I was explaining to a stagiaire the other day, I tend to look at savory cuisine as a destructive creative process when you take elements of foods that are preformed by nature and pare them down to their basic components. In pastry, it’s more about a constructive creative process. There’s no analog for chocolate mousse with a scoop of ice cream. In nature these are completely man-made forms. The ability to create something memorable and successful relies substantially on being able to create something balanced,whether it’s making a cookie—which is essentially a solid object created from flour—or making a scoop of ice cream. Balancing things that are otherwise completely abstract is the most difficult part. Secretly, I think savory chefs have it easy.

AB: What’s next for you?
CS: Probably within a few years I'll start to focus again on savory. I'm not trained in pastry at all. I went to school for savory and accidentally got into pastry because I love sweets. Sugar is a big part of my diet. But the whole time I've been thinking about how I'll approach my savory cuisine after the fact. So hopefully within five years I'm back to dealing with open fire and salt here.