Welcome to The Sugar Files, where Eater uncovers and features the city's best pastry talent. In this edition, Noah French of Sugarmill gets the spotlight.
Noah French, Sugarmill [Photo: Adam Larkey]
Pastry chef Noah French has dedicated himself to the food industry since he was 15 and worked two after school jobs at a kosher deli and a pizzeria. The New Jersey native went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America where an encounter with a chocolate-pistachio mousse cake during an externship in San Diego was pivotal in his decision to pursue a life in pastry. Since the early 90's French has run pastry programs all over the world- in locales such as Atlantic City, South Africa, and Roy's in Hawaii where he met current partner Troy Guard.
French now runs the show at Sugarmill, River North's barely two-week-old café that boasts a strong savory menu to compliment an expertly executed dessert line-up. There, he crafts the kinds of confections that make people want to become pastry chefs. Eater talked to French about Sugarmill, what makes him tick, and what ticks him off.
Are you French? No. The last name is just coincidental. My mother was Hungarian and my father was Dutch and English.
Do you have any pastry recipes from your family? No. My mother was the cook in the family. I never picked up recipes from her because everything was all from scratch; she never measured anything out. I remember coming home from school and the house just smelling like fresh baked bread. She made these incredible rye breads and whole wheat breads. I remember she did a strudel. My father had a few things he would always bake and one was carrot cake.
What is your approach to pastry? I like ideas that people can relate to. Pastry chefs sometimes go overboard. I like simple flavors. I love apples and almonds. We do a red velvet cake with a cream cheese crème brûlée on top. I like tea, so I'll match tea and chocolate in the chocolate-jasmine mousse. With my Hawaii experience, I bring the coconut haupia. Everything has a contrast of textures. With the haupia there are tubes of caramel cookies and inside is a coconut cream. My approach is pronounced flavors- if something is going to be lemon, then you are going to taste the lemon.
What drew you into the Sugarmill concept? Troy called me up and said, hey do you want to do this dessert concept? I said, I just signed this contract in Barbados, if you can wait two years and you still want me to do it, absolutely. Sure enough, we kept in contact and I flew out last March to look at the area.
Do you oversee the desserts at Los Chingones, your Mexican sister-restaurant next door? No, because the guests come here for dessert. Or, there are times where we will bring a guest at Los Chingones a dessert to their table. It was planned that way to give us a little extra exposure.
What is the best part about being a pastry chef? I really enjoy the look on people's faces. It may be cliché. I think with any chef, it's the thought of someone consuming something that you're making. Chefs do have egos, some more than others but I think it's because you trust me to cook for you and you're eating something I'm making.
What is the most challenging part of your job? The hours. I'm no stranger to working hard. I worked in Barbados a minimum of 14 hours a day. I think I can count on one hand the days I was there 12 hours or less. I've worked 24 hours, 36 hours straight with no sleep. It was just so required. We were just so busy. The hard work pays off. It has been a dream of mine to do something like this and I thank Troy for asking me to be his partner in this. I think the difference is I'm kind of working for myself. He's my boss, but he doesn't micro-manage. I can do what I want. I think I've gotten three or four hours of sleep for the last five days, but I enjoy this because it's my baby. I'll go around and I'll sweep the floor or I'll arrange the chairs because this is a reflection of me. I want to be the best. I don't think anyone sets out to be mediocre.
When you are hiring a pastry assistant, what do you look for? I'm always looking for someone not necessarily with a lot of experience but someone who has that drive, that isn't going to be like, it's time for me to clock out. My goal is to have a dream team here, which I think I've found. I have an assistant who requires such little supervision. I hate to say it but with this generation, it's hard to find someone like that. Before I hire someone I have them do a stage for three or four hours to see their work habits. See if they're slackers, see if they work clean, see if they're going to jump in. If they are going to stand there the whole night just watching I know they're not going to get it, but if I have someone that says, can I help you, or just jumps in and does it- they look at it and say, oh I got it. Having someone go above and beyond. That's what I'm looking for.
Any pastry pet peeves? A lot. I hate abrupt noises. I don't know if in a past life I was in a foxhole somewhere on the border of Germany. Even when I worked in Barbados, I would get on the dishwashers for banging pots. If I can see it's going to happen, I can prepare myself, but when you're decorating something and you hear this big smash, it drives me nuts. Cleanliness. I like organization. It drives me nuts when people walk past a towel that's on the floor. I ate at one restaurant and a guest's coat fell on the floor- two servers and a manager walked right past her- and I got up to pick it up as a patron. It's all about hospitality. Also, if people don't say hello or goodbye, not just to me but to each other, it's a common courtesy.
Advice to aspiring pastry chefs? Make sure this is something you want to do before you spend thousands of dollars at culinary school: work in a restaurant first. You have to go that extra mile. Don't come out of culinary school thinking you're going to make $100,000 a year. Go out and do stages and get more experience. The one thing is you have to do is work hard, you can't think you have some kind of entitlement. If you're going to take a job, stay there for a little extra time- help the chef, clock out and then help out.
Is there anything in the dessert world that you don't like? Key lime pie. I would make it. I have a good recipe. I just never liked the flavor. I'm not big on blueberry pie. I love apple. People always ask me, what's your favorite dessert to make. It's like asking a surgeon what their favorite organ is to operate on. You do it because it's your job and your passion. If you ask me what my favorite dessert is to eat- I'll tell you tiramisu. Hands down. Second would be anything with apples, warm with ice cream. My favorite ice cream is mint-chocolate-chip.
What is the best dessert you've had in Denver? The best place I've had tiramisu at is Parisi. The problem was it was too small- I can eat three cups of those things.
What is essential to a great tiramisu? It's important to have a balance of the three essential ingredients. The ladyfingers need to be soaked well enough with espresso. The mascarpone needs to be good quality and not diluted with a ton of whipped cream. Cocoa powder on top. I think it's sacrilegious to put chocolate shavings on top instead of cocoa.
Sugar Addicts Rejoice: Sugarmill Is Now Serving Sweet Treats and More in RiNo [EDen]
Amber Otis of Trillium on Being a Female Chef, the Paco Jet, and More [EDen]
Justin Hofmann of Fuel Cafe on Goofy Dancing, Making Pop Tarts, and Loving Fruit Desserts [EDen]
Hooked on Gelato and Sorbet: Fior di Latte Brings the Italian Frozen Treat to Boulder [EDen]
Rioja's Pastry Chef Eric Dale Dishes on Working for Jennifer Jasinski, Ghosts at Rioja and More [EDen]
Elizabeth Mackey of Devil's Food on Pastry Pet Peeves, What She Craves When She's Not at Work, and More [EDen]