Welcome to the Sugar Files, where Eater uncovers and features the city's best pastry talent. In this edition, Jayne Yelich of Potager gets the spotlight.
Jane Yelich is the pastry chef at Potager and is in her 13th year making pies and pudding at Denver's pioneer farm-to-table restaurant. A Montana native from a family of bakers, Yelich wound-up making dessert professionally during college when a batch of her homemade muffins convinced a boss that she was not only a talented waitress but had some prowess with pastries.
Yelich's desserts are among Denver's finest. Within her offerings, which include the Potager staples of chocolate pudding and crème brûlée plus a seasonally inspired rotating line-up, you will find the very best ingredients that Colorado offers. Products like Ugly Goat ricotta, Cottonwood Creek Farms eggs, and fruit from the Boulder farmer's market make her simple yet excellent desserts shine- and there's something about eating a piece of pie in a place that has been open for 17 years or maybe it's the love that is put into the food. Whatever it is, you want to order a second piece. Jayne talked to Eater about keeping it simple, working for the right people, and her favorite pastry spots in Denver.
What is your approach to pastry? Seasonal and simple. We have great fruit in Colorado. I think that they should be delicious, first and foremost, and taste real and not taste too complicated. If it's chocolate it should taste like chocolate. If it's chocolate-caramel, it should taste like chocolate caramel. It doesn't need to be dressed to the hilt. Just make it delicious. It's not that difficult to make delicious desserts when you are using beautiful ingredients. I almost always think that desserts are too sweet. Everything should be a little less sweet and there should be a nice crunch and a good balance of texture.
Did you do pastry before working at Potager? I did. I've always worked in restaurants. I always waited tables. I put myself through school and ended up working at a great breakfast restaurant in Missoula, Montana. I worked for this guy who was just kind of the breakfast-Nazi. A woman who had worked for him before owned this great restaurant called Red Bird. She pulled me aside one day and said, If you can work here, you can work anywhere. I want you to come work for me. I had never worked in fine dining before. I started waiting tables there and brought muffins into work one day and she was like, Whoa, you bake? You need to start doing the desserts and I was like, What are you talking about? I bake at home but I don't have any experience, I can't do this. She paid me to research, and go through books, and teach myself. I would design the dessert menu every week for lunch and dinner meanwhile I was serving at the same time. I always have worked for really great, strong women that have given me the opportunity to shine and given me the chance to both teach myself and learn from them. After college, I did work at a Marriot in Crested Butte and worked for a really talented pastry chef for a year and that was a great learning experience. I learned that I had no interest working in hotels. That wasn't my bag. I wanted to work in small restaurants, that's what I enjoy. I started doing it because I grew up doing it. My mom was a big baker and still is. Both of my sisters are. One of my sisters was a home-economics teacher. I grew up baking pies, cookies, and my grandmothers baked. Lots of good cooks in my family.
Recently you became the front of the house manager at Potager. What is it like balancing that with the pastry side? Interesting. I'm really starting to enjoy it. It's very, very challenging. It changes all the time. Managing people is challenging. You have to get out of your own head and connect with people, and learn how to get the best out of them. Teri has worked really hard to give us the tools to get better and better at it. She has now taken the role of leading us as managers so that we can lead the rest of the staff. Working with people, motivating them, inspiring them, and helping them have a good experience at work. That part is challenging. The pastry part of it? Fun.
When you're out, what do you look for in pastries? I'm looking for beautiful things that are absolutely delicious. I've thought for quite sometime- and I don't think I'm alone- that we lack delicious pastries in this town and I don't have to tell you how fantastic Babette's is. I have just been blown away by their beautiful croissants. It takes a lot of time and effort to make something so beautiful. Kristy at Denver Bread Company-- her cookies are awesome. That woman, she is making the most amazing cookies in this town, they're outrageous. Her partner Greg owns Denver Bread Co. and she has started her own cookie business called Victory Love Cookies and just does an amazing job. The cookies are beautiful, you have to get the Diablo. I look for a great croissant, a good cookie. A good piece of pie. Ice cream. Basic things that are just delicious.
Where do you like to go out to eat in Denver? We cook at home a lot. Especially in the summertime. We grill leftover Denver Bread Company bread and make an awesome panzanella salad with tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden. We could eat that every single day. I make a lot of soups, there's nothing that makes my sweetie happier. I made chicken soup this last weekend. We cook at home a lot, but we have a Thai place down the street from us that we eat at a lot. Taste of Thailand, owned by a lovely couple who has a huge garden at home. In the summertime half of the stuff is coming from their garden. Fruition is our special birthday place to go. We don't eat out a ton. I need to eat out a little bit more. There are so many new restaurants. It's either cooking at home or let's grab a burger. It needs to be simple. Hops and Pie- we'll kind of just look at each other and be like, yes.
What's the best part about being a pastry chef? It's really fun and creative. It's really rewarding to make delicious food and getting to see people enjoy it. I know how to make pastry. I can make a delicious pie dough and I know that it's going to work. That's great. I think that there are so many jobs where you just don't know what's going to happen on a daily basis and if the thing you're implementing is going to work or not, but this works and it makes people happy. I love when we put up tasters for the staff. If the staff loves it, then it's good and they'll be able to sell it. When it's not good, they're not going to sell it and I'm not going to make it again.
What is your advice to aspiring pastry chefs? Eat out and find out what you like. Figure out how to be clear about what you want to be doing and what you want to be making. Ask around and find out who the good people are to work for. There's nothing more valuable than working for people who give you freedom and are willing to teach you. Who give you opportunities, treat you well, and provide a healthy work environment. Get your foot in the door. Get in kitchens. Work in kitchens for good people that are making quality food.
What's your advice on trying to find your voice in the kitchen? I've been really fortunate that I've worked for the right people. Also, it takes a lot of work to get to that place. Working in different kitchens so that you can figure out what you like and what you don't like. As you get older you figure out what you're willing to do and what you're not willing to do and how you want to be treated. You've got to tough it out through stuff you don't necessarily like sometimes but in terms of finding your voice...I'm lucky that I've worked for someone who has let me find it. She has just given me the freedom and I've always worked for women so I'm not saying that's the key, but…I've been lucky. Strong, smart, talented, creative women. Off the charts great women.
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