Pastry chef Nicole Plue goes from kitchen to classroom

Plue is director of the new Professional Pastry Arts Certificate Program at San Francisco Cooking School

With 22 years of experience in some of the restaurant industry’s top kitchens, pastry chef Nicole Plue is ready to take her expertise from the kitchen to the classroom.

A James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2010, Plue’s extensive resume includes pastry chef on the opening team of Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park in New York City and recipe developer for the pastry and baking segments of Martha Stewart Living Television. Most recently, she was executive pastry chef at the Michelin-starred Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif., which closed in 2012. However, when she learned of the new Professional Pastry Arts Certificate Program at San Francisco Cooking School, Plue saw an opportunity to be part of a cutting-edge curriculum and help develop the future talent of the industry.

Plue, who is the director of the new pastry program, recently spoke to Nation’s Restaurant News about transitioning to the classroom, her American palate and her respect for chocolatiers.

Tell me about your new position and how it came to be.

I’m the director of the Pastry Arts Certificate Program at San Francisco Cooking School, which I will be starting in September, and I’ll be teaching students in the classroom every day. Over the years, hiring and working with recent grads, I’ve felt that the culinary education model needed major changes, and when Jodi Liano, the owner of San Francisco Cooking School, approached me about her new pastry arts program, I was impressed. The school has made fundamental changes to the teaching curriculum, making it current and relevant. I wanted to be a part of that change and signed on to both develop and teach the program.

Will you still be working in restaurants?

Not ‘in’ anymore, but absolutely ‘with.’ One of the main goals of the program is to produce cooks that can hit the ground running in the professional world. I’ve been hiring and training cooks for decades now, and I know what a chef needs in an employee. I want to be the scout and farm team for the big leagues. I’ve also worked with so many talented restaurant people in the Bay Area and beyond. Now I get to involve them in the classroom experience with demos and field trips. Also, all SFCS students are placed in an externship at some of the top kitchens in San Francisco. So ultimately, it’s working chefs who will be consistently evaluating what we are doing. Integrating them in the ongoing feedback loop was critical to the design of our program.

How do you foresee the transition from kitchen to classroom?

I’ll still be in a kitchen all day. It will be exciting because of the people involved, the space, and the mission of the school. It’s a great chance for me to give back and instill in new students my love of food and cooking and to share practices such as building taste memory and culinary intuition. Part of the fun and the challenge of the job is in articulating concepts that over the years have become so instinctive to me.

What is the most important lesson you learned during your career that you want to make sure to convey to your students?

The value of hard work.

How would describe your style?

I definitely have an American palate. Taste trumps all. I’ve always loved texture contrasts.

What ingredients do you find particularly interesting or challenging to work with? 

Chocolate immediately comes to mind. I really respect expert chocolatiers. With years of practice under their belts, they continue to set new trends, and I always feel like I have something to learn from them. Another ingredient I’m currently spending a lot of time with is pectin. I realize I’ve just scratched the surface on how it works, and the range of pectins available to pastry chefs, which has made everything from jams and jellies to fruit-based confections a whole lot more interesting.

What trends are you currently noticing in the pastry world?

I just had a very spirited debate with some fellow pastry chefs. Éclairs: the new macaron? Also, salt continues to transform the pastry palate.

What can a student entering the SFCS Professional Pastry Arts Certificate Program expect?

First of all, the class size is small and they’ll learn the pastry arts fundamentals along with an intuitive sense of baking and pastry techniques. There’s an emphasis on training cooks on what's relevant in professional kitchens now and building professional work habits. San Francisco itself is the classroom. After the core work in the kitchen classroom, our students will spend a few intense months continuing their learning at a top restaurant or bakery here in the city. We will graduate students who are well-trained pastry cooks and bakers with great industry relationships from which they can launch their new careers.

Contact Charlie Duerr at [email protected].

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