For many of us, cooking evokes nostalgia and can transport us back to another place and time — particularly to our childhood. We may recall looking up at the elder who passed culinary wisdom down to us. These experiences often shape what we like to eat — and cook. Recreating such dishes can provide a portal to a simpler time.
For Zac Young, the story lacks such romantic notions, because growing up, he says, “we ate so we didn’t die. Food was fuel.” Eating was a utilitarian pastime, not one focused on comfort, pleasure, connection, or adventure.
Named one of the Top 10 Pastry Chefs in America by Dessert Professional in 2015, Young describes his own cooking as “over the top fun,” with a creative approach that has led the out gay chef to frequent TV appearances (including Top Chef: Just Desserts, and Bakers vs. Fakers).
As the pastry director of Craveable Hospitality Group, which is dedicated to “transforming each meal into a cherished memory,” the emotional power of food is certainly not lost on Young. But with a vegan mother cooking quinoa and kale “long before it was in vogue,” Young’s fondest food memories stem from holidays, when his grandmother “would show up with turkey and pies in the back of her truck.” He had little interest in how her dishes were made, as long as they tasted good.
Back then, his culinary future wasn’t obvious. Instead, Young seemed destined for the theater. He attended Walnut Hill School for the Arts. Upon graduation, the pursuit of musical theater took him to Boston Conservatory at Berklee. From there, he ended up working in the wig department at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Though it might seem an unlikely breeding ground for a career in the culinary arts, it was here that Young’s gears shifted.
“I started baking cookies for Christmas because we never did that growing up,” he remembers. Doing so introduced him to “creativity within the confines of science.” Baking cookies amalgamated his passions for art, science, and design. In pastry, Young explains, everything is an equation, a balancing act that forces you to exercise restraint while nurturing creativity. At the end of his second season at Radio City, his mom noticed a change: “I don’t hear you talking about auditions. All you talk about is cookies.” At 23, having spent a lifetime preparing for a career in theater, Young instead enrolled in culinary school.
Cookies. That’s all Young cared about. At New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, he would eagerly await cookie day. But it wasn’t long before he realized that the carefully choreographed dance between science and art that he loved about cookies was present throughout the discipline. From baking bread to making pasta, the same principles applied.
After graduating with honors from the Baking and Pastry Arts program, Young dove head first into professional kitchens, and moved to France to study under famed Chefs Philipe Givre and Philipe Park. Returning to New York, he took command of the dessert program at Flex Mussels restaurants and started a donut revolution, which led to pop-up donut shops in Grand Central Station. The donuts were so good, The New York Times named them some of the best in N.Y.C.
Young’s foray into baking has taken him back to his grandmother. Her passing brought him boxes of recipe cards, all needing decoding. He recalled once asking, “Is that a teaspoon or a tablespoon?” to which she’d replied, “It’s a spoon!”
Even after deciphering the text, Young admits he hasn’t quite broken the code. “[Her] pumpkin pie was the best! I have her recipe but… she is holding out. It is not the same.” He pauses briefly, as if struck by a sudden realization. “Maybe she left something out and was like, ‘Ha!’”