Chef Gale Gand is a nationally acclaimed pastry chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, television personality, teacher, entrepreneur, and mother. The James Beard Foundation recognized her as 2001 Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year. Gand has opened several highly acclaimed Chicago-area restaurants including Trio, Brasserie and Tru, which was nominated by the Beard Foundation for Best New Restaurant of 2000. Her latest restaurant venture is Spritz Burger in Chicago, which she and restaurateurs Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh opened in February 2014. For eight years, Gand hosted the Food Network series “Sweet Dreams,” the first nationally televised all-dessert program. She has authored or co-authored many cookbooks, including “Butter Sugar Flour Eggs,” “Gale Gand’s Brunch!” and, published in April 2014, “Gale Gand’s Lunch!”
I’ve met many pastry chefs but none before with a fine arts degree with a major in silver and gold smithing. Can you explain that facet of your career?
It makes more sense than it sounds like it does. I’ve had an interesting life. My dad’s a professional musician and I was as well from age 6 to 21. We were like the Von Trapp Family Singers but we were the Gand Family Singers. We traveled all over the country and sang at festivals and such.
When I was in high school I developed a love for making jewelry and
silversmithing. The school only had a semester on two for that so I found a local goldsmith. I apprenticed under her for about three years and got high school credit for it. I graduated from high school a year early and got a job as a diamond setter in a jewelry store.
Then I went on to college as a 19-year-old at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I pursued a career in silver, gold and metalsmithing. I did sculptural ironwork and blacksmithing.
My hands have the fine motor skills of a surgeon and there are a limited number of things you can do with that capability. One is to be a surgeon, another is a diamond setter and another is a pastry chef.
When did the transition begin?
When I was in school, like any starving artist, I waitressed. That’s how I got into food. It was just an after-school job I could do. Because I had performed with my father on stage for strangers I think it was just really easy—and enjoyable—for me to go to a table, introduce myself, be friendly and connect with people. And then I got thrown in the kitchen one day when one of the line cooks didn’t show up.
Because I knew the food so well from giving descriptions and explaining ingredients, I basically knew all the recipes. I could cook all the dishes without having done it before. That’s how I started in the kitchen.
I continued that throughout college, although I was a strolling balladeer in a restaurant for a while. I sang Irish folk songs to diners. But cooking stole my heart and I decided that was what I wanted to do.
How did your family react to that choice?
My dad was terribly disappointed. He just wanted a college-graduate kid. This was the ’70s. Chefs hadn’t been legitimized by Wolfgang Puck and others yet. I think my dad just envisioned sweaty blue-collar guys smoking cigarettes.
Oddly enough, they had been excited that I was going to be a visual artist. In most families, that wouldn’t fly. But in mine that was OK, but to be a chef was “Oh, anything but that.”
Did they think it was an unsuitable profession for a woman or just an unsuitable profession, period?
They knew it was a rough life so they thought that was an unusual choice for a young woman. But we weren’t a foodcentric culture yet. My mom was a Jewish mother so there was that “Food of love” emotional thing going on. But she also was a feminist. She spent her whole life trying to get out of the kitchen. So she had mixed feelings.
I remember that in 8th grade I was required to take a typing class. My mom told me to flunk. I said, “What do you mean, flunk?” She said, “I want you to flunk the final. I don’t want any daughter of mine to be somebody’s secretary. If you don’t have the skills, you won’t be able to do that.” So she was sabotaging me—in a loving way—to keep me from being someone’s assistant. So it was hard on her that I wanted to cook professionally.
My point to her was that cooking was fun if you’re getting paid. If you’re paid, you’re not a housewife.
Of course, the professional kitchen is a rough life. Did it require some adjustment?
I’m tough and I love to work. My dad’s a musician so he always worked nights. I was predestined for this kind of life where you’re not the party; you’re creating the party. You’re in charge of creating pleasure for others.
All the usual sentimentality doesn’t hold water in our family. It’s all about work. So if it’s Thanksgiving and everyone’s gathering but my brother, Gary [a blues guitarist], calls and says he has a gig and can’t make it, the reaction is, “Cool. Really glad you have work. No problem.” We’re all about changing plans because we’re artists. You work when you can.
You went to La Varenne culinary school in Paris. Were you thinking pastry chef or chef?
I was thinking pastry chef. Julia Child said to never say you’re self-taught. Always say you “learned in the field.” So when I went to France I had already learned in the field but I wasn’t sure if I had taught myself correctly.
I had read all the pastry cookbooks in both languages and baked through them. But I needed to go to school if just to know that I was making puff pastry correctly and understood what drying out pate a choux really was. I found out I was doing it all correctly but I needed a stamp of approval because I did “learn in the field.”
I worked at Poilâne bakery in Paris for a few days and then Patisserie Lubree for a couple of weeks. When I was going to LaVarenne, I was sleeping on a girlfriend’s floor. I would get up at 3 a.m. and catch a bus at 3:30 to get to work by 4 a.m. School started at 10 so I worked until about 10 minutes to 10 and run to LaVarenne. I was in school until 5 p.m. and at night I would make whatever we’d made in class for my friend as a thank you and then do it all over the next day.
Were you tempted to stay in Paris?
You know I always had a husband or children or someone waiting for me back home. But I’ll tell that a few years ago, my son, who is 17 now, asked me if I had any regrets. An interesting question from a 14-year-old. And I told him I had just one: that I didn’t take a year off in my life to go to France and become fluent in the language.
It’s the only regret of my life. I have twin daughters who were 6 when my son asked that question and I thought, “By the time they’re 14 and they ask that question, I want to be able to say ‘No. Not one.’”
So I’ve tried to take care of that one problem, that lack of fluency, but it’s hard. At this point, I can’t just leave everyone. But last summer I went to France for two weeks and worked on a river cruise to improve my language skills. Before that I had made the whole family go for a month. I worked at a one-Michelin-star restaurant in the south of France. I’m still working on it. Every time I get angry about something I threaten to move to France!
Now you and Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, who previously ran Hearty restaurant, have opened Spritz Burger. How has it felt to be back running a restaurant?
It’s been great. We opened on Valentine’s Day and it has been busier than we ever expected. We have the right kind of problem: There’s usually a wait every night. And it’s exactly what we wanted it to be. When we open the doors at 5 p.m., three families with little kids walk in. We wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant where you could just drop in and it would be functional for a family. We wanted to be an everyday, reliable kind of place with craft sodas, really good burgers, brisket, latkes and whatever. We imagined Wednesday kind of food. And it has turned out to be just that.
You’re happy with the choices made in opening it?
Completely. Part of the risk was that Dan and Steve and I have been friends for 5 or 6 years. So we were like, “Let’s ruin our friendship and open a business together!” So far, we’ve been just fine. If anything it’s been the opposite. My new cookbook came out and I’ve been on the modern version of the book tour. I’ve been busy doing that and I’ll hear from Dan, “I miss you! You’re not in the kitchen.” Now that we’ve had a taste of standing across a prep table all day, when we aren’t together we miss it.
You’re involved in so many things. Do you ever feel stretched too thin?
I guess it must be the way I like it or I wouldn’t keep saying yes! I’ll tell my husband, “Gosh, I’m so busy. Is this my fault?” And he’ll just give me the look that says I’ve brought it on myself. I like to juggle and I’m good at it.
When I did my TV show, “Sweet Dreams,” on Food Network, that was the most boring, mundane, regimented stage of my life. You’d think TV would be exciting. It wasn’t because of all the union rules on taking breaks and how late anyone can work. So it was the most predictable my life ever was. I could make a date for dinner every night. In the restaurant business, you can say you’ll be home by the kids’ bedtime but you’re lying.
Was there one restaurant where you’d say you had the most fun?
I like openings so I’m thinking of the opening of Tru. Every time Rick [Tramonto, former spouse and business partner] and I did an opening it was all new food. You’re putting in new systems and it’s all kind of unpredictable. I like the creating—the birthing, if you will—of restaurants.
But I’d say that during all 30-plus years of doing this, the most fun was at Jonathan Waxman’s Jams Restaurant in New York City. One of the reasons it was fun was that it was an all-female kitchen. I’ve never had such a team feeling as I did there. You got your prep done and then you asked if anyone needed help. We were all cross-trained so each day you could pick which station you wanted to work. You could work any of them: grill or garde manger or whatever.
It was a girls’ club. We wore magenta wigs and we put on red lipstick. And it was an open kitchen [and diners could watch] so there was a bit of drama and theatrics to it. Jonathan was infrequently in the kitchen. He was always off being interviewed by Vogue or something. He was the first celebrity chef I’d worked for.
Had he purposefully hired an all-female kitchen?
I don’t think so. His chef de cuisine was a woman and I think she did it. She found that women work together and don’t undercut each other. Guys sabotage each other. They’ll mess with each other’s mise en place [prep work] or turn off ovens. They can be mischievous and rascally. Women don’t do that sort of thing. So I think it was by her design that it was all women.
How do you think your career would have been different—not necessarily better or worse but different—had you been a man?
I probably would have been steered to the hotline and to have more responsibility as an executive chef. I was definitely steered into pastry. I was angry at first. It was ’82 or ’83 and I was a line cook and I was asked to cover for the pastry chef who’d been fired. It was just going to be for six months. And I said, “That’s where girls always get put. I don’t want to be typecast.” He said if I hated it he’d put me back on the line but he told me he knew I could handle it.
At the end of six months he asked if he should put an ad in the paper for a new pastry chef and I said, “Give me another six months. I’m good.” Every year he’d ask if I wanted out and I said no. So it wasn’t a bad match but at first I resisted it.
There are more high-profile female chefs now than there were a few decades ago. Do you have the sense that the profession is changing in its openness to women?
I hear that it is. I was involved in the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs convention in Chicago last year. I was on a panel with Christine Cikowski, the co-executive chef at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago. We were talking about women’s issues and discrimination and why it’s tougher for women. I was saying that I had to learn to swear, learn to hold my body differently so guys don’t think I need help, and have a crate so I could reach thing without help.
It was all about what I saw coming up through the ranks in the last three decades and Christine was completely mystified by it. She’d say, “Really? I’ve never had to do that.” And I’m thinking, “Wow. Tell me more.” She’s maybe 30. So if you compare her experience and mine, they’re quite different. And that’s nice because it tells me that at least some of the barriers we had to fight against have fallen away.
What do you hope your children learn from how you built your career?
It’s that I trusted myself enough to pick my work for love not for money. I found something that excited me and I can’t read enough about it. I can’t stop thinking about it. I found an area that inspires me even though my parents initially didn’t approve.
I tell my children about my parents, too. My dad was a salesman with a company car and vacations and whatever. And when he was 40 he quit that job to become a folk singer. I mean, who does that? I witnessed what was probably a mid-life crisis for him, but it was someone bucking the system and letting go of a lot of comforts for the sake of art.
Seeing someone who finds an interest so powerful he can’t resist allowed me to change my mind and follow my heart. I was a jeweler first and now I make edible jewels like petit fours that make people happy. It’s OK to choose and change.