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Sweet Success

Pastry Chefs Divulge What Makes Them the New Royalty of the Culinary Scene.

July 21, 2002|DAVID LANSING

"I dreamed about rhubarb and white peach cobbler last night," Natasha MacAller says while glancing nervously at her watch for the tenth time in the last two minutes.

We are standing in the middle of the intersection of 2nd Street and Arizona Avenue at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Most of the vendors have been here since 7 or 8, stylishly mounding tables with purple-tinted Scots kale, spiky Greek oregano, bundles of round, golf-ball-size roasting carrots and, of course, luscious fruit: blackberries the size of stuffed olives, peaches with names only a grandmother would recognize, and apricots so fragrant you can smell them over the heat waves rising off the asphalt.

MacAller often dreams about desserts. Last night, she tells me, at 2 in the morning she had this vision of rhubarb. Now she can't stop thinking about it.

But unlike most people obsessed with food, MacAller doesn't dream of eating it--she dreams of preparing it for others. She is the pastry chef for Santa Monica's Union restaurant. The young chef, who stands not much more than 5-foot-4 in clogs, doesn't so much walk as glide--hips and toes out, heels in--like the ballerina she once was. She has already made a mental checklist of what she wants to buy this morning. But she has to wait for the blow of an air-horn, precisely at 9, to begin shopping. Even so, once the market opens, she is easily distracted by tempting delicacies missed the first time through, from the first-of-the-season lapin cherries, with their yellow blush, being sold by a farmer in a curling straw hat from Pritchett Farms in Visalia, to the deep-red Chandler strawberries covering the tables of Harry's Berries from Oxnard. "He's really expensive," MacAller whispers before sampling berries so soft that the juice runs down her chin as she takes a small bite.

"Oh, God," MacAller says, grabbing my arm. "I have to have some of these." MacAller isn't alone in her pursuit of the best and the brightest berries. The market is filled with chefs looking for organic apricots for compotes and black raspberries for complex Merlot sauces. But while the primary purpose of these weekly, or even twice-weekly, market jaunts is ostensibly to find rare gooseberries and downy white peaches, there's something else going on here. The downtown Santa Monica farmers market is to these mostly young and up-and-coming culinary stars what Manolos are to shoe lovers. It's the place where young pastry hotshots mingle, talk shop and even do a deal or two ("I'll work your charity dinner if you'll work mine"). They hug, kiss each cheek--there and there-- and ask about each other's restaurants the way film stars might make small talk about an upcoming project. "I heard you're doing that dinner with Raphael." "I'd love to work with him but I can't. I already committed to an event with Peel that week."

In a city where celebrity status is often times conferred on hairstylists and fitness trainers, pastry chefs are suddenly hot--very hot. Look at the bottom of your menu: If the pastry chef isn't named, it's hardly worth ordering the mascarpone cheesecake or Meyer lemon tart, no matter how good it looks. We don't just want a souffle--we want the Valrhona chocolate souffle with a delicate scoop of prune-Armagnac ice cream, whipped up by Shelly Register of Aubergine in Newport Beach. If you really feel like finishing off that dry-aged New York steak with baked Alaska, then it simply must be Annie Clemmons' baked Alaska at Balboa in West Hollywood, with little peaks of singed meringue, rising up like Brad Pitt's spiked hair, prettily pouting in a pool of blackberry-Cabernet-lavender sauce. Why would you settle for anything less?

Just as wine aficionados easily order a Joe Heitz Cabernet or maybe a Gary Eberle Zinfandel instead of just "a glass of red wine," these days true gourmets want signature desserts. Dishes, like the Swedish Princess cake at Gustaf Anders in Orange County, that are every bit as impressive, if not more so, than the appetizers and entrees.

If anyone doubted it before, the coronation in May of Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard as a James Beard Foundation Award winner--the Oscars for chefs--made it clear to foodies everywhere that dessert chefs in L.A. have been elevated to culinary royalty. (Appropriately enough, Yard, the unofficial queen bee of L.A. pastry chefs along with Campanile's Nancy Silverton and Kimberly Boyce, received her award while wearing a tiara above her blond bangs and hoisting a glass of champagne.) This is, to coin a phrase, The Age of Patisserie.

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