Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Congratulations Gale! Now make dessert for 200 to honor yourself

Gale Gand, judging an apple baking competition, Northbrook, September, 2013

    This story changed a lot as I worked on it. Originally, it was much more personal, telling of the time, for instance, of the first time I invited Gale and her family over my house, and my poor wife had to figure out what to make for the James Beard Award-winning chef and celebrity baker. But as Tuesday progressed, and I talked to more people, I decided to squeeze out my own impressions of Gale, such as sharing a bottle of champagne at the Ritz bar that, to our vast surprise, cost over $500, and not the more modestly-priced bottle we thought we had ordered. That was merely a droll tale, if not  braggery, and what her colleagues had to say about her was, I decided, far more interesting. I think this version is better; though I wish I could have saved the image of a fruit tart she once served at her house: the beautiful, perfect, glistening colorful fruit on top, the rich yellow custard within, and that crust. It's burned into memory.

     Gale Gand is sweet.
     Which is fitting, as she is a pastry chef. Though she is also a food star, not only now — Oct. 15 is officially Chef Gale Gand Day in Chicago — but for the past 20 years, ever since she and then-husband Rick Tramonto opened Trio in Evanston in 1993. Brasserie T in Northfield followed in 1995, then she really made her mark in 1999 when the pair opened Tru. “Ultra-hip, ultra-haute, ultra-pricey” is how one Sun-Times columnist (OK, me) described the place in 2000.
     Since then she has starred in her own Food Network show, written eight books, opened another hip restaurant (Spritz Burger) and created her brand of root beer.
     Lest there be confusion, I can’t pretend that I’m impartial, that I’m Mike Wallace holding Gand between my pincers and examining her under a sodium vapor light. I’m her friend; I’ve been shoveling her chow into my maw for a decade and a half, pausing between bites to chat about the challenges of being a celebrity chef (hard and fun), a parent (fun and hard) and always coming away impressed, informed and well-fed.
     Don’t take my word for it. The mark of great chefs is what young chefs who have spent time in their kitchens say about them. 
     "Gale has been incredibly wonderful to me," said Leigh Omilinsky, who started at Tru and is executive pastry chef at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower. "She likes to see her kids do well; she's like a proud mama."
     Omilinsky said she tries to pattern her own kitchen demeanor after Gand's.
     "Just her overall patience," she said. "She wants to put her people in a position where they'll succeed, and she'll do anything to help them. She encouraged people to really learn. There's no doubt she's the boss lady, but she's very approachable. She didn't want her people to call her 'chef' and I don't want my people to call me 'chef' because it creates a barrier."
     "She hired me right out of pastry school," said Meg Galus, executive pastry chef at the Park Hyatt and NoMi. Gand taught her a chef can embrace newcomers. "Bringing up the next generation is huge," Galus said. "I always want to make sure my team is learning and growing so they can take over someday. I credit a lot of that to her."
     Where did Gand learn the importance of that? Her last boss was Charlie Trotter, and while she would never put it this way, I will: She watched how Trotter treated his staff and then treated hers the opposite.
     "I learned how it feels to work for someone else and how I'd want it to be for someone else who worked for me," Gand said.
     This week's honor is part of a quartet of days for chefs being inducted into the Chicago Culinary Museum & Chefs Hall of Fame. And if you're asking yourself where the Chicago Culinary Museum is and why haven't you visited it, the answer is that the place is still notional, existing in the imagination of backers. Some in the Chicago culinary community support the museum; others snort in derision at mention of it.
     With honors, mitigation often follows. If I get an award, it's promptly given to someone I disdain. For Gand, being named to the Hall of Fame came with a surprising duty.
     "When they first asked me, I thought I was being honored," Gand said. "I didn't realize I had to cook. They want me to show up with 200 portions of dessert. But that's the life of a chef. For one second I slipped into the idea that I got to go to the party. I accept the lot in life. My dad is a musician. We're never the guests at the party. We're always the entertainment. I'm not sure what I would do with myself at a party if I didn't have work to do. It's what I do."
     Gand, by the way, is whipping up 200 of her trademark banana cream pie spoonfuls. "A great dish," she said. "Vanilla custard, whipped cream, banana and pie crust."
     How does it feel to be in the hall of fame?
     "It's nice to have some impact on people's lives, especially when just doing what you do," she said. "This is nice for my dad (Bob Gand, of Village Music). I was going to be the one they had to support. They thought I would be the loser who always needed help, and this coming from a family of musicians. So it's nice I'm not a burden to the family."
     What's her secret for culinary success?
     "If you can help people do the things they want to do outside of work, they're happier at work," she said. "I'm probably the only chef in the world who thinks that. Part of it is, I'm a pleaser. That's why I'm a chef and why I'm a pastry chef. I like to help you celebrate and mark your important day and make you an impressive dessert to propose marriage over. I want everybody to be comfortable and happy."


  1. Great column. But PLEASE write here about the time your wife had to cook for her. I definitely want to hear that story. And the one about the champagne too!

    1. Fair enough. She grilled salmon -- can't go wrong with that. Though the moment that is frozen in my mind is seeing her, about an hour before dinner, standing at the sink, mixing marshmallow fluff and canned fruit cocktails. "What are you DOING?" I asked, feeling something akin to black hatred: I figured she was doing this to spite me, making the most White Trash thing she could conceive. "It's for the kids!" she said breezily. Our sons were, I don't know, 5 (Gale's oldest boy and ours are about the same age).

      The champagne, I had asked her to judge a candy contest for kids I cooked up. The deal was, she could sip champagne and sit at the Ritz Carlton bar doing it. So we got the wine list, and she picked a Veuve Clicquot from the front. "Do you know the one I mean?" she asked, and the waitress said she did. The bottle came, we enjoyed it. Then the bill came -- over $500. They had given us the pricy bottle, from the back of the menu. The manager was summoned, and she actually tried to stick us with it, then offered to wave $100 or something. I said there was no way in hell we were paying for that, and we'd pay for the bottle we thought we were ordering -- it was $125 or something. Eventually, she saw our point -- deploying my business card might have helped. I decided it really wasn't a story about Gale, and made us seem like Bourbon aristocracy.

    2. I think you ought to remind your Sun-Times readers that they can get the full unexpurgated version of your column and more if they can access the Internet and don't mind a goddamn or two.


    3. I can't remind the readers if I never told them in the first place. I've never mentioned this blog in the column; my sense is, my bosses wouldn't like that. Though I can't be sure. Every time I've mentioned perhaps tucking the column under their masthead, they stare at me blankly. I think they'd prefer not talking about it. Which will probably be for the best, when I sell it someday to some big ass corporation. Suddenly it will seem like something that has merit. I'm looking forward to that.

    4. I've wondered before why it wouldn't be in the S-T's interest to promote and/or associate with your blog, in some way or another. It CAN'T just be their horror at your infatuation with "Nancy." ; ) From your perspective, however, I have to believe that steering clear of the corporate overlords with regard to your essays and musings here, while linking back to the paper for your "official" columns, is probably the best choice. Eric Zorn's recent experience with the new format for his Change of Subject blog at the Tribune has certainly made the wisdom behind your model more apparent to me.

  2. Thanks for the stories! Having to cook for a famous chef seems super scary.


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