Patrick Fahy, three-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's outstanding pastry chef award (finalist in 2011) is well-known to Chicago dining fans. In the past five years, Fahy has been executive pastry chef at Blackbird, Avec and The Publican; executive pastry chef at Hotel Sofitel Chicago Water Tower and its restaurant, Cafe des Architectes; and pastry chef at four-star Sixteen.
In January, Fahy was named pastry chef at the world-renowned French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. On a 75-degree day on the French Laundry's charming courtyard, Fahy talked about his career, working in wine country and snow. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: This new job at the French Laundry is a bit of a homecoming for you, correct?
A: It really is; I started here (as chef de partie) in 2008 and worked for 13, 14 months or so. From here I went on to Blackbird, so I really have come full circle. It's pretty awesome how it all unfolded.
Q: How did the Blackbird job come about?
A: I heard the position was open through word of mouth. And at that time, it really felt like a good next step for my career. I knew I needed to get some more experience under my belt, knew I had to run my own kitchen. And what better place than Blackbird to go for it — one of the best, most creative kitchens in Chicago? And not just Blackbird; Paul (chef Paul Kahan) had Avec, which was really driving, and The Publican had just opened. To be part of all that was huge. And that elevated my career so much.
Q: And elevated your visibility, too, yes? Paul Kahan is well-known for getting his chefs' names out there.
A: He's very generous. He puts people's names on the bottom of the menu; he exposes them and promotes them. People told me then, "If he hired you, then you're doing things right, because he only hires people he believes in." That was a big confidence-booster.
Q: And yet you moved on, to two hotel properties. Why?
A: It was more of what I felt I needed to advance in my career. I had cooking down, but I needed to learn how to manage a lot of people instead of a few, being more of a mentor, learning now to feed the information I've gained over my time and pass that along. It gave me the ability to feel confident managing, and made me a stronger pastry chef overall. Sixteen was great because I could use both skills; I could keep working fine dining while working all the other outlets.
Q: When you were in Sixteen, which is in Trump Tower, Donald Trump was attracting attention with his birther claims and other political statements. Some people told me they'd never set foot in Sixteen, simply because they disliked Donald Trump so much.
A: We got that a lot. We just focused on the food and tried to ignore everything outside the restaurant. With (executive chef) Thomas Lents' structure, there were no conversations other than what was going on the plate; he really kept it all about the food.
Q: How do your years in Chicago inform your pastry work here? If a Blackbird regular were to dine at the French Laundry, would he/she eat something and think, "That's definitely a Patrick dessert"?
A: I don't know if that would happen. I'm sure there are desserts I could do that would (recall) something I'd done before, but it's all about making it seasonal and using what's available. If someone were to come out here, I'd hope they wouldn't notice it's me, but just notice the menu as a whole, as a beautiful compilation of many, many dishes.
I've been exposed to so many beautiful things, and now that I'm back here and can apply what I've learned. All those ideas from before are still in the back of my head; there's not a day at work that I don't think about the time I was in Italy, my years at Blackbird, when I was last here in '08. Every day those thoughts go through my head, and that's the beauty of it.
Q: Chefs who move to California are often awe-struck by the quality of the products available out here. Are you?
A: Well, I have to say, Chicago has a way of getting good produce. When I was at Blackbird, I was introduced to all the farmers and all the vendors and developed really good relationships, so it was easy to source things out. Like, this guy can get blood oranges. You can get beautiful produce from local farmers very, very easily. Coming here, the only difference is that you don't have to wait to get it, because it's at your backdoor already. The growing season here starts earlier and lasts longer, so the availability is much better. You can still get great produce in Chicago, but — good example, baby strawberries. You can't really ship them. You pick them, use them that night, they're beautiful. A couple of days later, not nearly as good.
Q: It's a beautiful, warm, sunny morning here, and Chicago is going through one of the coldest and snowiest winters in its history. How much are you not missing us?
A: Well, the weather here, come on, I'm absolutely spoiled. But I do have a soft spot for the snow. I do miss the snow sometimes.