When I was a kid, I had – as I suppose many kids do – a nearly insatiable sweet tooth. Post-Halloween, I’d stash my sugary loot somewhere my siblings wouldn’t find it. I’d wait until they were all out of candy, then bring out Tootsie Rolls and hard candies and eat them in front of them…slowly and avariciously.
As an adult I’ve become somewhat more discerning when it comes to sweets. Typically I wait until I’m out on a date with my wife, and then I’ll order dessert and savor it. When I tasted a Pavlova prepared by Chef Gale Gand, that culinary moment transcended the mere act of savoring. During that perfect, albeit brief repast, life became a little meditation on the possible pleasures hidden within a fleeting moment. I didn’t think about anything except each gradual spoonful of that perfect Pavlova. Named after the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, this meringue-based dessert has a crispy, but very light crust and is topped with a nearly diaphanous dollop of whipped cream and fresh fruit.
Dessert lovers will recognize Gand’s name from “Sweet Dreams”, her all-dessert show that had a tremendously successful eight-year run on the Food Network. She appeared on Baking with Julia (Child), Oprah, The Martha Stewart Show, Good Morning America, and The Today Show. She competed on Iron Chef America and has been featured as a celebrity judge on Top Chef and Top Chef: Just Desserts.
When I sit down to interview Chef Gand, she has just prepared about 30 servings of Pavlova for an intimate dinner in downtown Napa. Unflappable and friendly, she is obviously tired, but rallies with a smile that exhibits warmth and moxie. In addition to her many accolades, it bears mentioning that she has been inducted into the Chicago Chef’s Hall of Fame, and for two consecutive years was a mentor in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which helps fight childhood obesity through nutritional education. As a child, she joined her father and brother on stage as part of the Gand Family Singers. They performed at Disneyland, Expo ‘67 in Montreal, and the 1973 World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington. Her mandolin teacher was Jethro Burns of Homer and Jethro fame.
R.H. Drexel: You have three children. Two twin girls and a son. Are any of them interested in following in your footsteps and becoming chefs? I know your son, Gio, harvests ramps in the spring, in Illinois and that he’s turned that into a little side business. [Twins Ella and Ruby are 12 years old; son Gio is 20.]
Gale Gand: They are all good cooks for their age, especially Gio, but none of them want to go into it professionally. They’ve done cooking demos with me since they were all three to get public speaking skills (instead of a Bar- and Bat-Mitvahs) but Gio is interested in money and how he can try to use economics to break the circle of poverty. He’s an Econ and Math major at the London School of Economics right now. Ruby is an artistic type doing lots of creative writing and skating and dancing, and Ella wants to save the world, especially the Panda. The hope is they will find something they love that they continue to be excited to do. That’s all that really matters to me. That’s how I chose what I do; that’s how my musician father chose what he did and my musician brother, too. ‘Choose for love, not for money’ is the Gand motto. The money will follow…and it did.
RHD: How do you stay healthy when you’re on the road, as you are now. Do you have a travel exercise or diet regime?
GG: I try to power-walk when I’m out of town. I always pack work-out clothes in case there’s time. But diet? No. Do I look like the kind of person who diets? I probably should but… I’m going for a strong heart right now, to add some years to my life, so I’m more focused on Cardio.
RHD: Is it hard finding time for family when you’re as busy as you are? How do you strike a balance in your life between making time for your career and still making time for your home and family life?
GG: That’s really the challenge, isn’t it? I think having multiple restaurants before I had kids really taught be how to juggle a lot at once. Even just being a waitress and a line cook taught be how to conserve energy and choose where to put my time. I do have a stay-at-home husband, which helps me be able to travel for work so much. Sometimes they all come with me. My dad passed away two years ago and I inherited his music store, so I am also keeping that running. The year that happened, I had to learn how to say ‘No’, so I’m sort of still cruising on that right now.
RHD: For two years, you were a mentor for First Lady Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative. What was it like participating in that?
GG: What a great experience and great idea that was. I got to serve my country by doing something I’m good at! I got to go to the White House and hear First Lady Obama speak to all of us (800 chefs). Then we went into action. I enjoyed using food and my chef’s position to teach hands-on cooking workshops in cafeterias with students, redo some items on the cafeteria menu, turn off the deep-fryers on Fridays, and during PTA meetings I got to teach parents how to pack easy but healthy lunches for their kids. And I got to walk around the halls in my chef coat; some kids learned that was a career option for them.
RHD: Why did you want to become a pastry chef?
GG: I have really good fine motor skills. I was a goldsmith before I was a pastry chef, and found the underlying chemistry and physics fascinating. (My grandfather was a chemist.) I also love helping people celebrate accomplishments and helping them mark important moments in their lives, so dessert is where that’s mostly done. I love the creativity, the use of color, line, shape, flow and then flavor combos and textural contrast. It’s a complex fine art….more so than the areas I worked in in art school. Also, my mother was a pie baker and had bad circulation – so, cold hands. I have that too. We can handle pie dough easily without it getting soft, so my success in the kitchen also comes from that.
As we’re chatting, one of Chef Gand’s sous chefs comes to whisk her away. She is needed in the kitchen. She smiles and sighs, the air of her breath lifting up her bangs. “Duty calls”, she says, but not before giving me a hug. She’s walking back to the kitchen quickly and is too far away to hear me ask if there is any more Pavlova left.