Sugarmill's Noah French: "Desserts are going to become much more than an afterthought in 2014"
This is part one of my interview with Noah French, pastry chef and co-owner of Sugarmil; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
It's just before noon on a Wednesday, and already Sugarmill, the Ballpark-neighborhood dessert temple from pastry chef Noah French, is saturated with sugar fiends. And French, who's chugging coffee at the community table, seems to recognize every face that comes in. Open less than a month, Sugarmill already seems to have found its groove; French, who's relatively new to Denver, has definitely found his. "To me, this is a dream come true; it's what I'm passionate about, and I love the interaction I have with guests," says the 46-year-old pastry master, who hails from New Jersey and started baking as a teenager in an effort to butter up a teacher.
"When I was in high school, my math grades sucked, so I'd make my math teacher a cake every Friday, just to kiss her ass. Cakes were my bribes, and they worked, because instead of getting a 'D,' which I deserved, I got a 'C,'" remembers French, who somehow recounts this scheme without cracking a smirk.
The icing on the cake, however, came when he enrolled in the CIA to pursue a cooking career and, while doing an externship at the Rancho Bernardo Inn, in San Diego, found himself enamored of pastry instead. "Despite the fact that I could bake cakes, I really wanted to be a garde manger -- not a pastry chef -- but when I saw the pastry chef there creating a chocolate-and-pistachio-mousse cake, I was unbelievably wowed. That was my epiphany, and I went back to the CIA and started working at all the pastry stations at the student-staffed restaurants on campus," recalls French, who after graduation quickly became a pastry jet-setter, creating desserts all over the world.
He began his career in Atlantic City, at Resorts Casino, then took a jaunt to Disney World, where he piped icing at the Disney Grand Floridian hotel alongside an acerbic Italian pastry chef. "He cursed at me every day in Italian and made me miserable," says French, "but he also saw potential in me, so he pushed me, and whenever he left to open another Disney hotel, he took me with him as his assistant."
And when the Italian curmudgeon was offered a position with another company to open a hotel in South Africa, he looked to French to carry the cake. "He was having some personal issues, so he sent me there on my own to open this insane 400-room, half-billion-dollar hotel," says French, who stayed for a year before returning to New Jersey to be closer to his dad, who was ill, and landing a pastry-chef position at the exclusive and private New York Athletic Club. "They keep the Heisman Trophy there," French reveals. And he stayed there for three years, knocking out desserts for high-profile athletes and Olympians before leaving the Big Apple for the Big Island, where he was hired as the corporate pastry chef at Roy's, a position that started in Maui and took him all over Hawaii, California, Texas, Arizona, and back to New York City. In all, French was with Roy's for a dozen years -- "That's longer than most marriages last," he quips -- and finally left to work for a high-end catering company in Miami, a gig that lasted all of three months before French was let go. "The owner wanted to save money, so I was cut," he says. But bigger and better things were on the horizon -- specifically, an opportunity to do pastry at a high-caliber Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados. "It was the hardest two years of my life," admits French, "but they set me up in a three-bedroom house and they were paying me a lot of money, which was important, because I wanted to save money to do my own venture."