Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
Last fall, Top Chef: Just Desserts victor and pastry-world sweetheart Yigit Pura opened Tout Sweet, a vibrant, jewel-toned patisserie nestled into the third floor of Macy's Union Square. Complementing the décor are Pura's jewelry-like display cases, including seasonally-inspired tarts and macarons and signature curiosities like the Fifth Element mini-cake. Over the past year, both Tout Sweet and Pura himself have received local and national media attention. Eater recently sat down with Pura at Tout Sweet's Bayview kitchen to discuss the past year, fierce regulars, and his plans to open up a second neighborhood location in the near future.
You're a little more than one year in. What has been surprising so far? I think from a business owner's perspective, the most interesting thing has been listening to the audience and hearing what people really want as far as seasonality, but also taking pieces of those elements and including them in our repertoire. A great chef cooks from inspiration, but I think you also have to cook for your audience, too.
From a food perspective, the hardest thing was that we opened really quickly, only three weeks after our kitchen was completed, so it was really difficult to hire staff. On top of that, I tend to have very complicated and specific recipes. The first six months was difficult from a staffing and training perspective, but the surprisingly wonderful thing was that my core staff, who are with me now in the kitchen, work 12- to 14-hour days and they're really fantastic. It's the energy and enthusiasm they bring to the kitchen, which I used to have in my early twenties. And it's really great to see that young line of chefs who want to create things and want to constantly push the envelope further. It's wonderful to finally have that under my own roof.
Who would you say your audience is? Definitely San Francisco. We're situated in Union Square, so we do have some tourists. Still, I would say 90% of our core audience is San Franciscan, which is really fantastic. San Francisco is, I think, the hardest place, but also the most wonderful place, to be a chef or proprietor. We have access to the most amazing produce and everything you could imagine, and San Franciscans are probably the toughest yet the most loving food critics, because we really understand our food, where it's harvested and allocated. It really keeps you on your toes, and makes you strive to do 110% every day.
Can you give some examples of some adjustments you've made for your audience or for seasonality? We probably get about 90% of our produce from the farmers' markets, and I have really good relationships with our purveyors. When you go to the market before what I call "happy hour" at 9am, you can chat with the farmers about what's coming into season, which flowers they grow. And that's one thing I like to pass on to consumers, is that from your farmers, you can always gain a lot of knowledge about fruit and its different properties, whether it be baking or flavor-related. But you would be surprised how much insight farmers have into what flavors go well together. I would say more than anything, in San Francisco it's easy to be seasonal and be local and source the produce yourself.
Tell me a little bit about the flowers you just mentioned. Some people have called our cuisine "flamboyantly elegant," and I take pride in that. My old chef used to say, "What grows together goes together," and I firmly believe in that. For example, in the summer in California, you have wild lavender alongside berries for a reason: Mother Nature doesn't make any mistakes. It's the same with lemon verbena and peaches. These things aren't by accident. It's a matter of listening to that and being perceptive. As far as flowers go, we use a lot of organic roses, lemon verbena, lavender. Additionally, I'll go to Bernal Hill or other places around the city and hand-forage the local-growing flowers. You'd be amazed at how much grows in San Francisco, from boysenberries to lavender to fennel flowers. You just have to have to open your eyes and see it.
One thing that I love, because I do love the experience of being a restaurateur, is that once a month we actually close down Tout Sweet and do a four-course dessert tasting with wine pairings, 25 people only. And our followers book it up pretty fast.
You said that your concept has been described as "flamboyantly elegant," but how would you describe it? I would say we are a very modern French patisserie, but with a California take. In France, when you go to places like Pierre Hermé, they do beautiful, young food that's vibrant and colorful and works with different shapes and visual aesthetics. And on top of that, it's delicious. I've worked with mostly French chefs, like Daniel Boulud, and something that I was always told was that Americans would never understand a finer French perception of pastry. And I think that is completely untrue. If you deliver something that is delicious, with a great experience and ambience, people love it. In California, there are a lot of brown tones, and I love that we created a space that is vibrant and colorful, to celebrate the inner child. When we're kids, we experience things with pure joy, and I always tell my staff that when people come to Tout Sweet, there is really no, "I should do this or shouldn't," it's more about "I want this." I feel like we capture people in their pure moments of joy. So it's all about cherishing that.
What do you like the most about being a new business owner? I've done a lot in my short lifetime, but I would definitely say that this is the most challenging, most rewarding thing I've done. I really want to make this clear, though, that no great chef would be anything without really great partners and front-of-house. Our general manager is great, and our front-of-house staff love being there and talking about the food. And it really takes a village to raise a pastry shop.
What I love is creating food. That's something as natural as breathing to me. I think the most rewarding thing, though, is seeing people's reactions at the store. You can see it in their eyes when they walk up to our display cases. They come up wide-eyed, wandering, and it's like a life-and-death decision of what they pick to eat, and that's a huge compliment.
Pura with his team: MeMe Pederson (left) and Jessica Rohrig.
How do feel about your location in Union Square? Our location is great. Before we opened, a lot of people thought that because we were in Union Square, we were not a proper San Francisco business, but I think that's kind of unfair. I happen to live in Union Square, and I know that a lot of people actually live in Union Square and Nob Hill, so we definitely have a neighborhood we serve. And we actually have a fierce, loyal following.
Union Square is a place in the Bay Area that as a local, you'll likely visit more than once a year, so even if you don't live close by, we have a lot of people who come visit throughout the seasons. And there are people who only come during the holidays, but I love that, because we get to cater to a wider audience with our buche de noël and tarts. We have customers from New York to Middle America to Europe to Asia. However, it's our plan to open a neighborhood location within a year's time. Then, we can have more of a local, neighborhood presence for those who can't always make it to Union Square.
When you say "neighborhood location," which neighborhood are you referring to?I will say that we are opening within a neighborhood in San Francisco.
Do you have any prospective neighborhoods? Yes, but as you know, nothing is certain in San Francisco until it's certain.
Tell me about some of those "fierce" regulars. I love our regulars because we have a great dynamic between them and our front-of-house staff, which is not shy and wants to engage them. Every tart and cookie we have has a certain inspiration behind it, and our staff is willing to highlight each story. Our regulars definitely have helped define what our standard products are in the store. One of the most challenging things in the first six months was to see what was going to be most appreciated by people. I made the mistake of taking a few standard items off the menu, and we nearly had a riot on our hands. So our regulars are really great at helping us stay in check with what have become our signatures. And I love that we already have signatures, just within one year.
One of our regulars, who actually works at Macy's and comes down every day for her afternoon snack, is really charismatic and awesome. She came up to me one day when I happened to be there, and said, "I had these great figs from Knoll Farm the other day. When are you going to make something with figs?" I said, Well, let me get on that. But that sweet pressure allowed us to create a fantastic bourbon and fig tart.
Do you have any personal favorites on the menu? It's like picking a favorite child. Everyone says they don't pick, but I certainly pick. I think our Fifth Element has become one of our signatures...When we were opening the store, I wanted to have something that was really out there visually and flavor-wise. I thought to myself, I'm going to create this beautiful cake, and if we sell one or two a day, that's great. But it ended up being the most popular item on the menu, one people go crazy for. And that was great reassurance that if you make something beautiful and inspired and delicious, people will love it.
I'm sure you work a crazy amount of hours. How do you stay inspired to create new products? When you have a small business, especially in the beginning, it's like being a parent. Even when you go home, you're never off the clock. But I think staying inspired comes easily. It may sound cheesy, but it comes natural to me because it is really what I love. And to be honest, even at times when I become stressed or overwhelmed, the way I find solace and calm is to throw myself into the kitchen for the day without any meetings or disruptions and actually make food with my staff. And that is what keeps me happy. Inspiration for me is not a challenge, it's almost a cure.
It sounds like you spend a lot of time in Union Square, between your home and storefront. Where do you like to go eat around there? I love Barbacco; I love the chef, Steffan [Terje], and the proprietor, Umberto [Gibin]. Prospect is also one of my favorite restaurants. However, if I do have a day off, and it's sunny, one of my favorite things to do—which I think is a true San Franciscan thing to do—is to order pizza to go at Pizzeria Delfina, grab a bottle of wine and ice cream at Bi-Rite, and take it all to Dolores Park for a picnic with friends. I think that's the perfect San Francisco experience.
You've received a lot of media attention. How do you think that impacts your business? Any sort of media attention is a two-sided coin. If you're on top of your game and do well, it only makes you look better. But it's also a constant push to keep doing well, because if you falter, they'll take you down just as hard. However, to be honest, I don't really think about that aspect much. As a chef and a proprietor, I focus on creating beautiful food all the time. And at the end of the day, I don't aspire to impress media. I aspire to bring a good experience to our customers. If the media is something that shows up along the side, it's good for business, but it's not my main focus.
You've mentioned that you want to open another neighborhood location. Do you have any other evolutions in mind for your second year? We actually just launched our Web store. We've been testing and testing and testing it. Most chefs are very OCD, and I wanted to make sure that we are sending our babies out into the universe, that they would be received just as well as they would in San Francisco. It was a fun testing process. We were putting stuff in UPS boxes and kicking them around, then opening them up to see how it turned out. We're excited to reach a wider audience.
Our next expansion is a huge holiday line we're about to launch. It has beautiful things for Thanksgiving and the holidays. Last year, we opened right before the holidays, so we didn't have much time to think about them. This year, I took a lot of American classics and deconstructed them, then put them back together with fun methods and little twists of ingredients and decorations. When it comes to things like holidays, people want to have a dessert that brings up holiday associations, but I wanted to bring a cheeky smile to these desserts. It's not something your grandmother would bake, but you would be proud bringing it to your grandma's house.
You've lived in a lot of places in your life. Do you now consider yourself a San Franciscan? Yes. Through and through. This city is not the easiest place to own a business, and San Francisco definitely puts you through the wringer every single day. But I religiously and lustfully loved this city before opening the store, and I now I love it even more.