Q & A with Cher Harris, newly crowned ‘Pastry Queen’ of the Women’s World Pastry Championship, and her proud coach and veteran Pastry Queen competitor, Susan Notter.
Only its second staging, SIGEP’s Women’s World Pastry Championship – also known as the ‘Pastry Queen’ competition – brought together top notch female pastry chefs from around the world for three days of sugar-fueled challenges. From whipping up a Tirami Su with an Italian barista in just one hour, to creating a towering showpiece on the same day as a plated dessert and an entremet, Pastry Queen put all the chefs to some serious tests. Conceived by master patissier Roberto Rinaldi, Pastry Queen is the first-ever international pastry competition specifically for women. In Europe, it’s already considered one of the most prestigious pastry competitions, regardless of gender.
Traveling to Rimini, Italy in January were pastry chefs from Mexico, Brazil, France, Belarus, Morocco, Switzerland, Croatia, Colombia, Japan, Russia, and USA. Chairing the international jury was Frédéric Cassel, President of Relais Desserts, whose presence at the head of the table lent this upstart competition the gravitas it warrants in the pastry competition community.
Receiving awards in the individual categories were Laetitia Moreau of France for her sugar showpiece and her plated dessert; Tomomi Futakami of Japan took top marks for her chocolate cake, her cream dessert, and for workshop organization, tidiness and cleanliness. For her Coffee Tirami Su, Switzerland’s Irene Falcioni took first place. But it was USA’s Cher Harris of The Hotel Hershey in Pennsylvania who took the coveted prize and was crowned La Regina della Pasticceria, The Pastry Queen, by the international jury in Rimini.
Having attended SIGEP again this year, and accepting the honor of sitting on the jury of Pastry Queen, I was pleased, but not too surprised, by Cher’s new crown. Her work was every bit what one would expect from an international pastry champion. I caught up with Harris after she returned state-side, got over her jet lag and had the chance for her victory to sink in. But for Harris, Executive Pastry Chef at The Hotel Hershey, overseeing three restaurants, a cafe in the spa, a cupcake bakery, a coffee house, and a large amount of events, there wasn’t much time to catch her breath before resuming the helm at The Hotel Hershey – and getting back to practice for yet another competition.
What I am most proud of with Chef Cher is that with all she has accomplished and the success she has achieved, she has not changed in that she is a tremendous person who cares. Cher is an exceptionally talented Pastry Chef who has never been satisfied with what she has accomplished, but instead is always looking forward to what can make her better. Just by being part of The Hotel Hershey team, she makes us all better personally as well as professionally.”
—Ken Gladysz, Executive Chef at The Hotel Hershey
Q & A with Cher Harris
Dessert Professional: How long ago did you decide to be in the competition?
Harris: Last March. We started forming flavors about June.
DP: How did you connect with your coach, Susan Notter?
Harris: A couple years ago I started on the Advisory Board at the Pennsylvania School for Culinary Arts where Susan is the head of the pastry program.
DP: Susan competed in the Pastry Queen in 2012, but she didn’t take the title. Was her experience in the inaugural competition something that gave her an edge as your coach?
Harris: She placed third overall. She told me that the most important thing to focus on were the flavor combinations. A whole 50% of the judging overall is based upon flavor.
DP: How long did you have to create your sugar showpiece?
Harris: That was part of a nine-hour day.
DP: Take me through the three days of competition, how many hours were you working and what was the breakdown of your work?
Harris: On Saturday the actual competition was one hour. Thirty minutes beforehand we met and were paired with a barista from Italy, who was also competing. Together we had to choose the bean from any region – we got to taste different ones – then had to decide which was going to work the best with the flavor profile of the Tiramisu I had already planned to make.
DP: So you had only half an hour to choose a bean, cup espressos, decide which to use, and then make your Tirami Su? That’s not a lot of time, it must have been quite stressful.
Harris: It was interesting! Plus most of the baristas didn’t speak English so there was the language barrier as well. But it was great to see their excitement about it, and it was a lot of fun.
DP: So, take me through day two.
Harris: Day two was also one hour, but we had the chance to bring in our sponge for the desserts pre-made, and anything else that needed to be baked. So my glass had some meringue in it and some other crunch elements and those could be made ahead of time. The dessert in a cup was really fun to make. We chose a Georgia peach melba, and tried to get some different texture elements. We worked on that dessert for a while during training. Susan Notter had some great contacts so we brought in a couple different chefs to help with developing flavors.
DP: Who were the chefs you worked with?
Harris: Marc Aumont from MOMA in NYC helped me with the plated dessert that I had to do on the third day. From France we had Jean François Devineau, a pastry consultant. I met Jean François last year at Pastry Live in August, he was there judging, and that’s when we started to talk about plated desserts. The entire thing was a great opportunity to meet people.
DP: How was day three?
Harris: Monday was nine hours, and they had time lines throughout the day that we had to meet. I started at 7am and had to have my plated dessert up at 11:24. At 2:24 was my entremets judging, and then at 4:00 I had to have my sugar showpiece up in place for judging. I saved about four hours to get my showpiece together.
DP: Was this your first competition?
Harris: It was my first international one. I only got into competing about a year ago, mostly ACF, so I wanted to get out. ACF is great, but there’s not a lot going on in pastry so I wanted to get out and just start trying different things.
DP: What was it that gave you the competition bug?
Harris: I don’t know, I thrive of stress, I think! Most of us do in this industry. I started travelling around and went to New York and other places to watch competitions, and I just thought, I really want to try this. That little extra push for myself, personally and professionally, just to try something a little different. I’ve gone to the Paris Gourmet pastry competition in NYC for the past three years, and just watched the competitors during the assembly, what it involves.
DP: And you’re competing in the Paris Gourmet U.S. Pastry Competition this year, aren’t you?
Harris: Yeah, I am!
DP: What did you think about Pastry Queen?
Harris: I thought it was an awesome experience. I had no idea the calibre that it really was, it’s very well renowned in Europe. It’s new, only the second time they’ve done it, but I was amazed at how seriously everyone takes it. They had the best equipment, it was fair, well laid out.
DP: What did you have to do to get into the competition?
Harris: Susan Notter was interviewing people to try out for this at the time that I was working with her on another competition, she was assisting me on working with sugar. She wasn’t feeling she had a strong enough candidate and she said she saw my dedication and my willingness to do it, and so she asked me if I’d be interested.
DP: How do you feel about Pastry Queen as a woman-only competition?
Harris: I think competitions are predominantly men, in general. I don’t know how to deliver that message. It’s unique that they created it, that it is just for women. There is another side to it certainly.
DP: What kind of support did you get for the competition?
Harris: My hotel was very supportive, they gave me the resources, that’s the number one thing. I try to keep the competition work separate, so I practice on days off or late at night. But any time off I needed, or supplies, they were very supportive. I couldn’t have done it without my team either – at Hotel Hershey I have a great team. Then Paris Gourmet provided financial support and product throughout my training. You can’t do it if you don’t have the people to support you. Fortunately, my husband is a chef, so even he understands what it takes. The hours are crazy, and it takes someone who understands that.
DP: What’s your take-away from this competition? What was it like to compete in another country, a three-day challenge, jet lag, language barrier, etc.?
Harris: It certainly tests your endurance, and that, I think is a very good thing to have! A phenomenal experience, win or no win, just to be there, competing with pastry chefs from all these different cultures, seeing how they all work, how they associate with their coaches. That alone was just a really great experience and I felt really proud to be there and to be a part of that.
DP: So what would you say to pastry chefs thinking of competing, now that you’ve won an international title?
Harris: It must come from the dedication it takes to practice. We are only as good as we are on that day, and as well as we may know the fundamentals, when put into a competition realm and all the stress that can go with it, I believe the more practice you’ve had, the more comfortable you’ll be. Push yourself, it does take a lot. You have to be willing to try different things, pushing yourself beyond your daily life.
Q & A with Susan Notter, Cher Harris’s Coach
When Cher Harris took the Pastry Queen title at SIGEP in Rimini this January, she gave a whole lot of credit for her win to coach Susan Notter. Notter, Director of Pastry Arts at the Pennsylvania School of Culinary Arts, was herself a contestant at the inaugural Pastry Queen event in 2012. The veteran competitor most recently represented the U.S. on the American Culinary Federation team at the first-ever Dubai World Hospitality Championship in November 2013, earning a gold medal, and placing second overall. Notter is also the only female ever to ever be Team Captain at the Beaver Creek National Pastry Team Championships.
Though Notter didn’t win the Pastry Queen title in 2012 (she placed third overall) the lessons she learned and the connections she made there—and her overall pastry savvy—gave her the ability to coach Cher Harris right to the top of the podium and into the annals of pastry history. With such an impressive show as coach, I couldn’t resist touching bases with Notter for a brief chat about Cher Harris, Pastry Queen, and the art of competition from the feminine perspective.
Dessert Professional: Why did you select Cher to represent the U.S. for the competition?
Notter: Honestly, it was challenging to find a suitable candidate. I needed a female chef familiar with competing under pressure, able to create and produce an entremet, plated desserts and a sugar showpiece. I was very lucky that Cher met the criteria and also lived in close enough proximity to be able to practice together regularly. She was also ready to make the commitment needed to be successful, and she had the dedication to see it through.
DP: What did you learn from your turn at Pastry Queen that you used to advise Cher?
Notter: The Pastry Queen competition is not only about the day, but about the logistics and planning needed to be successful. Going over in 2012 allowed me to set up the infrastructure, enabling us to have access to equipment and kitchens in which to bake and prepare the sugar in advance. With the assistance of Paris Gourmet, I made friends over there and we had a support team at our disposal. I took the judges critiques to heart, remembered my mistakes and sticking points, and used this to help train Cher to be ready for the competition.
DP:What would you say were the key factors that led to Cher’s victory?
Notter: Sometimes it comes down to who made the least mistakes on the day! Of course key factors included having talented chefs involved to advise Cher, including Marc Aumont from MOMA in NYC and Jean François Devineau, a Pastry Chef Consultant from France. Cher was very consistent in everything she did, from her kitchen scores to the taste and presentation of the showpiece, so her scores were high in every area. The flavors were clean and refreshing and everything had a very feminine finish. In fact, one of the judges said it looked like Cher’s showpiece was the only one designed by a woman.
DP: You’ve competed with and against both men and women. Have you noticed any differences between the genders as teammates and competitors?
Notter: I have to think about this! More than once I’ve been told I couldn’t be on a team because I had commitments to my family and I couldn’t be trusted to make the commitment needed for the team. This was a very disappointing experience for me, but instead of letting myself be told I wasn’t capable I set out to prove that I was, and I still continued to compete. Women have to work harder at proving themselves worthy to be in this arena. With the training, the will and the talent, there’s no reason why a female chef cannot measure up to any man, but often they are not given the support and training needed to get them to that point. For me gender should not be an issue and I don’t make it one – when I compete I give it everything I have and I want to be successful. I think that men may find this intimidating, but when the work is done and the result is good then even they have to concede that women can be equally strong and as capable as they are. At that moment satisfaction is sweet!
DP: How did you feel when Cher’s name was announced as the winner?
Notter: Once France and Japan had been announced I knew it had to be the USA. I was very proud and delighted that we were able to put the USA in first place and gain the respect of the international judges. I felt that finally they were taking us seriously in the world of competitive pastry!