Serving up happiness
Pastry chef Dieter Schorner inspires and teaches aspiring bakers
By Susanne Janssen
“Happiness makes people healthy.” Or “give, there are so many things you don’t need.” And even more important: “Be nice now, you don’t live forever.”
These are words that Dieter Schorner, 78, lives by. As a result, he is an inspiration and a mentor to people from all over the world. He didn’t study philosophy, nor is he a life coach.
Schorner is a pastry chef and one of the best. However, he sees the goal of his profession is “to make people happy.” Without this leitmotiv, he says, there’s no way to make it in the culinary world. “You should choose a different profession.”
His career brought him to cook and bake for some illustrious people. At the Savoy Hotel in London, for instance, Queen Elizabeth was a guest who enjoyed cheese soufflés as appetizers and anything with lemon flavor. Princess Margaret admired his roses that he blew out of warm caramelized sugar, much like glass blowers create vases.
He is known as the man who brought crème brûlée to the U.S. — is this true? “I brought it back to life,” he says, “I modernized it.” Being the pastry chef at the renowned New York restaurant Le Cirque in the 1980s, Schorner put his own spin on the custard, cooking it in the shallow fluted casserole where the custard could bake more evenly. He uses only egg yolks to make it lighter, and sprinkles some sugar on top then puts it under the broiler.
“When [famous French chef] Paul Bocuse visited the restaurant, he loved it so much that he declared it the best dessert he had eaten that year,” Schorner said. “Then of course it became popular also in France, where it hadn’t been popular at all.”
His own career as a global player in the pastry world started in his Bavarian hometown in Germany right after World War II. Food was scarce, and so young Dieter looked for a job to earn a living. He liked the good aroma of the local bakery and started helping out in the morning to shape rolls and pretzels, taking home some bread for breakfast. The baker appreciated his work and told his mother, “he has the right skills; he could become a good baker.” None of his family ever worked in the kitchen; his two brothers and his sister all pursued academic careers.
“I had an inferiority complex and thought I wouldn’t turn out as good as they,” he says. He wanted to do something different and felt drawn to culinary arts.
After school, though, he didn’t want to get stuck in the bakery. “I wanted to make chocolate.” This became his plan after he was given a treat from an American soldier. The best chocolate makers were in Switzerland, so he went there when he was only 17, always aiming for the best. Halfway through the school, he ran out of money that he had gotten from his grandmother, but stayed on there working as a chef.
“Cooking was always my hobby,” he says. And according to him, a good chef knows how to bake, and a good baker how to cook.
What really shaped him as a person, though, was a skiing accident. “During my time in Switzerland, I fell on my back, because I was arrogant and thought I could make the slope.” He broke a vertebra and couldn’t lie down. “For 7 years I had to sleep in a wheelchair. That humbled me a lot.” He learned a lesson at that time: “don’t think that you’re the king. There’s always one who is better, and if not now, then tomorrow.”
He shared his secret motto: “I love to learn from you.” With this attitude he immediately gains the hearts and minds of his students in bakery classes at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, where he has now taught since 1999.
His profession brought him to the U.S. in 1967 when he worked first as a pastry chef in New York’s most famous French restaurants. Jackie Onassis loved his version of the Austrian classic Sachertorte, which he named first “Gâteau au chocolat à la New York” and later the “Jackie O-cake.”
After a few years working for gourmet restaurants, he wanted a change and pursued his dream of owning a European-style café. He opened Patisserie Café Didier in Washington, which became an attraction for pastry lovers.
Schorner was later asked to prepare desserts for many special occasions. For the Russian musician Mstislav Rostropovich, he created a life-size cello as a birthday cake, and for each guest a small cello cake to take home, a treat Gregory Peck and Nancy Reagan enjoyed.
For a party honoring a state visit of Queen Elizabeth at the U.S. Library of Congress, he created cakes that looked like a book by Thomas Jefferson for each table, and they looked exactly like the original.
Schorner never uses artificial colors — everything is made of natural food ingredients. “For the cello, I used espresso diluted with rum, and it turned out to be really shiny, just like the wood of the instrument,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.
Jefferson’s book is embedded in leather, so it took him some time to experiment with melted coffee powder to get just the right shade. Then he put the initials of Jefferson in 24 karat gold leaf. All this work was multiplied by 48 — one book for each table.
Schorner and his team work for days to make a special cake, just to see it being eaten in a few minutes. Any regrets?
“Not at all. Nothing lasts forever,” says the chef. He admitted to having a secret window in the door of his kitchen at Café Didier. “Sometimes, I would just peek through the glass and observe when a customer tasted the first bite of a dessert. Their face would light up as the taste buds encountered the flavors … they were happy. If you don’t want to make people happy, you’re wrong,” he confirms.
These were the moments he lived for in his career — not so much baking for celebrities such as President Nixon, or being named the best pastry chef in the U.S. by Time magazine in 1998. After joining the Culinary Institute staff, teaching has become his passion.
“Being a teacher is like being a farmer. All of your land is not the same. When you sow the seeds, some areas need more care than others. It’s the same with the students, not all are alike. Sometimes you need to give more care, but often the toughest ground yields the sweetest fruits,” says Schorner.
Still, he has his own personal bucket list to fulfill — such as visiting the pyramids of Giza, and just recently going to the base camp of Mount Everest in Nepal.
But small things also matter. In fact, it was a Grand Marnier soufflé that brought him and his wife together. In 1983 she tasted this dessert in Le Cirque and said, “If only I could marry the person who made this!” A little more than a year later, after some matchmaking by her sister, she did, and some years later she gave up her job to operate the Patisserie Didier together with her husband in order to spend more time together.
Because in the end, Schorner says: “Money isn’t making you happy. It’s the relationships that count.”