Apiece Apart Woman: Elisabeth Prueitt
Photos: Andrea Gentl
Styling: Ariana Serrano-Embree
Words: Ellen Freeman
“My first job was in food service and probably my last job will be in food service,” says Elisabeth Prueitt. But the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef has had her fingers in quite a few proverbial pies in between: creating San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery (home to pilgrimage-inspiring morning buns) and Tartine Manufactory with her husband Chad Robertson; authoring an inventive-yet-approachable cookbook; and co-founding the Conductive Education Center of San Francisco, a nonprofit school and summer camp for children with motor disorders, after the couple’s 12 year-old daughter Archer was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Before she knew that she wanted to work with food, Liz studied acting and photojournalism, and thought about going into the Peace Corps. “I was very adventurous. I traveled by myself. I wasn't scared whatsoever of being by myself or going to what you think of as ‘scary’ assignments—war-torn countries, places of conflict—that's what I wanted to do.” But she kept gravitating back toward food, filling all of her downtime with cooking and baking until she finally decided to go back to school at the Culinary Arts Institute, even though she was ten years older than her classmates. “It's kind of funny that I ended up doing something very home-ec,” she says (though she still travels to check up on Tartine spin-offs in L.A. and Seoul). In a highly-caffeinated morning moment between getting her daughter off to school and finishing up work on her next cookbook, Liz shared thoughts about wanderlust, improvisation, and not staying in your lane.
I grew up in Brooklyn until I was 13 and I used to write little cookbooks with friends. Brownies and chocolate chip cookies were definitely my favorite things to make; I can't remember the recipes beyond that. My mom always let us bake, there wasn't a big thing about the stove being dangerous. We were taught to sew—my mom sewed all of our outfits when we lived in Brooklyn, she made all of our bread. Gourmet Magazine was like the bible. Both my parents entertained all the time and there was a lot of cooking and baking.
I remember my dad doing a giant fish baked in bread dough. He was an artist and he encased a whole fish in bread dough and cut the scales and the face and the head. It was amazing. He also entered gingerbread house contests every year. He made a paddle boat that he won the Grandma's Molasses cooking contest for his riverboat rendition of gingerbread dough. It was unbelievable.
I love to travel. I like to just go off on my own. I've always had the push-pull feeling of wanderlust but also wanting a sense of community around me. Right now our apartment overlooks the bay with a view of sailboats, and the idea of getting onto a sailboat by myself and just going off is very appealing.
I’m a shy person who has for some reason chosen to do very public things.
I'm an extroverted introvert; wanting to speak to groups of people and then being horrified by it. Acting is one thing that I’ve loved to do and it goes completely against my shyness and horror of getting up in front of people—but what a fantastic feeling that is. Nothing makes me more happy than being in an acting class and having people around me doing that same thing. And maybe that's why the kitchen is appealing to me, because you have a group of people around you that you rely on and that are all working towards a common goal. You have that very formal Escoffier style where every single person, just like being in a play or musical ensemble, knows what their part is.
And I love that aspect of knowing what your part is and how it contributes to the whole.
I think if you're a creative person, you find creativity in many, many areas.
I like working with my hands and I've been getting into jewelry making, which I really enjoy. I love working with gold and silver. And I remember posting something I made a year or two ago and somebody actually commented that I should “stay in my lane." It was fascinating to me that somebody would say this. I'm a creative person and I find creativity surrounds me in different ways. Stay in my lane? What is the meaning of not staying in your lane? And I replied, "I'm on a creative super-highway. I'm not staying in my lane, I'm choosing to do anything that I feel creative about doing."
Once when I was probably seven, I remember seeing Tom Selleck of all people saying—and stick with me because I realize it’s bizarre that a seven year-old girl would find a connection with Tom Selleck on the Mike Douglas Show—but he said, "When I see that something scares me, I know that means I have to go do it." And I thought, "Oh my god, yes. That is how I think. That's how I feel.
When something scares me, that's how I know I have to do it." It was one of my earliest moments of understanding myself psychologically. It has stuck with me all these years. Especially when I feel kind of stagnant and stuck, I always go back to that.
When you’re cooking, what do you….
Anything I can put an apron over.
.... listen to?
I love to listen to classical guitar—which I started playing as a kid and never really followed through on in my teen years.
I have a giant drawer full of different kinds of teas. Some people collect jewelry, I collect tea. I drink it all day long according to my mood: sometimes I just want hibiscus, and then I want a beautiful green tea, and then I want chai with a special honey and my favorite almond milk. I could never have enough tea.
Tell me about some flavors buried in your memory.
The savory crepes in Brittany—favorite, favorite, favorite—made with sarrasin, the buckwheat from the area. My Swedish grandmother's cardamom holiday bread. The Middle Eastern savory pies from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn; that's my childhood right there. There were meat ones and spinach ones. We would always stop there on our way home from a road trip to Kentucky or visiting my grandmother in New Jersey, and we'd get an ice-cold container of yogurt and meat and spinach hand pies. We couldn't even wait until we got home, we would just dip the hot pies into the cold yogurt.
Do you cook with your daughter?
I love to cook with her and for her, although she's 12 and in a phase of just liking pasta and pizza—so incredibly annoying. But I read that food is more enticing after you see a photograph of it, so I tried it yesterday, with halibut wrapped in prosciutto that I had posted on Instagram. I was thinking to myself, "This is the furthest thing that I could get her to eat." But I showed her the photo and I told her all about it, and usually she's like, "Ew, fish,” but I made her an exact replica of what I posted, and she ate the whole thing up. She does this cute thing where she kind of hums when she's really enjoying something that she's eating—and she was eating prosciutto-wrapped halibut while humming last night. It was a huge win.
As a pastry chef who famously cannot eat gluten, you’ve had to explore alternatives to baking with wheat, and your cookbooks play with uncommon grains and flavors. In the kitchen and in life, how much do you stick to the recipe and how much do you improvise?
Pastry chefs are known perfectionists; you can spot them in a crowd. I remember a moment many, many years ago when I was making a ginger cake recipe of David Lebovitz's, and I completely miscalculated a couple of the ingredients. At first I was so pissed off at myself, and then all of a sudden the lightbulb went off and I was like, "This is the exact texture of steamed pudding. I could not have come up with a better steamed pudding had I not made these mistakes.” That became one of our all-time favorite recipes for the holidays, our steamed gingerbread pudding.
That’s the satisfaction of working in a flow, which is what you learn in an improvisation class. You learn really quickly when something doesn't work; it just doesn't feel right. Taking a risk culinarily speaking, you get the reward of inventing or figuring out something new. That's why I offer many variations in our cookbook, because you might want to try something in a different way and look outside of what are considered the rules of baking historically.
That’s what I discovered years ago; finding a moment of something not working out specifically in the way I envisioned it, and not absolutely killing myself over it—not just throwing it away, but embracing the true artistic value of when something goes off in a direction than you weren’t intending it to and exploring that, being open to seeing what can come from something when you let it be.