We interviewed Serdar Yener, the founder of the online cake decorating website Yener’s Way, in our July/August issue. We had too many questions to fit in print–and he had answers for all of them! Read on for the full interview below.
1) What is your first food memory?
With this question you make me go back to my childhood and try to remember what food attracted me as early as I can remember. In Turkey especially in populated cities like Istanbul, it is a quite a tradition for people to bring a box of cakes when they visit friends. However, I have to say that having a cake in our home was not a daily affair. I think when I was 3, a family friend walked into my grandmother’s house with a big white box in his hand. The box ended up on the kitchen bench, not opened and people started chatting on and on. I was so curious about what was inside the box and stood beside it while waiting for somebody to open it . They all went into the living room and I was left alone with the box. I knew that I was not allowed to open it but the urge to open it consumed me. I stood behind the bench, went on tip toes and quietly lifted up the lid. What I saw was so strange about an inch high of crystal clear yellowish congealed liquid that topped a beautifully arranged array of colourful fruits. Yes, that was the first time I have ever seen a jelly coated fruit flan. I can still recall this till today.
2) What is your favorite taste/flavor? why?
Chocolate, of course! Talking about chocolate, I am now having a piece of dark semi-bitter chocolate in my mouth. As soon as I started writing about it, I got up and walked to the fridge. My wife said “ chocolate huh?”. I am only allowed a little square a day after dinner. I like to savour that little piece as long as I can; so I don’t bite on it but lets it to slowly melt on my tongue. It is the only solid food I know that melts below body temperature with an irresistible taste. That is why I love it so much!
3) What is your least favorite taste/flavor? why?
None. In general, I’m not choosy as I can eat almost anything. However, if I’m offering food to others, I’m quite particular. I make sure that I offer food that will appeal to them. I’m thankful for the abundance of food that mother nature offers us, which is like a grand buffet. I think when we don’t like something we have to think about people in need and think how lucky we are. My grandchildren are quite selective about what they put in their mouth. I sometimes show them YouTube videos of hungry kids. I hope they understand and learn from it. On second thoughts about this question, I cringe whenever I think about eating bitter melon.
4) Who would you most like to share a kitchen with?
My wife Jo . She is my biggest fan and we make a fighting and loving team and at the end we always enjoy what we put on our plate together. Second place goes to my students. I don’t understand couples who do not enjoy cooking together. Conversely, I think that cake decorating is a solo job that requires only one leader. I am not so sure that I would want to interrupt any artist while he or she is composing a masterpiece as I think that cake decorating is an art that should really be performed by an individual, or a leader with a supporting team. Decorated cakes are usually made to fulfill a customer’s or friend’s request but almost always reflect the creator’s personal signature style. Having two artists to decorate a cake is akin to having 2 painters working on the same painting.
5) What kitchen task do you find to be the most soothing?
I love designing and cooking sophisticated 4 or 5 course dinner menus for small groups of friends at my house. I recently finished building an outdoor kitchen with an industrial Chinese wok, oven and teppanyaki grill. On the night of the party, I find it most soothing preparing and cooking each course while chatting with friends.
6) What kitchen task do you do anything to avoid?
I dislike working on creative designs late into the night for cakes that are to be picked up or delivered the following morning. I’m most creative when I’m happy and relaxed. If you order a kitchen cabinet from a carpenter and there is a deadline to deliver it, he could probably get away with saying something like “sorry I was too sleepy last night, I will deliver it the tomorrow”. Is this possible for a wedding cake? No. Thus, I try my best to avoid leaving things to the last minute and having to rush things.
7) What famous person would you most like to have created a dessert for—can be real or fictional, any time period
I would be so honoured if I were given a chance to create a dessert for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He was the first president of Turkey, most renowned for implementing reforms that rapidly secularized and westernized the country in 1920. I hope it stays like that.
8) Where did you discover a taste or flavor combination that completely surprised you?
This will sound funny. Candied pumpkin and lime sorbet. Another childhood memory. Even though I have been constantly exposed to international flavours and combinations for over 40 years, I still love to cook traditional dishes but give them a modern twist. Peeled moon-shaped pumpkin slices cooked in thick syrup and served with some crushed walnuts on top is one of the oldest Turkish desserts eaten after dinner or at anytime of the day. I’m amazed at how this humble vegetable can be transformed into a delicious translucent crispy-skinned dessert with a crunchy texture. I’m always interested to learn the secrets behind such simple and yet wonderful authentic creations. I learnt later that the secret ingredient is nothing but limestone. When it is mixed with 5 parts of water, it becomes hot and the lime particles settle at the bottom of the pot in a few hours, thereby creating a clear separation between the limestone and the translucent solution, it looks like just water but known as “cream of lime”. Then with care not to cloud the solution, carefully scoop off the top layer and use it to soak the pumpkin pieces overnight. Drain off the liquid the next morning and and give the pumpkin pieces a good wash. Simmer them in a pot of fresh water till soft. Then wash them with cold water and drain. Lastly, layer them in a deep tray with a generous amount of caster sugar. The sugar will start to melt in an hour or two. Place the tray in the oven and this is when the magic happens!. Hoping that everybody likes this sweet textured vegetable as much as I do, I decided to serve this dessert with some lime sorbet to a group of friends. The result was miraculous – everybody was very happy as Larry I was as happy as Christopher Columbus who just made a new discovery!!!
9) What has been your best professional experience to date?
Igeho 1987 Basel Switzerland, where I won my first Most Outstanding Pastry Artist Award. I produced all my 5 entry pieces in Malaysia, packed and brought them To Switzerland for the competition. I was also training the pastry chef of the Malaysian National Team and at the same time was competing as an individual. It was such an intense and tiring period of time. I was preparing everything and putting things together overnight, after placing the piece on the table coming back to hotel and catching up on sleep so that I could survive the next sleepless night. Every day of the competition around noon, while I was napping, my chef who has just returned from the competition whispered into my ear that I have won another Gold with Distinction. The only time I was able to return to the exhibition hall was on the last day of the competition . I was heading to the locations of my pieces but none of them were where I left them. I was wondering what had happened to them – did they melt or had they broken? How can all my 5 entries disappear amongst the thousand over entries? I was looking for the organizer when I saw a congregation of people around a large table. All my pieces were placed together for a special presentation. I am waiting for a time when my grandchildren are old enough to listen to this particular story.
10) What was your biggest professional disaster? (perceived or actual!)
Quite a long time ago… I think it was in the early 70s. Istanbul Hilton with a beautiful Bosphorus view. Lots of learning, recalling memories. One memory stood out – one that I don’t wish to remember. It was a function order describing a 5-tiered wedding cake in the minutest details. The first and second tiers were dummy cakes while the top tiers were real cakes. If it were not described as such on the function sheet, I would have done it the other way round by making the top 4 tiers as dummy cakes and only the largest bottom tier as real cake. I made the cake and delivered it to the function room. A few hours later, the food and beverage manager, maitre d’hotel and the banquet manager stormed into the kitchen and screamed “who made this cake?” all at once. I was about 19 years old then and I thought that this would be my last day of my shortest career in my life. What happened was the serving chef and the waiters did not read the function order and started slicing and serving styrofoam cake slices to the guests. My guess was that the chef was inexperienced and was using a very sharp knife. The butter cream on the styrofoam cakes muted the ‘squeeky’ sound when it was sliced. Half of the room was already served, when some of the wedding guests started to make grumbling and complaining sounds, but it was too late. Thankfully, the function order form was proof that it was not my fault and saved my life!
11) What’s your favorite recipe you’ve developed?
Strawberry Reney cake. A dessert I created and named after myself – “Reney” = “Yener”. My signature creation with my hidden name spelt backwards. Rose water is a very bold and risky scent to use in a dessert as it is an acquired taste and disliked by many. But if you use the right amount with the right ingredients, it will tantalise the taste buds. Mash the strawberries with a fork with some sugar, lemon juice and a few drops of rose water. Mix in some semi-whipped fresh cream and just enough gelatine to make a pink combining agent for fresh whole strawberries. Marinate with a bit of sugar and rum. I pack this generously in a dome-shaped cake coated with whipped cream. Viola! The sides of the cake slices look like strawberry mosaic.
12) What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? and/Or ever given? and/or ignored?
Sometimes I do things out of the norm with a very good reason at a particular moment and need which completely makes sense to me but is very difficult to explain why. I remember saying often DO WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I DO – a good piece of advice that I often offered to my ex-colleagues.
13) What’s your kitchen philosophy?
Non-religious 10 commandments. This is depends on where I work. I always like very precise and concise instructions that reflect my expectations in a very clear manner. 10 dos and don’ts that are long enough to be comprehensive but short enough to remember.
14) What’s your ‘secret weapon’ in the kitchen? (Could be a tool, an ingredient, a process, etc.)
I would say the process of penning my thoughts on paper first. I like to make things visual before they happen. It is like to be able to write music without having an instrument in hand.
15) What’s your dessert of choice? or your favorite meal of choice?
Choux buns – Fill them with something delicious five minutes after they are baked, and serve them immediately. If I would run a restaurant today and design my dessert menu, it would be the first item on my menu and if my pastry chef were to bake the buns long before service starts, he wouldn’t be working for me much longer.
16) Who’s been the biggest influence on your career.
Mr Ewald Notter. I knew about him from his books, admired his work and I wanted to be like him. First time I met him face-to face in 1987 at the Basel Igeho competition. He was very nice and kind then to give his recognition to me, for my work . I have never taken my eyes off from his involvements. We met again time to time, on other occasions but it was my greatest honour to be a judge with him side by side for the World Pastry Championship in 2002 and 2004 in Las Vegas, USA.
17) What tool do you wish you had?
I really don’t wish to sound arrogant but I can’t describe any, as I have my God-given hands. I can’t do anything with tools without my hands. I pray that my two hands will function optimally and serve me well, as long as I live. Other than that I am a bit of old school. Having said that, I still acknowledge the benefits of using modern tools in the pastry industry that have helped chefs to increase productivity and improve cost efficiency in their work. On the other hand, this will increase our dependence on them. Thus, I think it’s important that culinary schools first teach their students to acquire basic survival techniques in the kitchen before they are taught to use tools. In my tutorials at Yeners Way, I always try to teach my viewers not to rely on tools too much and to find ways to create their own tools from everyday objects. Ofcourse provided that these everyday objects are hygenic and suitable for use with food.
18) What do you think is the most underrated ingredient? and/or most overrated?
Air. Almost every recipe has it, but there is no indication of how much air is the right amount to use in recipes in the written form. What about a measuring tool ?
19) Do you have a favorite food resource?
I think that today, the ultimate resource for just about anything is the internet. So this is where I go to most of the time but having said that, I still have a large collection of photographs, magazines and books that I draw inspiration from.
20) Where is your culinary dream destination?
I view this question as a goal which is also a destination in a sense.
Yeners Way online cake art tutorials started 2 years ago and we have recently issued a survey to our members and the result has been very positive, with a significant number of satisfied members. We are going to continue what we are doing and try to improve our service and quality in the years to come. Our idea for Yeners Way has worked but we have to ask ourselves the usual question – What’s next? My son Serkan and I have been working on a project for a while now and it is still in it’s early stages. It’s basically a system to help cake decorators manage their cake business. The cake journey starts from a customer’s call or a walk in appointment and ends with the cake happily consumed. During this journey, there are so many steps to be followed. We are carefully taking every step of this process into consideration and finding a way to incorporate it into the project. The tool would ultimately allow a cake decorator to visually design their entire cake and have costing done automatically as they do the design. Taking into account ingredients, recipes, decorations and all the elements involved to make a cake. The system will also include ample interactive information to start and run a cake business. As mentioned, it is still a long way away but when it’s complete, hopefully it will be a user-friendly system that will give anyone who makes just one cake at a time as hobby or multiple cakes a week as a business, an easier life.
21) Do you have a favorite cookbook? If so, what won you over?
Le Grand Livre des Patissiers et des Confiseurs Urbain Dubois 1928. I love the detailed hand drawn pictures. If my house was on fire, this is the first book I would try to save from by bookshelf.
About Serdar Yener
Chef Serdar Yener from Yeners Way – Online Cake Art Tutorials has over 40 years of experience in cake decorating. As a multi-talented pastry chef, he has won numerous awards in Europe and Asia including the Best Pastry Chef and Pastry Artist. He has been a mentor to many students and has judged in international competitions around the globe. After leading pastry operations in several hotel chains since 1998, he incorporated his family business and produced thousands of wedding and novelty cakes.
In April 2014, Serdar and his son Serkan founded Yeners Way. Now he has connected with thousands of subscribers worldwide and is delighted to impart his knowledge with accumulated tips and tricks to the next generations of cake decorators. YenersWay.com offers all aspects of cake decorating technical video tutorials including sugar, chocolate and isomalt centrepieces as well as classic and contemporary designs of cake artistry.
Recently Chef Serdar Yener has proudly accepted the title as the Ambassador of Vizyon Rolled Fondant and happy to take Vizyon on board for Yeners Way tutorials and demonstrations. Serdar’s autobiography can be found at YenersWay.com.