Even as a child, Saul Juarez knew he was destined for the pastry kitchen.
When Saul Juarez says he's been baking since he was a kid, he doesn't mean he was his mother's little helper in the home kitchen. He's been an actual, professional baker since childhood, starting so early he couldn't even reach the counters.
"I got my first job in a bakery when I was six years old," Juarez laughs, recognizing just how unbelievable that sounds. "I had a cousin who had a bakery, and my mom asked him if he would give me a job during the summer. I did really basic stuff like putting egg wash and sugar on the pastries, lining and oiling sheet pans and pulling bread from the oven to place on the cooling rack. I was so young I wasn't able to reach the tables, so I had to stand on a four-by-four. That's how baking got into my heart."
These days, Juarez has no problem reaching the counters at Grand Tavern by David Burke (626 N. Grand Boulevard, 314-405-3399)
, where he works as the restaurant's pastry chef. However, all it takes is the smell of chocolate or a ripe mango to bring him back to his childhood home in Mexico, where he lived on a small farm and dreamed of working in a professional kitchen. From a young age, he knew pastry was his calling, a realization that occurred in both his cousin's bakery and while watching professional cooks on television prepare show-stopping flambes. The spectacle of it all excited him.
That interest continued when, as a young teenager, he moved to California with his parents. Juarez threw himself into his high school studies and gravitated toward chemistry, a career path he briefly considered pursuing after graduating. However, as he thought over what he wanted to do with his life, it seemed that combining that inclination for science with his passion for baking was the best fit. His teachers agreed.
"When I was in high school, I wanted to take a culinary class, but I had too many credits and had to drop it," Juarez recalls. "My teacher went to the principal and said, "This kid really loves cooking. You have to let him back in my class."
Juarez completed that high school cooking class and had his sights set on culinary school. He took some basic classes while working in a grocery store and thought he would continue just chipping away at his degree. However, his manager intervened and told him that, if he wanted to make a serious career out of culinary, he should attend the Culinary Institute of America.
Juarez was intrigued, but the thought of having to spend several years at the school's New York campus did not appeal to him. When he found the 30-week program in Napa Valley, however, he knew it was the right fit. It was a decision that made him the chef he is today.
"There is nothing wrong if you want to learn by working in a bakery, but I liked having the support of the books and the research which tell you how you can do better," Juarez says. "Plus, I had an instructor that told us we should make all of our mistakes in school because they are there to help us fix them. When you go to work, you won't want to make mistakes because it costs money. In school, though, making those mistakes is what makes you better."
After graduating from culinary school, Juarez stayed in California and worked for a few years at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa before moving on to the Four Seasons. The hotel asked him to move to its St. Louis property, so he packed up and moved across country to join the team at Cielo. It was a job he enjoyed, but he eventually felt like it was time to do something new.
"I said I would be here for two years and it ended up being four," Juarez explains. "I built the team. The person who was at the bottom is now running the kitchen, and she is very talented. I felt like my work there was done."
Juarez was intrigued by what celebrity chef David Burke was putting together at the Angad Arts Hotel and decided to join his team. He's happy he made the move, not simply because he enjoys working with Burke, but because it allows him the most creative freedom he's ever had in a job — something he takes every opportunity to explore in terms of those childhood memories at the bakery in Mexico.
"For me, baking on a rainy day always takes me back to my childhood — that and chocolate," Juarez says. "I always have chocolate around me when I am making desserts. I try to bring those memories with me — the cotton candy we would have twice a year, the fresh passion fruit and mangoes we'd open when they were in season — those memories are my inspiration, and when I put them into desserts, they will then become someone else's memories."
Juarez took a break from the pastry kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, his unconventional morning beverage routine and why he'd love to teach the world to bake.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I started working in a bakery when I was six years old, and, as a result, much of my inspiration comes from those childhood memories. I enjoy working with foods that we only had a few times a year, such as cotton candy or chocolate cake, as well as seasonal fruits like mango, peaches and passion fruit.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
A 6 a.m. cup of hot chocolate while sitting in my backyard.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Having enough money so I could visit the people who are poor and struggling to teach them to make bread. Artisan bread only requires three ingredients – water, flour, and salt. Yeast can help, but 100 percent artisan bread does not need yeast. I would be so grateful to share my passion with those in need so they could go on to start a better life and provide for their families.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis lately?
Fresh local produce, and the opportunity to meet the farmers. It’s a pleasure to make their ingredients shine in our kitchen. We get to respect their ingredients to the fullest and appreciate all of their hard work cultivating the product.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
I have never considered a food crush before! I really love what they’re doing at Cinder House by cooking on the open fire.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Gerard Craft continues to bring different cuisine and culture to St. Louis. It’s exciting to see.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Chocolate. If I get respect from my team, I’ll make us all shine. Chocolate is the same; if you give all the respect to chocolate when you are making a show piece or truffles, the chocolate will shine. Also I can be bitter just like 100 percent chocolate.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Pharmaceuticals because there are similarities between pastry and working with formulas.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Food additives or preservatives. We make everything fresh daily, and that’s what the guest experience is all about. Food preservatives are for products that will be sitting on the shelves or in the freezer, and at Grand Tavern this will never be the case.
What is your after work hangout?
An hour at the gym…I know, I know, it might look like I don’t go (ha!), but yes, I do one hour in the gym five days a week!
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Hot chocolate and a croissant, together or on their own, are each a guilty pleasure.
What will be your last meal on earth?
A warm baguette with butter, Spanish ham, (jamon Serrano) and a glass of wine.
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