Originally from Dakar, Senegal, Executive Pastry Chef Mame Sow studied in a C-CAP program at New York’s Park West High School (now Food and Finance High School) and ultimately garnered a full-tuition scholarship to the celebrated French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) through C-CAP’s Cooking Competition for Scholarships. Interview and Story by Joyce Appelman
Following her love for pastry and the art of French baking, the native French speaker completed an internship with pastry chef extraordinaire, Florian Bellanger at Fauchon in New York City before continuing on to Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery as Chef de Partie. Sow has honed her considerable talents at the Townhouse Restaurant Group (including Aquavit, Riingo, and Merkato 55, where Marcus Samuelsson hand-selected her to be on his opening team as Pastry Sous Chef), David Burke at Bloomingdales, and with consulting chef Pichet Ong at Spot Dessert Bar where she served as pastry chef when it won Best Dessert Bar NYC 2010. Sow was Executive Pastry Chef of The Hotel on Rivington on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, home to the renowned CO-OP Food and Drink.
In 2013, Sow went to work as a Pastry Chef for Chef Alexander Smalls at The Cecil and Minton’s in Harlem. Chef Smalls was so impressed with Sow’s desserts that he promoted her to Executive Pastry Chef for his corporate entity, Harlem Jazz Enterprises, where she can be found creating desserts as sweet and sophisticated as the music itself.
Tell us a little about Cecil and Minton’s.
Minton’s Playhouse was a jazz club started in 1938. It’s been updated, but still honors its history in the ambiance, the music and the food. Our team, Executive Chef Alexander Smalls, Chef de Cuisine Banks White, and I are working in a Southern Revival style emphasizing food from the Low Country. It’s all about taking time-honored, traditional dishes, but recreating them in a contemporary way. The Cecil is named for The Cecil Hotel, once a gathering place for artists, celebrities and great musicians. Now it’s the city’s first Afro-Asian-American brasserie, headed by Executive Chef Smalls and Chef de Cuisine JJ Johnson. It’s more about celebrating food from the African Diaspora: the way that African spices, textures and cooking techniques have influenced the food of cultures around the world. They share a kitchen, so I get to create desserts for both.
You’re not yet thirty and you’re an Executive Pastry Chef. How did you get your start in the culinary world?
I was lucky to get great early training and great early experience in the kitchen. I was lucky to be a part of a C-CAP program at (now) Food and Finance High School. I interned under Gerry Hayden at Amuse and it turned into my first job. Meanwhile, I competed in the C-CAP Cooking Competition for Scholarships and won a full-tuition scholarship to the French Culinary Institute for a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts.
Describe to us one of your favorite dishes on the menu at Cecil and Minton’s right now.
I have to say; one favorite both for me and our patrons is my pineapple upside-down cake with corn cream and a blueberry compote. I’ve been told it really evokes the feeling of summer. I also have a fondness for it because it was my featured dish at C-CAP’s Annual Benefit tasting event this past March. It was wonderful to be able to give back to C-CAP in that way.
What is one of your favorite ingredients to work with?
Chocolate, definitely. It can be such a complex art form and at the same time, it’s the most basic of comfort foods.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I find myself inspired by seasonal ingredients, spices, colors and the juxtaposition of the sweet and the savory.
When you’re not creating amazing desserts, do you have any hobbies, culinary or otherwise?
There’s not a lot of time left over! However, I love studying cookbooks and I find the time to maintain a dessert blog. I also love browsing through the aisles of Kalustyans, an amazing spice store in Manhattan.