Art At The Table: Minneapolis Chef Diane Yang Elevates Favorite Desserts By Getting Back To Modern Basics

“Keep it simple.” This has become the fundamental principle behind chef Diane Yang’s much-lauded approach to desserts. While some culinary artists may delight in producing overwrought creations, Yang prefers to highlight the simplicity of exceptional flavors, letting one idea take center stage. It’s a notion that has served Yang well, but simple doesn’t mean boring by any stretch. As executive pastry chef at Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, Yang has created a nearly endless menu of desserts that both surprise and comfort the taste buds.

She pairs the expected tartness of a citrus curd mousse with a gently sweet molasses cookie crumble to take the edge off. Her pumpkin custard would be grand on its own, but when presented with French toast and white chocolate, it’s otherworldly. Macaroons are a treat, but Yang’s cassis and raspberry specialties create a class of their own. With creations like these, it’s no wonder that Yang has earned a reputation for her modern takes on classic ideas—or that national culinary observers have noticed. In 2016, the James Beard Foundation named Yang a semi-finalist in its Outstanding Pastry Chef division. The dessert Yang presented at the Oscar-caliber awards gala—tangy grapefruit curd topped with Chantilly cream and thyme meringue—was hailed as a highlight of the night. We spoke with Yang about her culinary art and the secret Midwestern ingredient she has fallen in love with.

How do you challenge typical ideas about pastries and desserts?
We take something familiar and rethink it, based on why we like it. For example, apple pie—it’s simple, delicious and tastes great with vanilla ice cream. So if we were doing an apple pie, we’d try to reintroduce those flavors. Many of your desserts include surprising elements that are savory or bitter.

Do you see any of your dessert recipes as being particularly appropriate for other courses during the meal or on their own?
I’ve seen foie gras paired with our molasses cookies. We’ve done a cheese course and served it with our house-made pâte de fruit. So yes, some of our dessert elements can be appropriately paired with other courses, but they also definitely still hold their own.

How has your art changed over the years here in the heartland? What are some trends in general or in the Midwest that you’ve have embraced?
I think my art has changed to simplifying my palate. Simple, traditional desserts are coming back, and I’m excited about that! I’ve been trying to source more local grains, nuts, fruits and berries from the Midwest. We have so much going on here that we can use. We get these delicious hickory nuts from Amish families that have hand-cracked them themselves. They’re delicious.

You’ve worked with many acclaimed chefs. What are some of the lessons that you’ve taken from them, and what lessons do you hope to impart to others?
I’ve learned so much from everyone. I’ve been very fortunate to work alongside many great chefs. One quote I learned from chef Gavin Kaysen [owner of Spoon and Stable] is “a mistake is a missed opportunity. We don’t have to totally rethink what we are doing because we believe in what we do.” I want others to know that if you work hard and believe in what you do, the outcome will be great.

How does Spoon and Stable encourage your art and creativity?
We all work together as a team here. We have a lot of talented chefs, and we all learn from each other. When minds come together, the result is endless creativity.

So many of your creations have been appreciated by both critics and the public. Are you more nervous about the opinions of one over the other?
I’m more nervous when my family members taste my desserts!

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino

Click here for one of Yang’s dessert recipes, a delicious chocolate profiterole.

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