Every year, viewers tune into Food Network’s Halloween Baking Championship just to see what costumes Zac Young, named one of the Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America by Dessert Professionals, will be wearing. From Liza to a headless bellman to Chuckie to a sassy cupcake, Zac has worn them all, giving the looks and dishing out witty critiques by the pound. No stranger to TV, he is a thriving entrepreneur behind the scenes as the founder of both PieCaken Bakeshop and Sprinkletown Bakeshop, providing sweets and treats nationwide with his signature style. We must admit, the PieCaken has given us more than our fair share of calories through the holidays, in between, and on the weekends.
This master chef first got interested in food as a retaliation against the most ironic of childhoods – treatless and sugarless.
I have the most amazing family ever. My mother, Sue Young, is truly the kindest, most loving, most incredible mother, except for the fact that food was not love. We ate so we didn’t die. My mother was way ahead of her time in gluten-free, veganism, and farm-to-table. I mean, we’d go shop at the food co-op which now, as an adult, actually is incredible because my relationship with food is so much better now. We were eating kale and quinoa before you could pronounce it. But it was challenging growing up because no one would trade snacks with me at lunch. “I have some hummus! You guys want some hummus?” And they’d respond, “What’s that? That’s not a Dunkaroo!” So, yeah, I think baking was my final act of rebellion because honestly, nothing else worked. Crashed cars? Mom would say, “That’s fine. That’s what insurance is for.” I came out, she’s okay, “Honey, I always knew.” Then I go for, “Mom, I want to be a pastry chef.” And she retorts, “I didn’t raise you with those values.”
But my grandmother was an incredible cook. She was a Renaissance woman way ahead of her time. She owned a restaurant, owned an antique store, owned racehorses. She was a feisty, independent, slightly ornery woman but just the most amazing cook. My biggest food memories growing up were with her during the holidays, because Sue Young wasn’t cooking! “Turkey? Not in my oven!”
Despite his petite stature and frame, Zac’s personality is bigger than life. He adds the perfect dash of humor to everything he does and the constant twinkle in his eyes lets you know his mind is always cooking up something new. His way of looking at things is deliciously unique, apparently a childhood trait.
I was the kid who no one knew what to do with. In eighth-grade biology class, the teacher came in and I was dancing with the skeleton. Who does that? I was also the kid who they had to stop sending to the principal’s office because I loved the principal. I would rather be in the principal’s office than in class with my peers. I was kind of this slightly rambunctious, misfit kid. I never really related to my peers except in theater and in dance. And I was always with the adults.
Theatre was a big part of Zac’s life. He attended a performing arts high school and was singing and dancing his way through puberty. His theatrical interactions would take him from New England to New York City, not finding any passion in his college education, he left school after two years. His first professional designs were not in the kitchen, but rather for Radio City Musical Hall, by way of odd jobs.
When I was doing any form of theater, I’d always find myself in the costume shop hanging out. One day, one of them said to me, “If you’re going to hang out here, we’re going to put you to work. Here’s a seam ripper.” They started showing me how to sew and let me into their design process. I ended up spending more time in the costume shop than I did in rehearsals.
When I moved to New York, I did a couple of survival jobs. The first one, I worked coat check at Tao, in the Lindsay Lohan days. It was just crazy. I actually made more money working coat check at Tao, minute by minute, than I do now. I got a job as a busboy at Tavern on the Green. I had no clue what a busboy did, by the way, and lied my way into that job. I don’t think I ever bused a table the entire summer, which is what a busboy does. I stood there offering the tables bread. I was like, oh, this is great, I can be the bread boy and just like dole out the bread from the basket. I sold furniture, and then this opportunity came up. I knew the head of wardrobe at Radio City, she was the mother of a friend of mine, and I just ended up knocking on her door and saying, “Hey, l would love to work here on the Christmas show.” So I ended up working in the wig department.
During his Radio City time, especially during the holidays, his personal hobby would start to thrive, putting the PieCaken and Food Network on the horizon.
I really wanted to make Christmas cookies, so I went to Williams-Sonoma and bought a KitchenAid (like you do when you’re interested in something) and this basic cookie cookbook. Let me teach myself how to make cookies. I became obsessed with the creativity within the confines of science just based on the cookies. So, I would make an oatmeal raisin cookie and thought, that works really well, now what if I add blueberries? Fresh blueberries don’t work. What if I add chocolate-covered pretzels to the peanut butter cookie? Oh, this works. I ended up waking up every morning at 5:00am before a six-show day and baking a few batches of cookies and bringing them into work and pawning them off. And then it turned into people wanting to buy them for Christmas presents. Oh, cookies for cash! Radio City was winding down for the season and Sue Young, a vegan mom of all people, said, “You’re not auditioning, you’re not talking about going onto another show in wardrobe or hair, all you’re talking about are your cookies. Why don’t you go to culinary school?” For me, that never was a thought, I didn’t even know that existed. So, I went to apply to culinary school to make cookies. Well, they didn’t have a cookie program, so I ended up with pastry.
So began his time at the Institute of Culinary Education. He had found his place, all of the elements that he loved so much came together in one experience.
It’s funny, going into culinary school I knew nothing. But you also like to think that you know everything, right? So you learn one technique, and think “I know how to do this!” After the initial cockiness I found out that, no, there are seven ways to peel a grape, you need to fully immerse yourself in this. But what I fell in love with was the same thing I loved with cookies, which was this creativity within the structure of science. What I realized was (after years of therapy too), as a creative kid and person, the structure of rules, having that to play with and to push against and to bend a little bit – I need that. I crave that. It was art, design, science – all of these things that I was randomly good at came together in one field.
Zac’s first big professional food gig with the esteemed Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery was a story for the books. Not a fairy tale, mind you, but a sitcom scene.
Bouchon Bakery was opening in the Time Warner Center, this was a huge opening. I was still in culinary school, and we had to do internships at the end of culinary school. So, I got a job working front of house, working the bakery counter there so I could ingratiate myself with the organization and become the first intern there. I was awful, I was so bad. I was great at the front of the house. I can sell a baked good. But again, coming out of culinary school, I had no clue how these things operated, zero clue. On my second day there, I was taking a shortcut, clearly. I needed to soften some peanut butter, so I took the whole jar of peanut butter and popped it in the microwave. Except, when you open a jar of peanut butter, there’s a little foil ring on top. Next thing you know smoke is billowing out of the climate control chocolate room that probably cost half a million dollars to build out, and the fire alarm at Time Warner is going off. They didn’t fire me, which I am very grateful for! I could have also just walked out, but I was too dumb to do that. I thought, oh, well, I lived to scoop cookies another day.
That’s the attitude, gumption, and brightness that Zac infuses into his teachings and his mentorship. What works in the kitchen also works in life. The challenges, the mishaps, the successes, all of it. He stresses to his bakers that nothing goes according to plan, and you have to pivot and adapt and finish the dish. He went to study a bit in France, worked four years as pastry chef at Alex Guarnaschelli’s Butter restaurant in midtown New York, and started a donut revolution making The New York Times Top Ten Donuts in NYC.
Talking to Zac is like talking to that bestie who can keep you chatting at happy hour for hours. And though we’ve seen him on Top Chef: Just Desserts, Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, Worst Cooks in America, and, of course, the Baking Championships, his personal life hasn’t been in the spotlight, it’s been his skillful creations and comedic critiques. But the more he chats about his journey, the more the jokes and quips give way to the personal Zac. His successful and colorful career did not come without its bumps and bruises. Though his career is centered on food, his relationship with eating hasn’t always been the healthiest. With body image being a big part of anyone’s life, it is even more so as a part of the gay community.
It’s something that I haven’t talked about publicly. I mean, all my friends know. My weight has been up and down my whole life. I was a chunky kid through high school. (The Bar Mitzvah album – if you dig in my Instagram, you’ll see the picture.)
During my last season at Radio City, I was just disenchanted with entertainment and what I was doing. Not necessarily Radio City, but just my life in general. I stopped eating because it was the only thing I could control. It got to the point where I think I was 107 pounds. Everyone started commenting about it and I thought I was fitting into the twink archetype. My mother came to see the Christmas show and broke down in tears and said, “You don’t look healthy, something is very wrong here.”
Zac returned home with his mother for a few weeks, getting treatment from the family doctor.
I tell him I’m obsessing over calories and what I’m putting in my body because it’s the only thing I can control. Instead of going the anorexia treatment route, he went the OCD route saying, “this is where your brain is going, and this is what your focus is on.” So, once he broke that cycle and with medication and whatnot, all of a sudden, all of that obsession went away. I came around to the fact that it was the only thing I could control in my life because the rest of it wasn’t great. Then there was the question of, is it really a good idea for me to go to culinary school given all of these food issues? He said, “Let’s try it and see what happens.” And so, six months later, I had gained 15 pounds, which is good, and everything worked out well for me.
Coming out of that and recognizing my relationship with food and also pulling in some of the values that my mom gave me growing up in terms of valuing food as fuel as opposed to seeing it as – oh, isn’t this tasty. Now, I would say I have a very healthy relationship. Of course, do I overcompensate at the gym? Absolutely. Every summer I think, oh, time to break out the caftan, cut carbs and stop drinking! Those influences don’t go away. My key is obsessing over it. And when it starts to go down that spiral, it’s not worth it.
For better or for worse, food is the common denominator of our lives. That’s one of the reasons that I love what I do because it’s the universal language and it’s something we can all relate over. And when it comes to our relationship with food and our bodies, that should be the easiest of conversations. And instead, it becomes taboo. Or it becomes comparative.
From cutting it up with fellow Baking Championship judges Carla Hall and Stephanie Boswell, selling out and shipping out his signature PieCakens to a drooling nation, filling national contracts with Costco, to charming us on social media, his life is full. As he nears a milestone birthday, he looks back and reflects on how he has changed the most.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially where it comes to food. Times change, food changes, right? I feel like now I am simpler than ever. I became known for over-the-top sparkles, fire, sprinkles, and glitter. Don’t worry, that is still there. But I find myself going back to these very simple roots. What I’m baking at home or on the weekend is something that is at its core, simple. And I feel like I value the simplicity of even a slice of cake. You can hide a lot under glitter.
I’ve become much more self-aware, and a lot of that is being able to celebrate myself. Being on Bravo and Top Chef, I knew I filmed a TV show, but I never realized anyone would say anything to me about it in real life. When people start commenting, you get a little bit of an ego. I shut it off and strive to be humble. I feel like that is such a noble quality. I still have so much more to do. So why would I lead with anything that I’ve done?
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. You got a promotion at work. You started from nothing. You were the first person in your family to go to college. There are all these things to celebrate, and I feel like we should celebrate ourselves more. For me, marching into 40, I feel like I can be a little more comfortable.
Check out Zac’s goodies at PieCakenBakeShop.com and follow him on IG: @Zac_Young
Last modified: January 12, 2023