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Rochelle Koff: Tallahassee’s Kool Beanz pastry chef named semifinalist for James Beard Award

Asked about her favorite desserts to create, Gould joked “Anything I can torch.”

Sylvia Gould, pastry chef at Kool Beanz Cafe, has been named one of 20 semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Award — considered the Oscar of the food world — for outstanding pastry chef in the country.

“I’m in shock,” said Gould, when told of the honor Wednesday morning. Her reaction? “Disbelief.”

“I feel there are many others out there who deserve it more than me, but I am very humbled and very appreciative just to be nominated,” she said.

A beaming Keith Baxter, Kool Beanz’s chef/owner, said: “She is so modest and humble and so richly deserving.”

“I have been in this business for 40 years and she is far and away the most gifted and creative pastry chef I have ever worked with.”

As word got out Wednesday morning, more good news came in. The Food Network had called to invite her on the “Best Baker in America” show in March.

The announcement of semifinalists is the first major step (aside from being nominated in the first place) in the journey to win the prestigious James Beard Award. The list of semifinalists will be voted upon and limited to finalists, announced on March 25. Winners are announced at the James Beard Awards Gala in Chicago on May 4.

Many of Gould’s desserts reflect her back story. She was born in Bay City, Michigan, the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and German-American father. She attended Florida State University where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.

Baxter said that Gould first started working at Kool Beanz as a server, five months after the restaurant opened.

“When the pastry chef left, Gould said ‘I’d love to do that,” said Baxter. “She’d never done it before. I asked her ‘what makes you think you can do that?’ She had been here long enough that I thought she deserved the opportunity and I’d know pretty soon if it would work out. I never looked back.

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“She’s completely self-taught,” added Baxter.

Gould is known for creative desserts that incorporate her own cultural background as well as that of her friends.

Asked about her favorite desserts to create, Gould joked “Anything I can torch.”

Indeed, her baked Alaska is one of the most popular dishes here. She makes a vegan persimmon version as well as one with Vietnamese coffee ice cream, hibiscus syrup, kumquat and lemon peel.

Like the Kool Beanz menu, Gould’s desserts change regularly though there are a few favorites that remain staples.

“She’s so talented,” said Baxter. “We love her to death.”

Other categories for the James Beard awards include best chef, best new restaurant, outstanding restaurateur, outstanding wine program and top chefs in varied regions of the country.

Other Florida semifinalists include Antonio Bachour, Bachour, Coral Gables (in Gould’s pastry chef category),  Valerie Chang, ITAMAE, Miami and Henry Moso, Kabooki Sushi, Orlando, (both in the rising star chef of the year category). In Best Chef: South categories, Florida semifinalists include Lindsay Autry, The Regional Kitchen & Public House, West Palm Beach, Timon Balloo, Balloo Restaurant, Miami, Michael Beltran, Ariete, Coconut Grove.

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Rochelle Koff writes about food and dining at TallahasseeTable.com, on Facebook@TheTallahasseeTable and Twitter @tallytable. Reach her at TallahasseeTable@gmail.com

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