Great food creates memories. Much like the lyrics of a favorite song, a great dish can harken you back to a memorable meal filled with laughter and shared with those you love.
Think Proust and his famous Madeleine, and the river of memories that flowed when the tea-soaked cookie touched his palate.
Pastry Chef Sylvia Gould of Tallahassee’s beloved Kool Beanz Café has been creating countless memories for her customers through her wildly innovative desserts, but none has yet to match the one her desserts gave her on the morning of February 26, 2020.
“Mom, Mom! If you can hear me, I’ve been nominated for an award!” she exclaimed on a call to her mother. Sylvia had just learned this was no ordinary award and that she was one of 200 semifinalists from around the country to be recognized for the prestigious James Beard Award, considered to be the nation’s highest culinary honor.
Her nomination appeared in the field of Outstanding Pastry Chef, among the names of some of the country’s most revered pastry purveyors.
While chefs in culinary capitals like New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans are perennially recognized with this accolade, this is the first time that one of Tallahassee’s own has ever received a nomination.
“I feel like I’m living someone else’s life,” the diminutive chef recently confided, “I keep waiting for someone to call and tell me they’ve made a mistake.”
The first thing that strikes you upon meeting Sylvia is her bright smile. Some people shed light upon the world, and the joy that she brings to her work shines through brightly. What some may mistake for shyness, others know to just be Sylvia’s deep humility. She’s uncomfortable talking about herself, preferring to express herself through the colors and flavors of her confectionary creations.
Sylvia is an artist and self-taught pastry chef. Keith Baxter, Kool Beanz’s longtime proprietor, recalls first hiring her as a server who quickly became a customer favorite. After six or seven years as a server, Baxter’s pastry chef left and Sylvia approached him with a unique proposition. “I think I can do this,” she claimed, confident she could fill the restaurant’s pastry chef’s shoes. His business instincts and her lack of pastry experience initially made him weary, “but she’d been here so long and done such a wonderful job, I thought I owed her the chance.”
Sylvia showed an immediate flair for desserts. His charge to her was simple, “I don’t care when you work, or how many hours you work, I need five different desserts on the menu every day, and she has never failed to deliver that.”
Sylvia’s own food memories transport her back to her childhood and to growing up with her Vietnamese mother, relatives, and her German grandmother. She recalls her mother’s colorful desserts and dishes, both spicy and sweet, alongside other American staples (“Rice porridge with eggs and dried shrimp to Cheerios and milk”) and how she and her family would pick fruit on the family farm in Bay City, Michigan, for sauces and desserts.
She has always loved the outdoors, going out for runs on Tallahassee’s Greenway and for inspiring hikes in the Panhandle’s nature preserves. Flora and fauna continue to be constant sources of inspiration for her art and cuisine, and the colors of nature pervade throughout her nostalgic desserts.
Additionally, the ever-growing influence of Instagram also inspires her, the bright rainbow of foods emanating from San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn and State Bird Provisions among some of her favorites.
“She understands the alchemy of sugar, flour, eggs and yeast,” says Baxter, who considers Sylvia to be like a sister. “When I talk to her about desserts, the way she describes them to me, it’s like a science project.” While there are no Bunsen burners in her kitchen, she does relish using her culinary torch to caramelize sugar and brown her baked meringues. “It’s my favorite,” she admits with a giggle.
Sylvia’s devotion to her loyal customers goes beyond just creating and plating the constantly rotating menu of desserts. She keeps a running list of clients that she personally calls or texts to alert them when their favorite dessert will be available on that week’s menu. “I often ask regulars or visitors if there is a memory dessert or something from their childhood they would like to see,” she says, “It educates me and gives me a glimpse into their world to see them light up talking about it.”
Not wanting any of her customers to ever feel left out or overlooked, she also creates vegan-friendly and gluten-free options into her weekly offerings, along with savory fusion desserts for those with less than sweet teeth (The coconut cassava cake holds a special place in her heart, which showcases Vietnamese flavors).
The James Beard Award has been known to change the trajectory of careers and bring global fame. Sylvia does not have any big city aspirations, although she does confess to having dreams of owning a little place of her own where she could make Bahn-Mi’s and her favorite Vietnamese desserts.
Not long after the nominations were announced, The Food Network came calling, asking Sylvia to consider appearing on their “Best Baker in America” show. She could barely hear the person on the other end of the phone amid the noise of evening dinner service and the loud hum of the kitchen’s dishwashing machine.
“I’ve been so busy, I didn’t call them back. I’ve probably missed the opportunity to be on it,” she said (as Baxter slapped his head in disbelief, both laughing). One suspects this is just the first of many opportunities that await her and her growing fame.
“I hope customers come away with a sense of play and, maybe, even mischief,” Sylvia confides, “But most importantly, a connection to those around them when eating my desserts, as it is through their own shared history and memories and that of my co-workers, family, friends and nature that I am able to create.”
Sylvia Gould creates memories. Those memories are covered in rum sauce, hibiscus syrup and guava cream, and filled with horchata ice cream or an Earl Grey infused chocolate ganache; they are adorned with bright star fruit, candied rose petals and luscious berries providing splashes of color; they surprise you with savory hints of tarragon and peppercorn, with spice and saltiness and heat; they crunch with puffed rice and with sesame seed tuiles.
The memories Sylvia will gift you by way of her outstanding desserts will linger with you, and those you are fortunate enough to share them with, long after your last sweet bite.
Gus Corbella is the Senior Director of Government Law & Policy at Greenberg Traurig-Tallahassee. He is the son of a former chef and restaurateur, and an avowed foodie. He always researches where he is going to eat and drink first, prior to making any other travel plans.