It's pleasant to think of the world of professional bakers and pastry chefs as being as sweet as their products, but in a series of comments on her Twitter last night, Pasticceria Natalina owner Natalie Zarzour sowed the seeds of an epic feud. "Sara Levy has a ''pastry'' cookbook out.....(excuse me while i giggle...)" she tweeted about the owner of sweetshop Sarah's Candies. "Why is someone who bakes at the proficiency level of a soccer mom needed to instruct soccer moms on how to bake anyways? What an embarassment to our profession...." This level of critical candor is striking even to us, (especially considering that in a Grub Street interview just last week, Levy cited Zarzour's pastry work as some of her favorite in the city) so we threw ourselves into the midst of the fray and got in touch with both bakers.
"I just say things the way that I see them as a pastry professional," Zarzour told us. In her opinion, Sarah's Candies is "one store that I think is putting out really generic, low-quality items. I feel like it's some of the least-inspired, most generic and uninteresting stuff that I have ever seen." And she doesn't think that this kind of baking deserves a cookbook: "If people really wanted to learn about pastry, forget the books at the bookstores. Go buy a culinary school textbook. It's both a science and an art form. And I think at least a culinary school textbook, they go way into the science of it, which is the part that people at home often miss."
But the center of Zarzour's concern isn't so much the fact of the cookbook as it is a perception that visitors to Chicago will come away thinking that Levy's store — located in the tourist-trafficked Gold Coast — is the best the city has to offer. "[Sarah's Candies creates] the illusion of pastry," she told us. "It's really dumbed down stuff with low-quality ingredients, and then they use stuff like beautiful decor, excellent marketing, and nice packaging to create the illustion that you're getting something nice when you're actually getting cheap, trashy product."
So if Sarah's is sending the wrong message to Gold Coasters, would Zarzour ever consider opening up a downtown branch of Pasticceria Natalina to show the tourists how she thinks it ought to be done? "I like the idea in theory," she said. "But my stuff is already the most expensive in the city and I pay dirt-cheap rent." Moving downtown would only raise her prices, and she's unwilling to use less expensive ingredients and labor to offset the higher rent, which strikes to the core of her beef with Sarah's Candies, which she feels uses inferior ingredients: "I just really want to see the standards being raised. I want to see a greater appreciation for this art form. Everyone's afraid to start the conversation because it creates hostility — I don't care. the conversation needs to be had."
As for Levy, when we contacted her about Zarzour's concerns she brushed them off, saying only "I'm sorry to hear that she feels that way." She's trying to stay clear of the whole thing — after all, she has a cookbook to promote.