Pastry chef specializes in humble pie.....
By Andy Malby...Three Forks Herald
Mary Shaffer may not be the only pastry chef in a 100-mile radius with degrees in sociology and psychology, but like some with college degrees and oodles of experience, she’s not full of herself.
In fact, getting her to talk about herself is no easy task. For the humble Shaffer, her skills in the kitchen are all about one thing — pleasing customers.
“As simple as this might sound, I want my customers to feel valuable,” she said. “I want you as a human being to be validated. If that’s through food, I’ll make it for you. If pecan pie makes you feel whole, I’ll make you a pecan pie.
“The customer is my priority; it’s the customer that matters,” she added. “Food has always given us comfort; that has never changed. I want to give my customers comfort. I want them to know they’re special.”
Shaffer, who lives in Manhattan and works as the pastry chef at Pompey’s Grill in the Sacajawea Hotel, has been cooking in the Gallatin Valley for 30 years. She brings a rare passion to her work that shows in everything she puts out.
During a recent brunch, the Sac offered more than 25 hand-fashioned pastries and desserts, from creme brulee to croissants, muffins to cheesecake, all made with love by Mary Shaffer and the crew at the Sac.
“Made with love” is no cliche, either. According to Shaffer, love is the secret ingredient.
It was that attitude that took Shaffer to Africa for three years, where she cooked for orphans and widows in Uganda, Nigeria and Egypt.
“I always said I was going to feed someone who was really hungry,” she said “The kids there ... all they did was be born. I have a totally different attitude now than I did before going to Africa. That’s where my heart is.”
Shaffer is well read, and several times during a recent interview quoted from books and articles about chefs, cooking and the importance of food — not only for sustenance but for comfort.
“Food is an art. The table is an altar. Service is a gift,” she said, quoting wartime writer M.F.K. Fisher, author of “How to Cook Like a Wolf” and other titles.
It’s a philosophy Shaffer said is shared by the entire staff at Pompey’s Grill, from executive chef Matt Israel on down.
“We try,” she said. “I guess that’s what I like most about working here. Matt really tries to put customers first.”
Shaffer also credits the other members of the team at the Sac for the ultimate success of the restaurant.
“You have to have a team,” she said. “Everybody here dabbles in a little bit of everything. There’s a camaraderie. Everybody’s got to be on the same page to make it work.”
Shaffer, now in her 60s, still works long days, especially getting ready for the Sac’s big brunch weekends, which happen every other Sunday this time of year. But she has no plans to hang up her craft anytime soon.
“It’s all about whether you still love it or not,” she explained. “You can tell if your love is going into it or if it’s just coming off your hands. That’s when it’s time to go — get the hell out because the customer is going to know it too.”
So for now, she’s staying put, getting up at 2 a.m. Sunday to drive to Three Forks and put her best effort into her trade.
“This is the best thing I know how to do,” Shaffer said of her cooking. “It’s my gift to you. I’m trying to present that to you in the best way I know how.”