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Artist Profile: Claire J. Saffitz ’09 on Bread, Butter, and the Roads Less Traveled

Claire Saffitz ’09 Cropped
Courtesy of Emma Fishman

Claire Saffitz '09 is a renowned pastry chef, author, and YouTube personality.

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In the unfortunate event that Claire Saffitz ’09 — renowned pastry chef, author, and YouTube personality behind “Dessert Person” — could only enjoy one food for the rest of her life, she would go back to the basics.

“Probably bread and butter,” Saffitz said in an interview with The Crimson. “Every time they have, like, good butter on homemade bread or something like that, I just am convinced it’s the best thing I’d ever eat. And I don’t think I would ever get tired of it.”

Since Saffitz’s time at Harvard, much has changed — Adams House, her former residence hall, is undergoing renovations, Café Pamplona has long since closed its doors, and STEM students find themselves walking over the bridge to Allston for course meetings. Perhaps surprisingly though, even more has stayed just the same.

From dinners with her sophomore seminar leader Tim at local restaurant Daedalus to various courses with English professor Glenda R. Carpio, Saffitz’s Harvard bears a remarkable resemblance to the one loved by current students.

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Claire Saffitz

Claire Saffitz

“I had so many good memories of my time at Harvard and I loved, I loved, living in Cambridge. I just loved the kind of atmosphere and the amount of, a sort of like, cultural opportunities there,” Saffitz said.

“I regret that I actually didn’t take advantage of it more,” Saffitz finished. Despite her regrets, Saffitz is — in many respects — a Harvard success story. As a decorated pastry chef, author of two baking books (“Dessert Person” and “What’s for Dessert”), and well-known YouTube personality of Bon Appétit “Gourmet Makes” fame, Saffitz represents the joyful accomplishments that can come from pursuing the arguably unconventional path.

“I felt like at Harvard, at least at a time when I was a student, there were sort of set tracks and I didn't really fit into any of them,” Saffitz said.

When asked about her career prospects while in college, Saffitz said that she was interested in journalism, which presented some challenges: “I remember just not really feeling like I had a lot of support or like there was just sort of a kind of built in support system for people that wanted to pursue that like there was for people who wanted to go into finance or medicine or law.”

For students aspiring to medical school, graduate degree programs, or the stereotypical Harvard-to-New-York-consultant pipeline, there are often more extensively curated and visible career resources available. But for Saffitz, a Humanities concentrator whose only post-graduate North Star appeared to be the desire to do “something involving writing and literature,” the future was a bit blurrier.

Like many prospective graduates, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to be,” Saffitz said.

“There’s so many more career paths out there than is recognized by undergraduate students and that was a really important thing for me to realize,” she explained.

“I had been out of undergrad for a couple of years and I just remember thinking to myself, like, the only thing I really seem to have a sustained intense interest in is cooking and baking.”

“And I thought to myself, if I want to pursue this, I should probably explore it now.”

Going on to study at both École Grégoire-Ferrandi, a French culinary and trade school, and McGill University, where she earned a master’s degree in History, Saffitz discovered ways to combine her sustained interest in academics with food.

That being said, she acknowledges that turning one’s passion into their profession is not always sunshine and rainbows. The adage “Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” was clearly not created in the 21st century.

“It’s not necessarily always a healthy thing to tell people that, like, you have to find happiness in your work or that has to be the source of your happiness,” Saffitz said.

“My first boss said something to me very, very true. She said, if it wasn’t work, they wouldn’t pay you.”

“There’s deadlines and there’s pressure, and not every part of it is creative — like not 100 percent of what I do is being in the kitchen, you know, creating a recipe — not even close.”

“There’s a lot more that goes into work that is undoubtedly work. But if that thing can be at the core of what you do, then I think that’s great.”

Looking back on her career, more than a decade after she was one of countless black caps lining the Yard for Harvard Commencement, Saffitz seems to have made the right choice.

“I find it very reassuring that, you know, after 10 years of having this be my career, I still love it just as much now as I did, you know, before I even sort of went to culinary school,” Saffitz said, “That passion has not diminished.”

In fact, it has transformed: While she describes herself as “a bit of a social media skeptic,” her YouTube channel and Patreon allow her to engage meaningfully with audiences everywhere. By merging recipe creation with digital media, Saffitz can visually demonstrate techniques which may be restrained by print publication.

“I think teaching is what I’ve become most passionate about. You know, as far as my work, so I love being able to teach and empower homemakers through videos,” Saffitz said.

For undergraduates feeling anxious or overwhelmed by the infinite number of choices post-graduate life offers — or for those getting lost in the weeds as another spring semester breezes by — Saffitz stresses the importance of slowing down.

“The best advice that I could give someone at this stage is probably the advice that I would give myself — which is to relax a little bit, you know? You don’t have to have it all figured out,” Saffitz said.

“It’s easy to look at someone else and think that they have it all figured out. But I think everyone’s pretty much at the same point, which is like, figuring it out as they go.”

From her experience, “A lot of it made sense only in hindsight.”

In weaving through culinary school, academia, and YouTube stardom, Saffitz said, she kept coming back to one question: “Am I happy doing this right now?”

“And if the answer was yes, then I would continue to do it.”

—Arts Chair Anya L. Henry can be reached at anya.henry@thecrimson.com

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