Amy Machnak, 26, is the head pastry chef at the popular Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco. She took over last year from Heather Ho, considered one of the premier pastry chefs in the Bay Area, after Ho left to become executive pastry chef at Windows on the World, atop the World Trade Center. Ho, 32, died in the terrorist attacks. Those at Boulevard were devastated. The restaurant organized fund-raisers to establish a scholarship for pastry chefs at the Culinary Institute of America. Ho, described as a genius of the sweet tooth and a dynamo, became more of a fixture at Boulevard than ever. The staff is still talking about her, and her picture is on everyone’s desk.
“My first day was her last day. She was testing recipes, playing around with a new dessert. I thought: ‘How strange that she is leaving and going to New York for this really great job, and she’s still testing recipes. Obviously, she’s not going to put anything on the menu here because today is her last day.’ But I look back at it now and I understand that she was just that creative. I don’t think her mind ever stopped. That was my only real impression of her because I never really spoke to her. I never saw her again. That was May 31.
Starting here was horrible. All of my co-workers were very judgmental. She was such a strong individual, such a strong presence. People have told me that we are so completely different, in personalities, in the way we do things. I kept telling myself: ‘You know what, you have some really big shoes to fill. She was No. 1, and you’ve never even done this before.’ I just told myself that I needed some time, and that after six months people would get used to me and they would forget about her. Four months later, Sept. 11 happened.
Everybody was talking about it. We were hearing one minute that they had found her and another minute that they hadn’t. Time just went on, and I think they assumed a couple weeks later that, like a lot of people there, she would never be found.
I always felt like I was being compared to her. My grandmother said it was just like [President] Kennedy. She hated Kennedy. She said he was in the back of a convertible in Dallas, and now half the junior highs in America are named after him.
In the last couple months, things have definitely gotten better. A lot of it was my own insecurity. I was waiting for people to judge me. That’s what we do: We cook food and we let people decide whether they like it or not.
I don’t think people compare me to her anymore. I think a lot of the wait staff has come around and realized that I have a totally different style, and that I’m coming from a completely different point of view as far as my food, and that although my food may not be better or worse than Heather’s, it’s just different.
I think it’s strange that a woman I never knew has affected my life so much, in so many ways, for so long. But I think of this as my challenge.
I’m not planning on leaving any time soon. I enjoy working here. It took me so long to get really comfortable and feel like I’m happy and appreciated and feel relaxed enough to do as much as I can talent-wise.
We had peach and blueberry pie last month. It was really good.”
As told to Scott Gold