By Lisa Blake
Copper Mountain Pastry Chef Susan Vlass wins the award for best-smelling office. The petite 42-year-old ski resort bakeshop director swirls around an enormous kitchen in her white chef coat, black-rimmed glasses and Dansko clogs among sweet pumpkin and chocolate zucchini breads, mini cheesecakes and chewy, chunky magic bars.
The Pittsburgh native has held this position since 2003. She oversees five employees and resort-wide baking operations. The dessert cases at all of Copper’s coffee shops and cafeterias, the new gluten-free vegan cookies and muffins, the elaborate wedding cakes and special event donuts and parfaits, the famous banana bread French toast plated at Toast & Co., the perfectly crisp pizza dough served in Grand Hall—Vlass and her team are behind all of this deliciousness.
We asked Vlass to share a little about her life as a Copper Mountain Pastry Chef:
So, how did you land here?
I went to culinary school in Pittsburgh, had an apprenticeship at Wigwam Resort in Arizona, worked there for two years, then went to Sea Island in Georgia. That’s when I was turned onto baking; I learned everything there and have loved the bakeshop ever since.
I moved on to the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo—the world’s largest private-owned yacht club—in the bakeshop where I made showpieces and crafted dinners out on the beach. We moved to Colorado for my husband to attend the apprenticeship program at Keystone and I was the pastry chef at Keystone Ranch before starting with Copper in 2003.
Back then, they (Copper) pulled almost everything out of a box. Now, we’re nearly 90 percent scratch made. We’ve come a long way.
You average 50 hours a week. What’s a typical day look like for you?
I’m up at 5 a.m. Four times a week I go to sunrise yoga at 6 a.m. and I’m in the office by 7 a.m. checking emails and tackling paperwork. I come back up to the bakeshop and jump right into production. Today we baked cheesecakes (a batch is 130 minis), made 27 two-pound loaves of French toast, 11 dozen mini loaves of pumpkin bread and a batch of magic bars.
I’m basically a commissary. Every kitchen and coffee shop at Copper calls me by 3 p.m. and places their order for the next day. We have a scratch bread program. We make donuts overnight. We’re a 24-hour operation; this kitchen never closes.
Once we get everything baked and we’re done with production, we get everything ready for the following day. Then I end the day with an hour of office work downstairs. I usually end around 5 p.m.
What do you love most about your job?
The people I work with. We work really close with the banquet kitchen. We’ve worked together for so long, we all get along really well. I try to keep the energy light and fun, we listen to music, I don’t get upset when we mess up. It’s life, it happens.
Something no one knows about pastry chefs?
That we don’t eat pastries. Everyone is always like, ‘if I had your job, I’d weigh 1,000 pounds.’ It’s really the last thing you want. Give me a steak. Or even a Snickers.
Your favorite thing to bake?
Wedding cakes are fun to do but they’re stressful. You’re always your worst critic. I’ve done a couple of chocolate show pieces on Sea Island for Wine Week. I made a cigar box and cigars out of chocolate.
Where do you find inspiration?
Just by talking to other chefs, reading magazines, Pinterest is my downfall—brides love it, I could go both ways with it. I Google what’s trending for pastries. I visit other bakeshops.
How about the altitude? Still a baking challenge for you?
It’s still a challenge. I have a formula where I increase and decrease certain ingredients. It’s a challenge to introduce new recipes.
You have a four-year-old son. How much does he love having two chef parents?
He loves to bake at home, help crack the eggs and mix the dough for pizza. We tell him ‘that’s great, but you’re not allowed to be a chef when you grow up!’