Cher Harris, executive pastry chef at The Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pa., won an impressive honor earlier this year when she was named Pastry Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation during its 2016 Cook. Craft. Create. Convention & Show in Phoenix. Harris, who qualified for the competition by winning the Northeast Region Pastry Chef of the Year title, is no stranger to the competitive circuit.
“Competing in culinary events provides an outlet to not only enhance your cooking skills, but it also pushes your endurance and tests your patience,” Harris said. “I do enjoy it, but I need a break from it.”
Harris’ sentiment is understandable, as she has spent the last three years competing in various cooking competitions in the U.S. and overseas, and has the recognition to show for it. In 2014, she was awarded the “Pastry Queen” title at the Ladies’ World Pastry Championship in Rimini, Italy, and she was recognized by Dessert Professional Magazine as one of the Top 10 Pastry Chefs in North America.
When Harris is not snatching up awards, she is hard at work at The Hotel Hershey, which is sort of the creme de la creme of dessert-forward hotel properties in the U.S.—a pastry chef’s dream gig.
“I’ve always been a fan of the town of Hershey,” she said. “I grew up not very far from here, it’s a magical place. The Hotel Hershey is the pinnacle, and to get here and work here was a desire of mine.
Not one to sit still for too long, Harris said she enjoys trying out new recipes and ideas for creative desserts to add to the menu, though she quickly learned you don’t mess with the Chocolate Cream Pie.
“We kind of get tired of making it,” Harris said with a laugh. “My goal is to try and entice guests with other more creative options. We’re always trying to challenge ourselves to try something new.”
In her role as executive pastry chef, Harris and her team oversee the dessert side of the banquet menu for groups averaging in the 150- to 200-person range. The Hotel Hershey’s absolute max is 500 attendees.
“There are times we have groups that want us to introduce what we made for them and be a part of their meal, especially if we have a course meal,” Harris said. “We do some fun activities, like a wine and chocolate pairing, we do cupcakes and cocktails, and that tends to be more interactive.”
The Hotel Hershey also hosts Chocolate-Covered February each year, a month-long celebration in honor of all things chocolate. The annual event tends to cater to the leisure side, but groups can also join in on the fun. During the celebration, Harris arranges a “full chocolate buffet,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
“Everything [on the buffet line] has chocolate in it—hot chocolate, chocolate dessert, everything,” Harris said.
Working with specialized groups can pose its own unique set of challenges. When asked to elaborate on the most challenging or bizarre request she’s been tasked with, Harris quickly came up with an answer.
“We hosted a European manufacturer of vacuum cleaners and they wanted their vacuum cleaner replicated in chocolate, life-size,” Harris said. “It was a lot of work, but in the end it was a lot of fun.”