By Renee Brincks
At Kitchen Table, the culinary gathering spot that's central to the 1440 Multiversity campus, Pastry Chef Nicole Sanchez spins seasonal ingredients into exquisite treats. In the summer, she bakes with peaches, apricots and other stone fruits grown in the on-site Joanie's Garden. Local squash and apples star in autumn dishes. Sanchez also works year-round with Campus Gardener Mike MacDonald, sourcing special requests like chamomile, lemon verbena and various citrus fruits.
When she considers her favorite creations for 1440 guests, however, Sanchez sticks with the classics.
"Cookies and ice cream are probably my favorites," she says. "Growing up, I always loved having them as a treat, so it's really fun to make those now. There are endless possibilities, with different flavors and different combinations."
Sanchez didn't set out to be a chef. In fact, she entered Cabrillo College in Aptos, Calif., on a marine biology track. Because the program carried an intense course load, Sanchez decided to take some fun classes before diving into requirements.
"I took a bookmaking class. I took a philosophy class. I took history of jazz, and I took an intro to culinary arts class. I just thought it would be a good life skill, but I ended up loving that one," she says.
The creativity and expressiveness of culinary work surprised Sanchez, who didn't grow up cooking with family members. The more she learned, the more the field felt like a good long-term fit. Ultimately, she traded her marine biology plans for cooking coursework.
Sanchez started her career with a focus on savory foods. However, when a pastry job opened at Oswald, a Santa Cruz restaurant she admired, she applied. Sanchez thought she'd bake until there was a chef's role at the downtown spot, which serves California fare. But that changed as she learned pastry station basics.
"I ended up loving to bake. I had done some baking in school, but it felt different in a restaurant. I loved creating sweet things and ice cream and cookies, and learning to create recipes was really fun. That was my first pastry job and I've been baking ever since," she says.
Sanchez later helped open a bakery in Felton, crafted from-scratch scoops at the Penny Ice Creamery, and worked at Companion Bakeshop before landing at Manresa Bread. The high-profile bakery started in the kitchen of Chef David Kinch's three-Michelin-star Manresa restaurant, and it's known for hand-shaped loaves of bread made with local ingredients and flour milled on site.
As she made her mark on well-known regional menus, Sanchez also connected with 1440 Executive Chef and Culinary Director Kenny Woods on social media. Woods contacted her when he needed a pastry chef, and they met to discuss the opportunity.
Though she expected to refer someone else for the role, that conversation changed Sanchez's mind. She was happy at Manresa Bread. Still, the opportunity to learn new baking methods and get creative in the kitchen appealed to her.
"At 1440, we have Joanie's Garden and we have all this equipment. You can explore so many different techniques. You can bake anything you want to try, because we're not limited to a set menu that customers have come to expect," she says. "I felt like this place could be a culmination of all the things that I had already learned. Plated desserts are where I started, and then I got into bakeries and production and ice cream. Here, it felt like I could do all of those, while also having room to learn new things."
Sanchez joined the 1440 team in October 2019. Today, as pastry chef, she makes desserts for lunches, dinners and private events. She refined a recipe for the house-made sourdough bread served on campus. She's also started baking local ingredients into each loaf.
"We got a grain mill a few months ago, so now we buy wheat berries from local farms and incorporate some of that flour into the bread. The salt comes from Big Sur. We're trying to make things as local and organic as possible," Sanchez says.
Lately, Sanchez has started experimenting with fermentation, as well. She makes her own koji, a strain of Aspergillus oryzae mold used in miso and sake. She also ferments soybeans to create tempeh, a protein that's featured in 1440's plant-based dishes.
Though mastering fermentation requires a different skill set than crafting the perfect pastry, Sanchez welcomes the challenge. In a previous bakery role, she would marvel at a colleague who spent the workday canning, pickling and making preserves. Those interests resurfaced during the pandemic, when, like many people, Sanchez spent some time contemplating her future career goals.
"Early on, I moved from savory cooking to pastry. Now, I'm working in pastry but with this fermentation focus. It's an unexpected combination, but Kenny and the leadership team here help create opportunities. If you show that you're interested in something, they want to foster those talents and help you learn and grow and develop," Sanchez says.
Understanding both the pastry and savory sides of cooking have helped her bridge gaps and bring new ideas to 1440's Kitchen Table. In her shift toward fermentation and preservation, for example, Sanchez is moving the culinary program closer to its zero-waste goals. Ingredients that don't get used at peak freshness might be turned into jams or vinegars, rather than being discarded. She's also started crafting house-made kombucha, and she's working to introduce seasonal drink specials in the campus cafe.
"This is an ever-changing place. If you have something new to bring to the table, there's always room for it," Sanchez says. "The team here is open and receptive to ideas that will make things better, and that's really different from places where the rules are the rules."
While working at 1440 allows Sanchez to pursue her passions and personally impact the organization, it has also changed how she views the relationship between working and living.
"Restaurant kitchens can be really taxing, and this is such a different kind of place. There are so many opportunities to step away and have more balance here," she says.
When she talks with individuals interested in joining the 1440 team, she emphasizes both that balance and a true sense of camaraderie across the campus.
"You have to see it to understand it. I just feel like we all get along, and everyone genuinely cares about each other," Sanchez says. "I also haven't experienced anywhere else this level of balance between working hard and being able to take a walk or take a breath when you need to. This is a really great place to be."