No Piece of Cake

Lura Poland picked up wisdom the hard way before getting her dream job at Sage

Ten years ago, Lura Poland was taking tubes off a conveyor belt at a factory in Dover, N.H. Today, she’s among the rising-star pastry chefs in Las Vegas, working at Aria’s hot new restaurant, Sage.

What was her bridge to a successful, exciting career? A spam e-mail from the Atlantic Culinary Academy. It made her think, “That looks like a lot of fun … and it’s just down the street.” So she signed up. Still, “I never thought I’d make money cooking.”

For most of the next 10 years, her skepticism seemed valid. Her first post-grad gig was at a New Hampshire bistro on the brink of collapse. “It was the worst job of my life,” she says. But she learned a lot by helping run the short-staffed kitchen and creating a new dessert menu. After the bistro closed, she worked for a chain restaurant and gained three years’ experience in the kitchen, progressing from line cook to lead cook.

One day a friend from Las Vegas convinced her to move. They got in her Ford Taurus, which was “packed with so much stuff we blew a tire,” and drove out. After much persistence, she landed a low-level cooking position at a major Strip hotel. “The work was mind-numbingly dull,” she recalls. “But I learned a lot about how not to do ice creams and sorbets.”

Seven Things Lura Poland Can’t Live Without

My black hoodie sweatshirt. I love it to death and wear it almost everywhere. I am dreading the day it falls apart.

Geraldine, my car. We traveled all the way from New Hampshire to here together. That kind of thing builds a relationship. She’s always been steady and reliable for me, which is more than I can say for some past relationships.

My camera. I really enjoy taking pictures—of places, animals and, of course, food. I take a lot of pictures of things I am doing in the kitchen and post them on my Twitter feed. They help serve as mental notes.

Coffee. I am not a morning person.

Restaurant supply stores. I can get lost in one for hours.

Disneyland annual pass. My fiance and I spend a lot of time there together. We are both big believers in staying young at heart. And we really, really like Thunder Mountain.

Her sense of humor. If I didn’t have the ability to see the absurdity in even some of the most serious situations, I think I would have cracked a long time ago.

Although the experience was valuable, she felt very out of place. The feeling must have been mutual, because after six months, just before Christmas 2007, she was asked to resign. “I thought I got fired because I sucked,” she says. “It was the worst Christmas of my life.”

In the new year she signed on with the Venetian’s newly announced Restaurant Charlie, which would quickly become one of the city’s best restaurants. “I was a peon, and the pastry chef was demanding, prone to mood swings. It was awful.” Eventually, though, Poland came to appreciate the chef’s relentless perfectionism. “I am grateful,” she says, “because every now and then I’ll catch myself doing something lazy and hear his voice inside my head, and I’ll be, like, ‘No, I can’t do it that way, I’ve got to do it right.’”

When the chefs left, she had the opportunity to work under Vannessa Garcia, who, later that year, would be nominated for the James Beard Rising Star award. Although the Restaurant Charlie earned a Michelin star, it was super expensive and ultimately had trouble making ends meet. So, Poland was soon out of a job again.

The next chapter in her career began with a mistake. Nearly broke, she answered an ad on Craigslist for an “assistant pastry chef” at a new restaurant—except she thought the ad meant “assistant to the pastry chef.” The job was actually for pastry chef who’d be assistant to the executive chef. “If I’d known,” she says, “I never would have applied.”

But that executive chef, Richard Camarota, seemed to like her, so she decided to finish the application process. “I did two dishes off the tentative menu, plus a dish of my own, a goat-cheese cheesecake with honeyed figs and honey ice cream,” she says. “They said it was really good. They especially liked the textures of the ice creams.” What did Poland think? “I totally thought I blew it, I thought they were going to hate me because I’m such a perfectionist. And my beignets looked like turds.”

Soon after, Camarota called to say she was hired. “I said, ‘Really?’ But I tried to play it cool, keep it professional, so I said, ‘Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.’ I didn’t want them to think I was easy. Then I went home and started screaming, ‘I got the job!’”

It took her awhile to believe it. “It only started to seem real when I started doing menu development, maybe the first time Shawn [McClain, Sage’s owner-chef] showed up at my house to do a tasting.”

Credit: Anthony Mair

She still has trouble believing her good fortune, given all that she’s been through. “I thought I would die in a cardboard box,” she says. Instead, she’s living happily ever after—engaged, with a new home and a full-blown career, not to mention a steady paycheck.

“My life is pretty freaking good.”

Her Latest Creation

Lura Poland intended to update Shawn McClain’s citrus panna cotta, but ended up creating a new dish instead. “I added some rhubarb. Then we got some strawberries from Harry’s Berries—they do the best strawberries—and I thought, ‘How cool would it be if it was a strawberry rhubarb panna cotta?’ You never see that.” Now you do. Sage’s newest dessert also includes honey orange juice, sparkling wine jelly and honey shortbread, topped with a quenelle of strawberry wine sorbet.