WHITPAIN — Blue Bell pastry chef Sam Nahhas’s Tiramisu and Black Forest trifles haven’t triggered global headlines like the ones that saluted Jemma Melvin’s lemon-amaretti trifle, named “Platinum Jubilee Pudding” during celebrations marking Queen Elizabeth’s 70th year as British monarch this month.
That said, the sweets Nahhas turns out for The Farmer’s Daughter and Blue Bell Country Club dining rooms – and for the numerous weddings, conferences, corporate meetings, golf outings and special events that take place at the Normandy Farm Hotel & Conference Center venues year-round – routinely rate rave reviews well beyond central Montco.
The Nahhas repertoire is eclectic and extensive, but each entry begins with local ingredients and seasonal produce “whenever possible.” On the other hand, the wizard behind the confectionery magic is far from homegrown. Nahhas grew up in Jordan – in the ancient town of Madaba – about 19 miles south of Amman, the country’s capital. Madaba is also world-famous for its exquisite mosaics. However, it was a small neighborhood bakery that energized Nahhas’ earliest artistic sensibilities.
“I used to walk by the bakery and smell all the good smells and see all the beautiful designs they made there, and that inspired me…to look all the time to see what was new, how they did it, how they changed things, their presentation,” he says. “I was always watching what they were doing there. When I grew up, I tried to do something else, but it was always in my imagination that I wanted to be a pastry chef.”
The push-pull between “something else” and Nahhas’ pastry pro imaginings played out during hotel management classes in Amman.
“When you study hotel management, they take you to all the different departments, but when I went to the pastry department, it took all my attention,” he remembers. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a living, and I took it very seriously. I did my externship at a Radisson Hotel in Amman, one of the biggest hotels in Jordan. I worked hard, and they hired me after my externship to work for them fulltime…and very quickly, I started to get promotions. Then, Le Royal hotel opened in Amman, and I went there and stayed there for three years.”
During that period, Nahhas became a regular at Jordan culinary competitions and earned honors at 2005’s prestigious World Pastry Cup in Lyon, France. By time he moved to the U.S. 12 years ago, his resume also included professional stints in France, Bahrain and Dubai. He was named executive pastry chef at the Normandy Farm complex in 2016 following positions in the Washington D.C. area and recognition as an American Culinary Federation Pastry Chef of the Year. In 2019, his talents scored “Best of the Main Line for Dessert Selection” for The Farmer’s Daughter.
Along the way, Nahhas has continually fine-tuned his ability to read a dining room and blend the art and science of his craft into consistent crowd-pleasers.
“For example, people love when you convert old desserts to new desserts,” he says. “Like, for example, apple cobbler or apple pie. How we can be creative but also follow the tradition. How we can deconstruct apple cobbler or apple pie but make it to be fine dining. People remember their grandmother made that dessert, and they loved it. So, the trick is to make the presentation spectacular but make it have the flavor of grandmother’s apple pie.”
That sort of insight is key to his staff’s ability to invent so many gluten and nut-free desserts that taste “delicious” rather than healthful. And that, Nahhas says, comes down to “using the very best ingredients, always in season…picking up the apples or the peaches or the pears myself from a local farm, where I go personally.”
Also key: “Working as a team.”
“For example, when we do a plated dessert, everybody is part of that,” Nahhas explains. “We put, maybe, 10 different plates on the table, and all of us, we start designing the plate. Sometimes it’s my opinion, and sometimes someone else on the team comes up with the best presentation. My team is seven people, and everybody has an input, a vision. Sometimes we change a plate 10 or 15 times to make it a special dessert that we are all proud of. Sometimes we even change it at the last minute because we think it can be better…even more delicious. And sometimes we might end up saying, ‘ok, we’re not going to finish it today…we’ll think about it and finish it tomorrow.
“We all inspire each other. It’s like a football team. Everybody’s position is important. And that’s not just us. I always say, we can make the best plate, but it takes everybody…from the dishwashers who make the plates clean and housekeeping that cleans the napkins to the top server…doing their job, to make people happy with the food. We’re all one circle…a team.”
Nahhas’ aesthetic is also shaped by this area’s geography.
“This is such a green, beautiful state,” he says. “The floral, the trees, the creeks, the rivers…they all inspire me. You can’t move your eyes from the road, looking at all the beautiful trees, the landscaping…everything. When I drive along the road, that’s probably my happiest time. The sky, all the green, the stars, the sun, a rainbow…everything is so beautiful.”
At press time, Nahhas’ appreciation for Pennsylvania’s landscape had generated a lineup that ran the gamut from bread pudding with berries to triple chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream and dark chocolate ganache, profiteroles with strawberry craquelin, citrus tarts with honey meringue, pineapple sponge cake with pineapple mousse and cherry cremeux and artisan batches of housemade gelato, sorbet and ice cream. His personal dessert favorite?
“I love mille-feuille,” he says. “Any bakery I go by that has that, I buy one for myself. It’s just so delicious. You’ve got the crunch from the sugar, the caramelized top, the pastry cream, the puffy dough. Yeah, I really love that.”
Nahhas has never second-guessed his career choice.
“You ask me, could I have imagined the success I’ve had when I was a kid,” he says. “Yes. Absolutely. Like they say, your eyes to the sky. Use every excuse to be successful, not every excuse to be unsuccessful…to fail. That’s how I think. I wake up every day and think, it’s gonna be a great day. Why? Because it’s sunny. Why? Because it’s raining, because it’s beautiful. I’m gonna have fun. It’s gonna be a great day. I look at every day and think this is gonna be one of the best days of my life.”