Setting the goal

The term “annual review” doesn’t garner the same excitement as “staff party.” While I had attended staff parties with regularity throughout my career, I had honestly never had a real review until I came on board with One Off Hospitality in 2012 at Blackbird. I find the these reviews mildly exhausting to perform for my own staff of 7, I can only imagine the time and energy it takes to perform such reviews for an entire company. Which probably explains why I hadn’t really received reviews before.  At One Off Hospitality, each review begins with the reviewee presenting a list of goals for themselves inside and outside the restaurant, as well as for their department, and for their own teams. Then, one by one, each partner and chef speaks their mind, addressing the goals, and discussing points of improvement for the next year.

One of the most valuable tools I’ve received from this process is learning how to set a goal. I really thought I knew how. I’d certainly used the words before. But what I really knew how to do was dream up ideas, say “I really should” or “One day I wanna” or “I wonder” or “wouldn’t it be cool if” or even “if it were me I’d”. But these weren’t goals, they were just possibilities. I didn’t know I had to take a possibility and set it into existence by putting pen to paper to turn it into a goal. To bring it into the physical world, let it look back at me, and refine it in a way that is tangible and presentable to another person. I’ve come to realize, a goal can exist, floating around in my pastry life, dodging in and out of conversation, living on a cloud of possibility. But until I put it into words and set them into existence, these untethered goals are almost as useless to me as not having a goal at all.

I ran my early career, as many chefs do, on a wild cyclone of constantly spinning possibilities. I used to imagine my creative process like this. I would read and eat and talk and watch and smell and listen and absorb ideas. Each thing I absorbed became a kite with a long string, just blowing around in the gusty winds of my brain. When I needed to collect ideas for a dish or a concept, I would look up into the sky, and start pulling, holding a tangle of ideas by their kite strings. I’d let a storm rage in my mind, for weeks on end, grabbing one string with a “this kind of tasted like….” and another by thinking “I saw this one time I wonder…” releasing a kite back into the storm when I saw another possibility that tickled me more.

At first this process was invigorating, all that possibility swirling furiously around inside me fueled me with so much energy! Enough energy to propel me through the unharnessed system I had developed until finally after spinning possibility after possibility around in my head, grabbing ideas and letting them go, I managed to squeeze the tiniest something out into action.

At some point, this process began to drain more energy than it generated, and when that happened, anxiety and stress sunk in and became my new source of fuel. I spent each day forcing myself through the storm, pushing and pushing, grinding down my sanity, squeezing out these tiny little actions from a hurricane of possibility.

I had become so used to the stress, the grind, that I couldn’t see any other way. I often felt like I needed to quit cooking all together, like it was too much and I couldn’t hack it, then would feel guilty for feeling that way when I loved my job so much. When I’d become paralyzed by the constant motion of untethered possibility I’d lay on the floor in the private dining room at Blackbird, with a towel over my eyes to block out the world and forge the storm to grasp just one single idea to work with.

I don’t know when the simple yearly goal sheet my bosses had me put together started to seep into my daily creative process. But at some point, I stepped away from the stormy skies and found a shelter in One Off’s guidance. Pin a few ideas down. Take one action at a time. Use the limited time I have to grow each goal into maturity. Then move on.

So, when I sat down to my annual review this year, I had a list of goals, some small, some lofty, and suggested actions I can take to follow through. “I want to use more grains” changed from swirling thoughts of cornmeal and amaranth and flavor flours and ancient flat breads to “look through each of our existing recipes to find places where the flavors of grains would enhance the end product.” and “research and test grain recipes written by other authors.” and even “work with Greg Wade our head baker to source grains from the farms and millers he uses for the breads at Publican Quality Bread.”

Within two weeks of my review, the phrase I had uttered for 9 months “I would like to use more interesting grains in our baked goods” suddenly became a locally milled cornmeal muffin with michigan cranberries. The actions fell right into place once I set the goal, quickly bringing in cornmeal from a pair of mills, as well as using the small mill we have at the bakery to mill our own dried corn. We tested a few other peoples recipes, decided honey would add moisture and enhance the corn, and I consulted Greg the baker who suggested making a cornmeal porridge first before mixing the grain. Add a handful of the cranberries, and viola! Possibility had become reality.

The first few tries were dry, or crumbly, or nubby, or a little gritty. But one simple action after the next, and I was on my way to reaching my goal. This is a long term goal, bringing more grains into our desserts, something that we could do for years and years before the goal reaches maturity. And I relish this, energized the clear skies of my newer process and the real possibility that can come from setting a goal.

RECIPE: CORNMEAL CRANBERRY MUFFINS

 

 

 

A Long-winded Post on Pacojets

pacojet

If you want to start a lively debate, put a savory chef and a pastry chef in a room and bring up Pacojets.

Invented in Switzerland in the 1980s and made available to the U.S. market in 1992, a Pacojet is “a dynamic professional kitchen appliance that makes it easy to prepare high-quality dishes while saving time, labor and reducing food waste.” In most kitchens in this country, though, it is simply a $5,000 ice cream machine. Whereas traditional machines rely on a liquid base, a frozen chamber, and a sharp, horizontally rotating blade, a Pacojet vertically shears a frozen base into ice cream or sorbet.
The metal containers the liquid base is frozen in are referred to as beakers and each safely holds 1 liter of product. At $50 apiece, however, most kitchens freeze their base in plastic pint delis, then transfer the puck to a beaker when needed. N.B. If you ever find yourself on the phone with a representative from Pacojet, the answer to “do you only freeze your liquid base directly into the beakers?” is always “yes.”

It should be clear from the preceding paragraph that Pacojets are not practical for restaurants with high nightly cover-counts. If you’re blowing through 4 quarts each of several different kinds of ice creams and sorbets a day, a traditional upright machine is the way to go. Pacojets, therefore, have found a home around the world in fine-dining and tasting-menu-only restaurants.

The control panel on a Pacojet allows the user to select the number of “layers” of base they want to spin. (For reference, a pint deli of base knocked into a beaker usually reads as six layers, so one layer is roughly a third of a cup of spun ice cream.) In an enclosed kitchen, this means that the pastry station can spin ice cream to order, or nearly to order, and serve diners a product that is incredibly dense and smooth. And for kitchens with a minimal or non-existent pastry staff, there is no risk of over-spinning and buttering an ice cream base.

Both the older and newer Pacojet models have two settings for the amount of air they incorporate into an ice cream. On the older Pacojet, there is a small blue button that when held down while the product is spinning sets the overrun to zero. Conversely, if let alone and only used at the end of the spin cycle to release the built up pressure, the ice cream will by default be somewhere in the ball park—this can depend on how sharp your blade is, whether or not the blade’s RPM have started to slow down, and how rusted the machine’s shaft is—of 80% overrun (meaning 40% air). If you’re in a restaurant where the executive chef has a fetish for absurdly dense ice cream (so, most restaurants) and don’t want to spend the time mid-service holding down a button, there is a small hole below the pressure release that a paperclip or similarly thin/sturdy object can be inserted into to lock the machine on zero overrun.

I personally prefer ice cream and sorbet made via the common turbine method, but the Pacojet, like hydrocolloids or liquid nitrogen, is excellent for creating components on a dessert that can’t be achieved in any other way. The most well known example of this in the U.S. is probably Matt Tinder’s lime marshmallow from Coi. Back in 2012, Tinder developed a technique that involved making a gelatin-set marshmallow, blending it into a liquid with lime juice and salt, freezing the liquid in a Pacojet beaker, and then spinning on full overrun. He served this in a bowl with sorbet and used a white-hot piece of charcoal to singe the top. The dish, predictably, blew people’s minds. No one had ever eaten something that was the texture of marshmallow base before it set and also freezing cold. The Pacojet was an integral part of this dish, because the “marshmallow” had to be served within minutes of being spun, or the gelatin would re-set the mixture into a chewy puck. We’re doing a variation on Tinder’s technique at Smyth, replacing the marshmallow with a Swiss meringue and lime juice with yogurt. It’s delicious, and while it isn’t ice cream, it is something I just couldn’t do without a Pacojet.

Two other hacks I’d be remiss not to point out. First, for staff meal, Pacojets are excellent as instant-whipped-cream makers. Fill a beaker halfway with cream, spin, release the pressure, and spin a second time. Done. Second, Pacojets can turn a beaker of neutral ice cream base into a flavored one. Chopped fruit, herb purees, chunks of honeycomb—you can spoon a few tablespoons of almost anything onto a frozen beaker of base and spin it. (If you want strawberry ice cream on your menu I strongly suggest making a strawberry ice cream base, but on-the-fly this is a good technique to know about.)

This same fact—that a paco can paco anything—has led to a lot of ice cream and sorbet “recipes” that in no way, shape or form resemble traditional ones, but work within the confines of this specific machine. While staging I’ve come across sorbet bases stabilized entirely with gelatin or guar, ice creams that have such a high amount of brown butter emulsified into them that they would instantly break in bench-top machines, and all manner of recipes that were created “to taste” by savory chefs and have absolutely no regard for fat/sugar/milk solid ratios. “Keep adding xanthan,” is a line I’ve heard one too many times. But if it (a) tastes good and (b) spins nicely, it goes on the menu.

If you work with a Pacojet that hasn’t broken yet (it will), here’s a quick tutorial on remedying the situation. At some point your Pacojet will either a) process a beaker all the way to the bottom layer and then inexplicably stop or b) start processing a beaker and stop mid-spin. Both of these scenarios can happen because of the density of the product you’re spinning (too dense), the temperature of the base (too cold), or because the planets are simply out of alignment. First, grab a Philips head screwdriver and remove the four screws holding down the black plastic panel on top of the Pacojet. You’re now at the choose-your-own-adventure portion of this tutorial: you’ll be looking at a secondary metal panel, held in place by six screws. Five of these are visible—the sixth is covered by a small red piece of plastic. By breaking the red seal, you are voiding the owner’s warranty on the machine. I’m going to assume that you’re in a situation where you need to say “f*ck it” and go on with your day and have broken the seal and removed the sixth and final screw. Remove the metal panel. Below, among other things, are two gears that have a thick rubber band stretched around them. Remove the band and begin rotating the larger gear counter-clockwise. There’s also a white, rectangular piece of plastic above the gears—if for any reason this is spinning, hold it in place while rotating the larger gear (this is an RPM counter and letting it spin while manually bringing up the shaft is a bad idea.) Once the larger gear locks into place, your blade will be fully raised. Congratulations!

To prevent the above from happening for as long as possible, clean your Pacojet! Even if the restaurant you’re at decided to buy a used one that didn’t come with the cleaning parts (a green rubber seal that stands in for the typical black one, a plastic, three-armed blue brush apparatus) you can still go through the three part cycle once a day or week or month. First, paco a beaker of hot water. Second, paco a beaker of soapy water. Finally, paco one last beaker of hot water to rinse the shaft. Here’s the VERY IMPORTANT part: during all of these spins, you MUST hold down the blue pressure release the entire time. Any pressure that builds up in the beaker while you’re spinning a liquid will force that liquid up into the body of the machine, rusting everything it comes in contact with.

Over the years I’ve also seen chefs try a few techniques that in hindsight were just terrible ideas. You should not make large batches of chicken liver mousse, freeze it in pint delis, and then paco a deli each day for service. The smell and taste of the liver impregnates itself into the plastic Pacojet components and is almost impossible to wash out. You should also not fill a beaker with chopped scallops, freeze it solid, and then paco it three consecutive times in an attempt to make a spreadable scallop paste. On the third spin your Pacojet blade will lock up in the dense, frozen, sticky scallop blob you have created and will fry the machine’s hardware. Finally, upon returning from a trip to Canada, you shouldn’t paco a beaker of frozen water that has been doused in liquid nitrogen. Spinning this extra-cold ice one layer at a time will result in an edible powder that, once drizzled with maple syrup, may remind you of your snowy vacation, but will also break two Pacojet blades and cause the machine to scream while spinning at a pitch and volume that is legitimately terrifying (looking at you, Shewry).

Finally, this is my go-to Pacojet-specific ice cream base. Make it as you would any other base, cooking to 85 C, and the result is perfectly quenelle-able right out of the beaker. If you have a blast freezer, this base is best spun when it’s between -10 and -15 F. For sorbets, use any recipe you like, but make sure to check it at the end with a refractometer and adjust it to 28-30 brix, which I’ve found spins nicely and holds well during a single service.

 

2000 g          milk

700 g             cream

560 g             sucrose

140 g             atomized glucose

200 g             nonfat milk solids

360 g             egg yolks

No News Is Good News

Admittedly, it’s been a little quiet over here at The Pastry Department. A fact that can only mean one thing, we have been anything but quiet in our kitchens! I’ll give you a little update on the team here, as we have all been doing pretty wonderful things in our absence from this blog. Which literally translates to no news is good news!

Ron has opened an ice cream shop! It’s called Revival Ice Cream and it’s in Monterey, California. The flavors are unique, and thoughtful, with the touch of a seasoned pastry chef, like Bee’s Knees, an ice cream infused with beeswax before ribbons of burnt honey, bee pollen, and honeycomb candy are folded in. I’ve been stalking the menu since it opened! He wrote about it as he made the transition from employee to chef-proprietor, and then immediately started spending all his time making ice cream.

Danielle has taken a job as a pastry cook with a newly opened restaurant in Chicago called Bad Hunter. The restaurant has a strong focus on vegetables, with some meat and fish scattered through out the menu. Because if you were a bad hunter, you’d get some meat, but you’d also have to eat a lot of vegetables. At least that’s the story I made up in my head! What I didn’t make up is the delicious vegetable and herb focused desserts that are coming out of this pastry kitchen, helmed by Emily Spurlin, a young talent taking this unique angle to the next level. I recently had a root vegetable macaroon, similar to the coconut mounds we know and love, but with grated root vegetables standing in for the tropical flakes.

Harry has settled himself into an enviable position at Smyth and The Loyalist, a dual concept opened by Karen Urie Shields and John Shields in Chicago. With two pastry menu’s to learn from, Harry is helping make some of the most forward thinking desserts in the city for Smyth, and simply delicious desserts for the subterranean bar below it, The Loyalist. On my last visit, I tasted a perfect brooklyn black out cake, sliced and plated unadorned, as well as a striking dessert of an egg yolk soaked in salted licorice over a frozen yogurt meringue.

Leigh is just flat out killing it at Nico, and in her spare time between running the hotel and restaurant, has started putting together a pastry chef exchange, where she brings in another pastry chef to collaborate on dishes on her menu, and simultaneously they do the same with her on their menu. It’s an incredible opportunity for pastry chefs to expand their style to fit another space, and a wonderful way to connect two working pastry chefs, who otherwise might be isolated under mountains of croissant dough and never get to share ideas and passion.

And me? Well, we opened a new restaurant called Publican Anker, which has been a wonderful experience. It’s transformed my job from a small insular trio of buildings all on one block, running cookies across the street and borrowing cream from one another, to managing a menu offsite, and shifting the production model of our kitchen to look more like a commissary. We have gone from making 50 biscuits to 300 at a time, and my sous chef Amy laughed that 6 months ago the 50 biscuits used to freak her out, and now we are driving speed racks of biscuits around the kitchen. The dessert menu is ice cream heavy at Anker, which makes me quite happy, and the guests too! We are also in the process of getting  a dairy license and pasteurizer, so one day soon I’ll be able to safely, and legally put ice cream in pints for people to take home with them!

Speaking of ice cream, I’ve also spent the better part of the last 18 months writing a book about ice cream! It’s called Hello My Name Is Ice Cream, and yesterday I held it in my hands for the first time. Folks, it’s beautiful! Large part in thanks to the incredible contribution by Anna Posey, illustrator extraordinaire and fellow pastry chef (check out her brand new restaurant Elske!). And large part also in thanks to  Ian and the art department at Clarkson Potter, and my patient and talented editor, Francis.

The book will be released march 28 of this year! I’ve filled the book with everything I know about making ice cream, with a chapter for each style of ice cream; egg-rich custards, dairy-rich philadelphia-style ice creams, fruity sherbets, and tangy frozen yogurts. There are add-in’s up the wazoo, all formulated to be the perfect texture when frozen, but that work well as sundae toppings too! And an entire section on scoop-shop style composed scoops, with two or more flavors swirled together, or ribbons, ripples, and chunks layered through out.

Each chapter on ice cream opens with a blank slate recipe, the mother for all the recipes that follow it. My hopes are that anyone who wishes to be the inventor, can use these blank slate recipe to make flavors beyond my own limited imagination.

Oh yeah, there’s also an entire section on the science of ice cream, if you want to know what’s going on in your ice creams.

I wrote the book I wanted to find when I started making ice cream, one that would walk me through my first batches, then give me the tools I needed to start inventing my own flavors, and finally one that would tell me what the heck was going on so I could better understand how to make perfectly textured ice cream.

Now, I should finally have some time to sit down in front of this computer again and talk about the exciting things we are making in the pastry department,  and a few of the things we are talking about.

Unless the new and time consuming world of book promotion swallows me whole!

Un été à Paris: Part two, on surviving your stage

Chapter Two: The Stage

We all know the stereotype: an imposing, mustachioed man outfitted in a crisp white chef coat, dumping all of your mise en place into the garbage while screaming obscenities. It’s almost comically cliché, culminating in a very subdued cook uttering a string of “oui chef“s before returning to the failed task, furiously concentrating on not fucking up.

It’s an industry-wide joke that the only real rule of professional kitchens is just that: “don’t fuck up.” Fortunately, I’ve managed to work in some excellent restaurants for chefs willing to trust their cooks and evolve beyond the brutality of old-school kitchen mindsets. Mistakes happen– it’s the nature of the job. Truly, the only real rule should be simply what all of my previous chefs have expected out of their cooks: be better.

So– this was my mentality walking into my first day of my stage in Paris.

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Simple

Recently I had the professional privilege of cooking with group of nationally celebrated chefs at a Friends of The James Beard Foundation dinner at The American Restaurant in Kansas City. The restaurant, the crown jewel in the Hallmark empire, was opulently designed by Warren Platner 40 years ago, borrowing stylistically from another of his restaurants, Windows On The World. The opening menus were written by none other than James Beard himself.

It’s rare that we get even a glimpse of a restaurant like this anymore, built for a service team that still prepared food table side for diners in jackets and evening ware. The cascading dining room, spilling into two story glass windows, glimmers with a regal formality almost entirely gone from haute cuisine. As I descended the sweeping staircase, passing the baby grand piano, I could practically see yesteryears dishes being set on the tables, gold rimmed china, the food upon them rigid in technique and precise, fanciful design.

As someone who recently left behind the world of fine dining, I had brought with me a dessert from the Publican, and was feeling anxious that it was going to be out of place, too simple. A variation of an Eton Mess, my dish was a mound of whipped cream folded with meringue and concord grape preserves. I’ve seen fine dining versions of this dessert which would have been right at home at The American Restaurant, deconstructed and reconstructed with 4 times as many components, and at points in my career I would have made that. But this weekend my dessert, dubbed the Fulton Mess for The Publicans street address on Fulton Market, was not to be one of them.

I started to doubt myself, worrying that my mess would stick out compared to the other chefs dishes. I consoled myself with the thought that after a long meal of heavy food, the diners would appreciate something light.

When the dinner began, my anxiety receded.

The first course was a decadent seafood risotto, who’s only flare was the dining room presentation, Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson ladling it from an oversized pot onto plates where it oozed into place as it was rushed to the tables unadorned.

Through out the meal, I saw Viet Pham serve Regal Springs Tilapia in an aromatic whey broth, a humble fish that has likely never graced the dining room at The American Restaurant before. Jeremiah Stone filled a bowl with side by side scoops of danish rye bread porridge and intentionally overcooked beans which hugged a generous lump of uni. And Alex Talbot served hand made pasta in pepperoni ragu.

The main course by Erik Bruner-Yang, a Cambodian style short rib, was composed by sight, but nodded towards Kansas Cities roots in down home, sweet, sticky BBQ.

If I’ve downplayed the food at all, don’t mistake me, it was all stunningly delicious. Some of the best in the country. By the time Fabian Von Hauske began piling a pistachio crumble to anchor a vanilla mousse served straight from a siphon, and dripped pistachio sauce, pickled celery, and elderflower granita over the top, obscuring it completely, I knew I was right at home.

Much of the haute cuisine of today has been stripped of it’s pomp, leaving just the circumstance; flavors of the moment, served simply in stripped down settings, to diners in comfortable attire.

After 40 years of service The American Restaurant will close it’s doors at the end of this 2016, and with it goes a bastion of the gilded age of American dining. It couldn’t have been more poingient, serving the simple, stripped down contemporary cuisine in this passing setting. Two moments in our dining history crossing for one of the last times.

I feel a tickle of sadness in my heart to see restaurants like these slip from our grasp. While they may not be relevant anymore, they are undeniably beautiful, and have honored cuisine and the dining experience in a way I am sad to see disappear.

How creamy can creamy be?

As a pastry chef, I tend to chase textures. Unlike a savory chef, who has a wide array of nature-made textures at their disposal, for example, the range of textures in fish and meat, or raw vegetables, pastry chefs have to create the textures they work with.

Where as a savory chef can use nuts, raw carrots, endive, potato chips, seeds, apples, lettuces, if they want something with a crispy mouthfeel, for the most part, we have to construct it. The ingredients we rely on, flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk, and cream, can’t simply be applied to heat and placed on a plate.

Instead, we begin the technique driven process of combining these ingredients in precise ratios and exquisitely practiced sequence to come up with a texture we desire.

You’ll often find me asking our cooks to stretch their brains when discussing texture- what’s nutty without being a nut, what’s creamy without being cream. And you’ll find us geeking out over that crispy element we can’t quite put our finger on in another chefs dessert. Is it feulletine? Puffed rice? Shattered caramel? We subtly ask, pry a little, or out right beg them to tell us. Years ago, stumped by a crispy fruit element on one of Brooks Headley’s desserts at Del Posto, he told me with a sly look, it was dried cantaloup rehydrated in versus, knowing I never would have guessed.

When developing desserts, we ask ourselves how crispy can crispy be? How creamy can creamy get?

Currently, I have chased a cheesecake to it’s creamiest by destroying it all together. It feels a little like the private joy of stomping on your own sandcastle, but when I pull a cheesecake from the oven, I immediately scrape it into a food processor and puree it into hot, velvety oblivion.

The molten cheesecake is then poured into a crust, where it sets in the refrigerator into the creamiest cheesecake I’ve ever tasted. This method started with ice cream, as I pureed baked cheesecakes to be added to ice cream bases. Once I tucked the cheesecake puree away in the refrigerator and inspected the resulting texture, it became clear this super smooth cheesecake could be so much more.

Over the years we have filled macarons and sandwich cookies with cheesecake puree, smeared it on plates, tucked it into mousses, layered it between cakes, and when no one is looking, spread it on the tail ends of banana bread for kitchen snacks.

This month, a Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie at Publican Quality Meats marries this pureed cheesecake with fall pumpkin and it’s requisite spices. Set in a brown butter-hazelnut pie shell this twist on the classic squash pie is mounded with whipped cream once set.

Over at The Publican, we are whipping pumpkin cheesecake puree with buttermilk, and nesting a brown sugar pavlova in it. Whipped cream sweetened with the caramelized goats milk called cajeta crowns the meringue, while a drizzle of Steens molasses and pecan toffee flurry about the plate.

I highly encourage you to partake in this method, carefully constructing a crustless cheesecake, then completely ruining it to watch the creamiest cheesecake you’ve ever tasted rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

 

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE PURÉE

Un été à Paris: Or, how to stage abroad (kinda)

There comes a time in every young cook’s life where they start to ask themselves bigger questions. What am I looking to accomplish in this industry? How much longer can I keep pushing myself so hard? What’s the next step? Or, in the case of myself and my friend Jane (also a pastry cook, working in the same restaurant as me at the time)– What if I went and staged in France?

All around us, we saw our fellow pastry cooks pursuing new challenges and began to feel restless. Our previous sous chefs were moving on to pastry chef positions. Former restaurant cooks were making the switch to high-end bakeries– or opening their own. Our friend and ex-coworker (hello, Harry!) decided to take a few months off to travel and stage across Asia. Suddenly, vague discussions of living and working in France changed into something more tangible, until Jane and I found ourselves at a neighborhood bar in Chicago, giddily buying plane tickets to Paris– the pâtisserie capital of the world.

For me, it felt like the perfect punctuation between an extremely formative position at Blackbird and whatever was next to come for me as a pastry cook. For Jane, the motivation was perhaps a bit more straightforward: “I just need to turn 27 in a foreign country.” Our common goal was simple: take some time off from the Chicago pastry scene, stage in a kitchen or two in France, and come back to the States with a better sense of the direction in which we wanted to take our respective careers. Easy!

Except, of course, not. I’ve formulated many different variations of this “post-Parisian-stage” blog post in my head, including everything from a how-to of getting a stage in France or a tell-all exposé of the many disappointments I encountered– both in attempting to secure a stage in a foreign country and surviving the day-to-day of a French kitchen once I did finally find myself in one. The reality is that I can’t really be completely transparent about my experience for multiple reasons, including the fact that I might’ve blurred some legal lines in actually getting a stage (who knew so much obscure paperwork was required?!), but I can offer a general picture of the experience– the comedy of errors that it was.

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Cake Cake Cake

I visited my friend Amanda Rockman recently in Austin, Texas. She’s taken up residency at The South Congress Hotel, where she fills pastry cases, dessert menus, poolside bars, coffee shops, and an ice cream truck with her brilliant wares.

While we were in the kitchen talking she told me a story about a shirt her older sister gave her for christmas. It says “cake cake cake” on it. A cute gift for a pastry chef, we sure do like cake. Making it, eating it, decorating it, cake cake cake!!!

After months of donning this pastry related garb, she told her cooks it was her new favorite shirts, she just loved wearing it everywhere. One of Amanda’s young cooks pulled her aside. The conversation goes something like this when I retell the story, and these things may or may not have actually been said, but like hollywood, I’ve taken liberties to benefit the plot.

“Um chef? you can’t wear that shirt anymore.”

Amanda looked at her with blank eyes.

“That shirt doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“What do you mean?” Amanda asked. “It doesn’t mean red velvet cake?”

The cook shook her head back and forth.

“It doesn’t mean lemon chiffon with meringue frosting?” Amanda pressed, knowing this was going somewhere unfortunate.

Nope.

“Its not pound cake?” Apparently that’s even worse, Amanda discovered from a second line cooks childish and repetitive hand motions.

Thanks to the 2011 release of Rhianna’s song Birthday Cake, Amanda was unknowingly a walking billboard for a sexual act involving someone else mouth and her very own, um, cake.

When she told me this story, which I have since embellished, I almost fell down laughing. And I’ve retold it many times since returning to Chicago. She and I have reached that point where not only does popular culture evade our understanding, but it passes by completely unnoticed. We are growing old, and the kids these days are having the last laugh.

Our perpetually youthful rotation of line cooks educate us to new uses for the words we unwittingly know and use daily. Nope can’t offer someone your milkshake. A trip to the candy shop doesn’t end in a sugar high. And apparently, now, offering someone a bite of your cake isn’t cool either. What’s next? Will asking a cook to fill the cream puffs inspire work, or sideways glances and giggles?

Read Amanda’s post on her own blog Pastrylandia, titled “An Open Letter To Music Writers,” an open discussion about appropriating the wares of our profession to mask the public discussion of genitalia to sell songs.

And if your cooks are giggling in the corner when you talk about one of your baked goods, chances are it now means vagina.

 

Home Baking At Work

 

I’ve recently taken a new pastry chef position at a collection of restaurants with the same name, The Publican. What was once just a beer hall dedicated to pork and oysters holding down a dark corner of Chicago’s Fulton Market meatpacking district, the Publican brand has since expanded to include Publican Quality Meats, a whole animal butcher shop with a sandwich menu and retail component, Publican Tavern in O’Hare Airport, and soon to include Publican Anker in Chicago’s Wicker Park. As of June, I am along for the ride, helping shape the sweeter side of things for this brand.

In a lot of ways, the job feels like my last one. The people who own Blackbird and Avec also own The Publican, so I have the same bosses, mentors, and spirit guides. But the menus, oh the menus. They couldn’t be more different. Where Blackbird used items from every pastry category to compose plated desserts, The Publican is a home for those individual pies, cookies, cakes, cobblers, buckles, cream puffs, scones, biscuits, sticky buns, donuts, ice creams, etc that I once borrowed from.

Long story short, for the first time, I’m making the same kinds of things at work as I do at home.

When I took the reigns from the talented Mathew Rice, the first dessert I set out to change were the fresh baked cookies we sell every day at Publican Quality Meats.

It would be easy, I thought. Cookies are the simplest of baked goods, something I’d been making without a grown-ups help since I was 12. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For all the work I’ve done in the dessert realm over the last 15 years, I simply didn’t have a backlog of cookie recipes. Infact, most of the cookies I have made in my career were eaten at staff meal.

Mathew and I were sharing matcha lattes every day during my training, so the first step I took was to add matcha powder to a rice krispy treat. It’s freakin delicious, we both agreed, and I patted myself on the back for nailing it.

Then I pulled out my cookie ringer, a brown butter chocolate chip cookie, and impressed the guests with it’s depth of flavor and crackly surface. I paddled meyer lemon zest into the sugar cookie recipe I developed for a Lucky Peach article about sugar cookies and watched them fly off the shelves.

Then………………… I was out. I tried a peanut butter cookie that bombed. I made oatmeal cookies for two weeks, hating each one more than the last.

I finally had to admit, cookies were not going to be easy.

While I set my sights on the usual suspects, I wanted cookies that were distinct while being familiar. It took a lot of testing, some of which were unfit for even the staff to eat as snacks. A request by Paul Kahan to put potato chips in a cookie led to the saddest no-bake cookie I’ve ever had!

I made recipes from every cookie book I could get my hands on, comparing Dorrie Greenspans Oatmeal Cookie to Sherry Yard’s, pitting Christina Tosi’s peanut butter against Pichet Ong’s. I borrowed qualities I liked from some of the cookie-masters recipes, and took some recipes in wildly different directions.

For example, after weeks of oatmeal cookies coming out of our ovens tasting much like everyone else, I decided to try a reverse creaming method, mixing the butter with the flour and sugar before the eggs were added for an uber crispy exterior. I also set the cinnamon aside and spiced this cookie with powdered ginger and studded it with chips of candied ginger along side plump golden raisins.

Aside from the flat, crackly brown butter dark chocolate chip cookie, we included a second chocolate chip cookie, this one fat and tall, a little doughy in the center, and filled with milk chocolate and walnut chunks. And a third chocolate chip cookie, made with caramelized white chocolate, macadamia nuts, and sour cherries, an ode to the cookies of mall food courts everywhere.

I joked that I could fill an entire case with chocolate chip cookies, each one completely different than the last.

But the recipe I hold dearest to my heart right now is a Sorghum Peanut Cookie. After eating crispy peanut butter cookie after crunchy peanut butter cookie, I decided to make the softest, moistest version I could. I employed sorghum syrup, a robust sticky cousin of molasses, richer and deeper, with a redish hue. The result deserves a spot in the “soft-batch” category, and the flavor is outright haunting.

This cookie is reason enough to run out and buy a jar of sorghum syrup, and read up a little on it’s legacy as an american heritage product, still made by hand by those passionately growing the unpopular crop. The batter is sticky, so much so it requires chilling before scooping.

Since i am now baking at work like you bake at home, I can share this recipe with everyone. I hope it finds it’s way into your cookie jars for good.

 

RECIPE: SOFT PEANUT SORGHUM COOKIES

 

 

 

 

 

 

From plate to cone

Almost 3 years ago a friend asked me “if you were to open your own place, what would it be?”
As a pastry chef, it was a tough question to answer. I had been working the fine dining pastry station for 15 years. My first thought was “can’t I just open a restaurant built around my pastry station?”

Maybe as a future dream project, but realistically in my small town, it would be way too much of a gamble.
For a restaurant chef, I think that question opens up many possibilities. Fine dining, casual, market driven, seafood, bbq, gastropub, winebar, French, Italian, American, Mexican, Vietnamese influences…now chefs are opening restaurants that cater to casual and fine dining, pleasing everyone, in buildings with multiple floors!
For a pastry chef, especially one that solely worked at very intimate, high end restaurants, the avenues are a little more limited. A dessert bar WOULD be a dream, like a sushi restaurant where I could stand behind a counter and do 3 to 4 course tasting menus, where the pastry chef has control over the front of house, the design, the service standards, where I could engage with the guests and not be considered an afterthought, as sometimes happens in standard restaurants.

So I gave the question serious thought. Chocolates (I’m not that disciplined), pastries, cakes, viennoiserie (those already exist in my neighborhood and they make some quality stuff), breads (would really love to but I’ve barely got my fingers sticky in the natural leavened sourdough tub)…..
What I have been doing consistently for 15 years in fine dining restaurants is make ice cream. Every single restaurant I’ve worked in we have made ice cream in house. On almost every dish. With a Pacojet, with a small batch freezer. With liquid nitrogen.
In thinking about it, within the last 5 years most of my plated desserts would stem from some kind of crazy ice cream flavor.
Beeswax, celery root, parsley and shiso, fermented pear, sunchoke, cucumber and pineapple, even uni and foie gras ice creams…basically anything in the kitchen was up for grabs in my book.

And that thought answered the question of “what style of business would you like to open”.
And now I have exited the restaurant and entered the ice cream shop.

The question asked isn’t an uncommon one for chefs. But I do think for a pastry chef it proposes some interesting limits.
How does a pastry chef stand out from the chef and restaurateur? How do they establish their own names? How do they even set up a future for their livelihood? That is a huge question we should ask ourselves. I want to own something, to support my future, something where I have control over, because I don’t have that total control within the small restaurant within the hotel within the restaurant group that I had previously worked for. Or any of the other restaurants that I worked in.

Now I am a business owner. Now I am able to open a direct dialogue to my guests. That is what I am excited about.