Mathew Rice, the pastry chef at The Publican restaurant in Chicago, sat down for a lovely chat about his recent experience on the first all dessert episode of the Food Network’s cooking competition, Chopped. Spoiler alert! He was crowned victorious, and with his winnings he is investing in his own exciting website, called Spilled Milk Project. We at The Pastry Department are excited to follow along as he unveils the gems of his mother’s own recipe box, the recipes and the woman that inspired his career. And we are excited to have had the opportunity to share an afternoon with him as he told stories in his warm southern drawl, laughed constantly, and answered a few questions. Read on!
First and foremost, tell us: How did you get to be the pastry chef of The Publican?
What I consider to be my first real pastry chef job was at Niche in St. Louis. I moved there to help Gerard Craft open Niche. Just this year they celebrated 10 years, and I was with them first four. I felt like I had outgrown the city, and moved to Chicago on a whim, I only knew a handful of people. I only interviewed for one job and I got it, at Nightwood. I was there for a year and a half and loved it, and wasn’t ready to leave. But I always wanted to work for Stephanie Izard, our styles seemed to match so well, so when she was ready to hire a pastry chef I applied, and got it. I really loved her and had a great time working there, but after a few years the pastry chef position opened up at The Publican. It’s really a perfect fit for my style, which is a little more southern and based on the food I grew up with in a small town outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
So you were recently on TV?
Yes! It was the first time they decided to do an all pastry chef, all dessert episode of Chopped, which hopefully is going to turn into it’s own series. They reached out to Girl and The Goat, to see if I was interested. I was a little hesitant, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to find out if I liked to be on TV, it’s something I’ve always wanted to try.
Did you like being on TV?
I did. There are parts of it that are nerve wracking, and there are all the parts you have to think about. You don’t want to look back and have people see you being messy or a slob. But I’m happy with the way it turned out, I only cringed a few times when I watched the episode.
When can we see the show?
The show aired last Monday, but it wasn’t scheduled to be on until December 3rd. So it’s available now on Xfinity on demand, and will have it’s official premier on The Food Network, December 3rd.
So what did they have you make on the show?
The first round had to be a chocolate dessert, and we had to use a store bought Mississippi mud pie, maraschino cherries, a can of pringles, and a wheel of brie. Aside from the brie, which was the only thing I had to think about, in the end, the dessert I made I felt like I could stand behind it. It would be worthy of being on a dessert menu, it had all the ellements I look for. Something frozen, something creamy, something crunchy. Aside from the sorbet being a little soft, and the plating being rushed, it was a dessert I stand behind.
Was there a lot of drama?
The only real drama, was they wanted to see is if Sarah Mispagle and I had any rivalry since we had held the same position. She replaced me at Nightwood. But we both went into it with the same goal, which was to represent Chicago and not represernt cattiness or drama that’s good for TV. We just went to show our talents.
Who else was on the show?
A girl named Jasmine, shes a pastry chef in Seattle at a little bakery café called La Reve. Her background is in art, and she builds beautiful cakes and croquembouche, and is really good at sculpting things and working with fondant and gum paste. So all the things I don’t do! We really hit it off, and watching the show I’ve never seen people hug as much as we did.
There was a guy from Miami, he was a corporate pastry chef for a restaurant group. Anthony Hunt. He really knew how to play the camera, you could tell he likes being on TV.
And then Sarah, who I mentioned before. She got the pastry chef job at Nightwood after I left, and she did great stuff for the restaurant. Our styles were interchangeable at nightwood, and we played well together on the show. She moved to St. Louis shortly after filming, and she took a job at a new restaurant called 801 Fish. She sent me a message after the show and told me I have a really good rep in St. Louis, and people think she’s cool because she had the same job as me! I thought that was really nice of her to tell me.
What was the final challenge on the show like?
You had to make a cake, and we were given an hour. Anyone who bakes knows that building a cake is a multi-step process that takes hours and hours. But all this had to take place in one hour with four required ingredients. The ingredients were avocado, hazelnut flour, rangpur limes, and they called it Persian rice, basically it was saffron rice pilaf.
So what did you do?
I used avocado as half of the fat in my cake ratio, and the hazelnut as ¼ of the flour. I made lime flavored condensed milk curd, and then pureed the rice in a vita prep, thinned it out with a little milk, added cinnamon, lime zest, and vanilla and turned it into rice pudding frosting.
Rice pudding frosting! That’s very clever!
Right?! I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, no one wants to chew on old rice, you know what I mean? I had recently been to husk where I had the rice pudding so it was fresh in my mind to do something with the flavors of rice pudding. I had to add a little milk when I blended it in the vitaprep and then added it as the liquid in my American style buttercream. It totally worked, and then I built a cake.
It was pretty, I also made hazelnut brittle to garnish it with and baked some of the cake batter as a thin tuille as well. It ended up being 3 layers, and somehow when they cut into it, the layers stayed perfect. I was actually shocked that it worked so well. You know, when you stack a warm cake things get funny. But when they cut the cake they got perfectly layered sliced out of it and I was totally shocked.
Did you know you were going to win before the judges announced it?
I had a good feeling, but the fact that the girl I went up against had a lot more skill at decorating made me nervous. Her cake was a legit cake with gum paste flowers and a chocolate plaque on top, it was decorated really nicely. Our cakes were totally different, hers looked like classic French bakery and mine looked like something you’re mom would make for a church dinner. I’m really into iconic American cakes, so usually they just two layers, like this tattoo, it’a a diagram.
What are you going to do with the prize money?
I’m going to fund my cookbook project, that I’m writing to honor the memory of my mom. I talked a lot about htat on the show, how everything in my career is to pay tribute because she didn’t get to see me have any success before she passed. That was my story line, no one knew but the show filmed on her birthday, which was also 10 years and two weeks after her death.
She taught you how to cook?
Yeah, she taught me how to do everything she did. She baked a lot of classic southern cakes, like pound cakes.
What kind of birthday cake did she make you every year?
My first cake that she made, I have to look at pictures I was too young to remember. It was a vanilla cake with buttercream, but she took a cake decorating class and could make the prettiest buttercream roses. I remember watching her and hoping one day I could do it.
How are you rbuttercream roses?
I don’t make them! I kind of adopted a more rustic approach to decorating cakes, I use the flavors and ingredietns that are already in the cakes as the decorations.
Tell us more about your project!
It’s called The Spilled Milk Project. As soon as the show filmed and I knew I won but had to keep it a secret, I started creating content for a book with a writer friend and photographer friend. I’ve set up a blog to start posting some of the content, posting recipes and photos of what will hopefully become a book soon.
What kind of stuff are you posting about?
Everything has some kind of connection to me growing up. At it’s core are my mom’s recipes that I inherited. Some are the way they are, and I wouldn’t changed a thing. Others I call “remixed” where I incorporate a little more of myself into them. But I’m taking her recipes and turning them into something a little more me, it’s like we are baking together. It’s important because that’s something we are no longer able to do.
By starting it as a blog, hopefully people will connect with it more in terms of what I want it to be. I”ve already have a couple of people find me on twitter and tell me how much they connected with my story on the show. How they had also lost their mom and stay connected to her by using her recipes. That makes me happy. For me the whole project is about being able to share what my mom did for me through baking. It’s more about getting her message out for other people to experience, for the most part, they were all really special.
What’s your favorite recipe you inherited from her?
Probably the red velvet cake. It’s so southern, and we were making red velvet cake in the 80s before it was a bakery staple. It’s the recipe she got from her Aunt who got it from someone else. There’s something sacred about it.
Are there any recipes you’d never make?
Threa re some recipes I found that I don’t remember her making, but I thought if I made them it would spark a memory. But there was one I made, I don’t hate it, but it’s so classic 80’s I had to try it out. It’s a fruit cocktail cake. It’s a basic cake, but the liquid is a can of fruit cocktail with the chunks and everything. After you bake it you put a milk glaze on it. It’s not aweful but no one uses fruit cocktail anymore.