Trailing

We are in the process of rehiring for two positions between Blackbird and Avec. Part of the interview process for a cooks position is a trail, which is kind of a trial of sorts, often called a stage. This is a physical interview, in which the team hiring has a chance to see if the candidate is a fit, and the candidate has a chance to see if the kitchen is the kind of place they would like to dedicate themselves.

We often have cooks passing through our pastry department, staging for educational purposes rather than trying out for a position. It can become a little confusing for my team, a warm and inviting group of pastry cooks that are invested in perpetuating the educational structure they too are learning in. Why is it confusing? My cooks instinct is to pause and teach when a question is asked. It’s our way. However, when a cook is trailing for a position, we need to see them for what they already have, and I coach my cooks to take a hands off approach with potential candidates. There is no right or wrong level of experience, I always say we can take anyone and move them forward. But depending on the needs of the position, I need to see exactly what we are starting with.

It’s more important to watch a candidate make a mistake than to see them constantly succeed. I need to know how they respond to a kitchen failure, what their problem solving skills are like, and how their attitude shifts when they don’t succeed. Also important, is how they respond to instruction and criticism.

I tell my cooks to guide a candidate verbally when they ask a question- don’t walk them over to the pantry to find something, or take a project out of their hands to show them. We need to understand how they respond to verbal guidance, and asses their level of self-reliance. Do they attempt to find an ingredient before they ask where it is? Can they translate words into actions?

We always write them their own prep list and see how they organize it. Do they ask for information on how to organize a list as a whole, do they understand how a production schedule is prioritized? We will put a few technique-testers on the list even if we don’t need them. An ice cream, a cookie, tempering chocolate, scaling and mixing a dough, cutting and portioning a mingardise, for example. We want to see where their skill level is at with basic techniques. A lack of technique isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Technique is taught, ability is innate. We can add technique to an able cook, but again, we need to know what they come into our kitchen with. Depending on the position, we might need to build on a certain level of technique rather than implant it, and an able cook will always be kept in mind as various future opportunities arise.

We don’t put anything on the candidates list that is crucial for the days success. You don’t want their potential failures to throw your own success away. However, we do add smaller, easy-to-redo tasks necessary for the line to their list, to see if they understand the urgency of setting up for service. Also, we pay attention to whether they ask the team if their work is correct, or just store the project away. This shows us if they consider a task complete when the work is done, or when it is confirmed as correct.

I tell my cooks not to socialize, but do use conversation to feel them out. Have they worked with ice cream before? Where? What was that like? I often ask a candidate to describe their previous position, to walk me through a typical day there. Do they speak positively or negatively? (you’d be surprised at what comes out!) What is their favorite part of their job? What was their favorite dessert on the menu? You can get a strong feeling for a persons commitment and passion with simple questions. I always ask what the last dessert they ate was. Watching their eyes light up tells me if they really love desserts, or, if they can’t remember, then they may not be particularly passionate about desserts. All these questions help me paint a picture of a cooks motivation for walking this restaurant pastry path.

Now, we also watch to see how they are interviewing us. What kinds of questions do they ask about the kitchen? Are they asking questions that would help guide them towards an informed interest in what we are doing at Blackbird or Avec in particular? Do they ask the cooks what the schedules are typically like, what a busy service feels like, how many covers we do? Are they curious about our plating, how the kitchen is structured, how cooks move up? Are they probing to see where they would fit, and how the kitchen could help them grow? Are they asking questions at all?

I let my team interact with candidates through out the trail, taking a back seat where I can observe. In the end, the candidate is trying out for a position as part of a team, not as my cook. Do they respect the team dynamic we have worked so hard to build? Or do they avoid the team asking the sous chef or chef questions instead of the cook who’s assigning them the tasks? Do they shrink from the team preferring to work in quiet isolation?

All of this is simply a framework for productive interaction. It will help us assess the candidates in a way that allows us to open up a mutually beneficial opportunity. We promise an educational experience that will equal the amount of dedication and labor a cook gives to our pastry department, and that education is tailored to each individual that comes through our door. I always say we would rather hold the position open and work harder for a short period of time, ensuring that the position is used as it was designed to. As we all labor for our own educations, we want to help propel a new cook towards their goals, and to provide a safe place for them to pour their attention and passion into.

Fruit Puree

blenderFruit purees, bright viscous liquid fruits, are a staple in a pastry kitchen. They are the base for sauces, ice creams, panna cottas, fluid gels, mousses, and glazes.

Most home cooks, even those that collect the cookbooks of restaurant pastry chefs, will be unfamiliar with the kinds of purees stocked in the pastry kitchen. Recipes, when translated for home use, call for the whole fruit and instruct you to give it a whir yourself in a blender, perhaps simmering a fruit first, but likely not. It’s a simple act, really. Just put the fruit in a blender, hit the highest speed, and voila! Liquid fruit.

However, a pastry kitchen, built on production cycles, would be slowed greatly if processing fruit was required every time you make a recipe. Instead, we keep fruit purees around. They are an ingredient, not a process, called for in our recipes in exacting grams rather than estimated pints of berries. To make this even easier for us, there are companies that purchase fields of berries at a time, process it in season, and tuck it away in a sub zero freezer to sell to us year round. Some are better than others, but adding fruit to a recipe in a professional pastry kitchen doesn’t always mean the whole fruit passes through our hands.

Dont’ freak out. It’s not the processed food monsters taking over our local foods movement. Often times, the fruits the puree companies are able to buy, in bulk, in season, at the source, is a much higher quality than what we can purchase whole. I’ve yet to taste a mango in chicago that can hold a candle to the alfonso mango puree I purchase. Strawberries have a short season, one that can be greatly effected by the summer storms here in chicago. The mara du boise berries that cap fruit puree company buys by the  fieldfull can, at times, outshine my local offerings, if the local offerings are even available. I am in great support of purchasing local fruits from the brave farmers in this region. But it’s not an option to walk into my dining room and say, this strawberry ice cream isn’t really very flavorful this week, but hey, it’s local. And if the local option isn’t available? Pureeing a clear plastic container of white centered strawberries? Forget about it.

So, we do at times order from the catalog of fruit purees, which come to us in 1 kilo containers, locked in icy preservation. We thaw them moments before they are used, and the resulting desserts are fruit forward, and above all, consistent.

However, at blackbird, we have started our own puree program. Its a money saving venture, if you look at the dollars and cents. The time it takes to process the fruit is lengthy, but makes use of pockets of down time in our cooks days, and gives our externs a chance to busy their hands while they make conversation with our cooks. The freezer space is often difficult to allocate, and managing the inventory over the course of the year takes effort. But it’s a worthwhile venture, and one I modeled after Sherry Yard’s similar program in LA. She took it one step further, securing freezer space in a produce merchants freezer, having them deliver her house made purees to all the pastry kitchens she managed when orders were placed for their produce.

Here at Blackbird, We bring in fruits from midwestern farms and orchards when the sun has ripened them, often working with the farmers to take over-ripe or seconds off their hands, and we process it ourselves. We spend the time to bring out the best of each fruit, simmering apricots and peaches until velvety, poaching cherries, letting black raspberries bubble until their musky scent is strong. Sometimes we roast stonefruits in the woodfire oven at Avec where juices evaporate as the fire embues the fruit with woodfire flavor. And the grapes, oh the grapes! They swell and burst on the stovetop with bright flavors before quietly simmering into luxurious submission. We leave the skins on our fruits, whick break down and add thick pectins to the purees, a time saving step that will prove doubly useful in sorbets giving them a softer, creamier texture. The cooked fruits are then sent for a ride in our super powered vita prep blender before we strain any pulp, skin, or seed from the liquid fruit. Packed into vacuum sealed bags, 1 kilo each, our purees stay frozen for use through out the year.

There are exceptions to every rule, and my strawberry and raspberry purees are just that. While they require no cooking, the berries themselves are by no means the least challenging of all our purees to produce. We put our berries through a freeze-thaw cycle before we take the time to puree them. It’s a process I’ve been using for years, and one I’ve written about before…….

“Why does freezing my berries make such a huge impact on the resulting thickness, color, and flavor?” The answer is simpler than I thought. Ice.

The information I found in On Food and Cooking discussed the damages ice crystals cause on vegetable matter when frozen, and how to avoid this. Because I am not avoiding this process, rather using it to my advantage, I went to Chris Young.

Anyone who has placed liquid in the freezer is aware that it expands. Thus, when we freeze our berries, the water molecules inside the cells expand. The sharp crystals of ice damage the cell walls of the fruit, causing for a better extraction of liquid, carrying both pigment and aroma molecules (Remember that flavor is made of 5 tastes on our tongue, and about a billion aromas in our nasal receptors).

So freezing makes for more release of liquid. Logically, more liquid would seem to make a runnier, thinner puree. But not so. What this process also does is break down the cell walls themselves. When the blade of the blender tears apart the cells, breaking them open to extract the liquid, it also breaks some of the cell wall down into particles small enough to remain in the puree. The damage from the ice allows for more of the cell wall to break down and become part of the puree and act to thicken it.

Finally, the freezing temperatures slow the enzymes that naturally deteriorate the bright hues of berries. Pureeing the fruit while still icy cold slows these enzymes from discoloring your fruit while the pigments are released.

If Dana circa 2006 doesn’t sound convincing, try it for yourself. The better your fruit, the better your puree, and those tender, sun-kissed strawberries flushed bright red are upon us! It does seem an outlandish step if you’re only pureeing 2 cups of strawberries once this year to flavor a home made ice cream. The benefit when you use puree every day is evident, but even for home cooks, the result is well worth the effort. You’ll be surprised how many uses you’ll find for bits of extra fruit purees if you have them lying around.

Simmered Fruit Puree

Strawberry and Raspberry Puree- freeze/thaw method

Roasted Stone Fruit Puree

Poached Fruit Puree

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creative Obligation

mingardise illustrationI’m doing something really mean to my staff this week. I’m taking away all their mingardise recipes. Not to test their memorization skills, or make their jobs unduly difficult. I’m forcing creativity.

One of the tenants of my department is creative obligation. I’ve noticed that when creative participation is a privilege, an option, it’s often prioritized beneath all the crushing elements of a cooks daily task list. But, when it’s no longer a choice, but an obligation, the game changes. Once you step into your first chefs role, it’s no longer an option to participate creatively in the menu. It’s your job. But the skill of translating intangible ideas that live within your thoughts into a tangible item that exists in the physical world is no natural gift. It’s HARD.

The cooks that come through the pastry department at blackbird are all well on their way to running kitchens of their own one day, and I’d hate to see that day be the first that they start to apply regular excursive to that part of their brain.

While I was staging at Noma, the legendary Saturday Night Projects were in full effect, and one day Rene gathered the entire staff and gave an impassioned speech. The previous saturday had not produced many presented projects and Rene told his staff this. “When you are the chef you can’t go into the dining room and say, I’m sorry I don’t have a dish for you I was too busy to come up with something new.” He continued to talk, telling his staff that it’s never going to get easier to create dishes, you’re only going to have more to do each day as a chef. The projects aren’t just a privilege. Finding time between 2 services a day on top of finishing your miss en place and working service can prove nearly impossible. But its a priority, and you can find the time if you treat it as such.

In turn, every member of my staff has a creative obligation to our menu, in an environment where a chef is there to mentor them through the process and gently edit their results.

My cook at Avec is required to conceive and execute our rotating gelato and sorbet menu.

My a.m. lead cook at Blackbird is required to put together a daily changing coupe for our lunch menu, and when that challenge has been mastered, we add on a lunch special with the framework that it creatively uses our left over table bread.

My sous chef is required to create a monthly rotating pre dessert for our tasting menu, a process that mirrors our drafted and revised plated desserts. This process, when applied to simpler pre desserts in rapid succession will lead them into creating desserts for the menu itself.

And finally, the junior most staff members, my PM cooks are responsible for the two mingardise we serve to our guests every night. This to me is creativity 101.

The first step in creatively applying yourself to the craft of pastry is to flavor exchange, or use a proven recipe and swap flavors. For the last 3 years we have produced many of our mingardise with our fake book of textures; pate de fruit, caramels, rolled truffles, caramel truffles, bon bons, macarons, financiers, marshmallows, nougats, brittles, toffees, and meringues.

With these sweet little bodies, my cooks change the flavors daily, discovering which flavors play well with others along the way. It seems like the easiest task, simply swap a flavor in a recipe you know works. But every idea sparks a series of questions that are simple to answer now, but will be asked again and again, every time you want to alter textures for a more composed dish.

More important than discovering the world of flavor pairing, these mingardise teach cooks how to correctly insert flavor into a texture.

Lets say, a cook wants to add lavender to a mingardise. First we must determine how to insert this flavor into a textural construct by looking for our opportunities to do so. Lavender is a purple bud, highly aromatic but not edible on it’s own. The flavor of an herb can be transferred by a hot or cold infusion, both of which offer different intensities and nuances, and depending on the liquid chosen to be infused, the flavor will transfer differently. A whole herb can also be dried, ground, and sifted, and added directly to a recipe. We also have lavender extract, and lavender honey. Once we understand the various ways to transfer the flavor of lavender, we look at which of these will be successful in the recipe.

Lavender infused cream can flavor a truffle or a caramel, but a marshmallow or meringue won’t endure the fat. We would have to look at creating a lavender infused syrup, or adding an extract. A marshmallow will collapse with lavender infused butter, but the financier requires the liquid fat and would work well. But couldn’t we also grind and sift dried lavender into the financier? Yes, then lets make it both ways so we can taste the difference!

By the time a cook is a chef, creating full scale plated compositions, understanding how to insert flavor into textures will be an essential skill. This will open up creative opportunities on the plate, and directly contribute to your ability to execute your vision.

I’ve got to say, I’ve seen this process work. I’ve watched our junior pm cook master the textures with simple flavors, then start to come up with really amazing flavors as the senior pm cook and then begin to bring in recipes they want to try. The senior pm cook has grown into our lead line, a morning position, and apply their flavor exchange skills to a composed Coupe, or sundae, and then start to dabble in full dish conception with chef feed back and edits as the lunch special. I’ll never forget Molly’s concord grape summer pudding. Kara was famous for hiding small scoops of tart sorbet inside larger scoops of rich ice cream for her coupes, and ben’s maple banana bread pudding was as comforting as it was inspired. It really brings tears of joy to watch our cooks blossoming, glimpsing the chefs they will become.

And because of this, next week, I’m taking away their recipes.

We will have a brainstorming meeting, in which they will suggest new textural constructs that build off of the recipes and skills we have. I will write them a new fake book, and stand side by side with them discussing how they can start to flavor exchange in these new tiny little homes. They have dubbed it the “mingardise revolution.”

Then, with a new arsenal of recipes, they will continue to exercise their flavor exchanging muscles and create these sweet little building blocks for our guests,  just as always.

 

Almond Butter Caramels

Soft Caramels

Salted Caramel Bonbons

Chocolate Caramel Truffles

Meringue Kisses

Fluffy Nougat

Pate De Fruit

French Macarons

Financiers

 

peanut buttery hypocrisy

nutter butter illustration cropI share recipes. All of them. It’s one of the deepest arteries of our pastry kitchen at Blackbird, pumping fiercely through our body of work. It started the day Heston Blumenthal opened his recipe book to me as a young stage, a stark contrast to the restaurant I had come from, one that wrote recipes in code just in case the formula slipped from it’s grasp.

I have many oft spoken sound bites to support this practice.

“If you don’t pass a recipe along it dies the moment you take it off your menu, and who wants to see their work die?”

“It’s hard enough for me to get highly trained professional cooks to achieve the exact intended result with my recipes, in my kitchen, under my watch. There is no risk of loosing our identity by giving our recipes away.”

“Everything I have, I have because someone else gave it to me in one form or another. It’s important to give what we take.”

“It’s nearly impossible to follow a recipe without inflecting part of yourself into it, my recipes will become something else every time someone else makes them, just as everyone else’s recipes become something different when I make them.”

“No one can steal what is being given away.”

I’ve disallowed cooks from bringing in “secret recipes” to use for mingardise, or staff meal. If it’s in our kitchen, it belongs to everyone.

But underneath it all, I’ve been hoarding one recipe. It’s called a nutterbutter, and it’s a salty-crispy-peanut-butter-milk-chocolate-cocoa-nib-fuelletine concoction pressed into a bar, and covered in tahitian vanilla infused caramel. It’s absolutely addicting. I should know, I’ve been supporting a 3-ounce-a-day nutterbutter scrap habit since 2007. This unique confection was created to fill one of 4 small dishes flanking a plated dessert and a composed ice cream on Poppy restaurants dessert Thali. If I’m not mistaken, it’s still there. When I moved to Chicago, I started making them for Avec, served in sets of 4 on little wooden boards. Later in my time with One Off Hospitality, when I started packing ice cream in pints with the Hello My Name Is stickers for Publican Quality Meats, I folded nutterbutters into vanilla ice cream, and when we have a few spare minutes, we tuck that ice cream between two peanut butter cookies.

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this confection, and I’ve watched people fall in nuttery-buttery love, all the while knowing it was mine mine mine. My precious.

But how much does the nutterbutter really belong to me?

The inspiration? Taken from a component on a dessert I inherited when I took over the menu at Veil restaurant in Seattle. The dessert itself, a salted peanut butter ice cream with milk chocolate anglaise, set over a crunchy mess of peanut butter coated crispiness, was taken by the chef of Veil from his pastry chef at a previous restaurant. I don’t know this pastry chefs first name, only that his last name was Harvey, a fact cemented by my early desire to call these little peanut buttery squares “Harvey Bars”, a nod towards the inspiring chef. Even the name, nutterbutter, taken, and very very trademarked.

So how could I preach GIVE and then keep something created from so much TAKE to myself? What can I say. I’m human, it’s beautiful, and I wanted it to be mine.

Well, now it’s yours.

A jolly fellow named Tim approached me to contribute to his wonderfully blog Lottie & Doof, and I saw it as my opportunity to right my selfish wrong. The recipe is posted here, right here!

For those nutterbutter lovers that have asked me for the recipe for so many years, I am sorry it took me so long to give up this recipe. Please take it and remake it a million times over. Put it on your menus. Make if for your mingardise plates. Make it for potlucks and holiday cookie tins. Fold it into ice creams like I do. But most importantly, if someone asks, give them the recipe.

Now, in the spirit of give and take, I’m going to ask you for something. A name. While no cease and desist order has come from the corporation that rightfully owns the name of this peanut buttery square, it’s not for us to keep.

So as this recipe passes from my hands to yours, lets join forces and rename it something that truly belongs to us.

just stick it in your mouth

There are very few moments when I will sit down and eat dessert just for the sake of it. It seems counter intuitive, a pastry chef who doesn’t eat dessert. It’s not that I don’t like desserts, I do! But day after day after day of mixing, tasting, baking, tasting, freezing, tasting, blending, tasting, testing, tasting, and more tasting, desserts aren’t always very appealing. My body practically begs me to avoid sugar, wincing at cookies and cakes at parties, cringing when the dessert menu comes and I know I will order something to support the cause.

And I will order dessert, every time. Yes, to support the pastry chef in house. And yes, to satisfy my professional curiosity. But mostly, I order desserts because it’s my job to eat them.

When younger cooks ask for advice, one of the little tidbits I like to give is “stick it in your mouth.” It always gets a few laughs, and when the chuckles fade, I explain further.

The only way you will build a good palate is to taste things. Over and over and over. Taste good desserts, bad desserts, mediocre desserts. Taste strawberries in season, out of season, in jams, in ice creams. Taste everything, all day, every day. You might have noticed some of the older chefs in the kitchen snacking. You see them taking three peas from your mise en place, swiping a quick spoon in your deli of ice cream, or dropping a dot of sauce on the back of your hand to accompany a few candied hazelnuts they quickly shoved in their mouth. It might even annoy you.

It’s not snacking. It’s also not greedy, or gluttonous, or self satisfying. It’s tasting. And after years it becomes habitual, without thought, to reach for what is in front of you and stick it in your mouth. This is a good thing. These chefs are on palate building autopilot.

The thing is, you don’t know what something tastes like unless you’ve tasted it. And every time you do taste something, a new little beacon of light flashes in that little corner of your brain that stores flavor information. I can remember the first times I tasted things like papaya, or foie gras, the little lights beginning to illuminate the dim corner of my brain filled with childhood flavors. I imagine the greatest chefs brains are blinding inside.

When it’s your turn to develop dishes, the more those flickering lights in your brain brighten your palate, the more nuance you can build into your dessert, the more you’ll be able to pair unexpected flavors. You’ll taste things that remind you of other things, that you tasted with another thing way back when. Cheese will remind you of passion fruit. Passion fruit will remind you of brioche. Brioche will remind you of the time when you couldn’t taste the difference between an over yeasted loaf and one delicately left to rise with just the right amount, and gosh darn it this loaf tastes like it wasn’t stored properly, lets get another round going.

But this essential ability only happens one way. by tasting.

My sous chef Janet Tong used to give me nibbles, something we called her daily bites. These were random combinations of mise en place from the line, assembled out of curiosity. Sometimes they weren’t great. In fact, sometimes there were so bad they made us laugh out loud. But sometimes they were amazing, like the pickled apple with a little spoonful of milk tea ice cream. She did this every day without fail. It became a fun game for our cooks and helped us light up little beacons of light in our flavor brain that I never would have come across otherwise.

Now here’s the kicker. Sometimes tasting sucks. It’s tiring and unpleasant. Especially if you aren’t hungry. There are times when I feel like I would rather stab myself in the leg with a fork than eat a piece of cake. Other times I know the rough draft of a dessert I put up isn’t going to be delicious and I practically have to plug my nose and force it down just so I know how to start adjusting it. And boy are there a lot of times, particularly right after staff meal, when I absolutely do not want to taste the mise en place on the line to check for quality.

But, there are no buts. It’s our job. Just stick it in your mouth. It will pay out over the long run, more than you can imagine.

Rhubarb sorbet, then and now

rhubarb illustration

A rhubarb sorbet made today took my thoughts back 10 years to the first menu I had creative control over. I had just started my tenure as pastry chef at a wine bar named Eva, a small farm-to-table restaurant in a tiny seattle neighborhood called Tangletown. I’d grown up visiting the little pocket of dead-ending streets near Greenlake as a child, a ritual outing with my grandmother that always resulted in story time at the childrens bookstore and cinnamon rolls from the long gone Honey Bear Bakery. Her name too was Eva, a fact that immediately endeared me to the restaurant, built in the shadows of our memories.

I interviewed for the job over the phone with the owner Amy, sitting on the edge of my single bed in a rented room in Bray, England. It was a characteristically cloudy march day, and I had a month remaining of a 3 month stage at The Fat Duck. Knowing only that I wanted to redirect my cooking career away from the savory path I was on and into pastry, I responded to an ad on craigslist for an entry level pastry chef.  By the time I said my goodbyes to the cast and crew of the michelin 3 star restaurant, I had accepted the position.

My arrival home to Seattle and into my first pastry chef role was smack dab in the middle of rhubarb season. I was unfamiliar with the long fibrous stalk, almost as unfamiliar as I was with making sorbet.

At the time, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I rooted through the large cookbook collection I was amassing and found a recipe for rhubarb sorbet. I copied it onto a yellow legal pad, and followed the instructions to a tee. The recipe involved a sorbet syrup made by boiling granulated sugar and water with lemon juice, a step I followed blindly but now know breaks the bond between the glucose and fructose that bind together to make sucrose. This inverted sugar syrup was blended with cooked rhubarb and a little lemon juice. Once cooled, the sorbet was placed in the pre-frozen canister of my counter top cuisinart ice cream machine, and as it began its 30 minute churn, an eggwhite was dropped in.

Old fashioned and very straightforward in flavor, the sorbet was rhubarb, plain and simple.

The memory of this rhubarb sorbet reminded me of the way I conceptualized flavor in those days. I liked big, bold, singluar flavors. I placed them next to each other, strikingly individual in character, in no more than twos and threes. This rhubarb sorbet was paired with lime whipped cream and coconut cake. There were no subtle nuances interlaced in the components, and the flavors never crossed. There was no lime zest infused into the sorbet to tie it into the whipped cream, or any subtle nuances shading the dish. The menus I wrote held no secrets, nothing left unmentioned in the descriptions, undertones that whispered to the flavors described. I was painting with bright primary colors. Building with big Duplo blocks. Rhubarb, coconut, lime.

The rhubarb sorbet I made today included multiple sugars, used to control water activity and augment percieved sweetness, and included both cooked rhubarb puree and fresh juiced rhubarb. Vermouth was added, the botanical flavors intertwining with the vegetal quality of the fresh juice in an incredible manner. Additional acidity was added with malic acid, an ingredient that allows us to brighten dishes without adding lemon flavor. Finally, the sorbet was finished with Verjus, another tart nuanced flavor that deepens the quality of fruit sorbets. The ratios were carefully calculated, and the brix were tested and confirmed to be 28, just where we like our sorbets.

The sorbet we made today is advanced in it’s technical quality. The botanicals in vermouth intertwine the cold scoop with a complex plated dessert including Japanese knotweed, hibiscus, toasted almond, and yogurt. It’s quite grown up from that first sorbet, much like I am from the girl who made it. But I look back at the big bold flavors I played with then with a great deal of fondness. The desserts were clean, simple, and easy for both myself and the guests to understand.

By committing myself to these simple expressions of flavor, I was able to present desserts that weren’t muddied by my own gaps in knowledge or misunderstandings of the craft I was just beginning to delve into. The complexity came, with time, as my knowledge and ability increased with experience.

I urge younger cooks and pastry chefs to consider this tactic. We now have an onslaught of media available to us every day, a din of flavors and techniques slipping under our fingers as we swipe the screens of our smart phones. The temptation to tinker with complex and abstract pairings is strong, and the noise of information we are inundated with daily can be hard to see past.

But trust me when I suggest this. It might read better on a menu description,but it will taste better if you keep it simple. Just for now. Consider your early dance with flavors a waltz . One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. As your technique improves, as your palate grows deeper, so too can the complexity of the dishes you create. But for now, just for now! Paint with a few strokes of clean, bold flavors, and I promise, with time, your masterpieces will come.

 

Rhubarb Sorbet- Senior

Rhubarb Sorbet- Junior

On being a female chef

I’ve been receiving a lot of media attention lately. You see, I’ve been nominated for a James Beard award in the outstanding pastry chef category. It’s an incredible honor, and one that has brought a lot of attention to my department at Blackbird, and me as a chef. More specifically, it’s brought a lot of attention to me as a female chef.

I’ve eschewed the topic of being a female chef in a male dominated profession, women’s chef organizations, and generally anything that projected my gender above the work I do. I’ve never wanted to be a female chef. Just a chef.

However, there seems to be a lot of interest currently by the media on the lack of recognition for female chefs by the james beard awards, which I’m gauging by the amount of questions I’m being asked on the topic by the media. I haven’t answered any of them. At first, I was a grump. My stance was that I have never felt held back by the fact that I am a female, so I wasn’t sure there was the roadblock to the top being described. Maybe the industry is changing, and we should look at the rising star category, not the outstanding chef category to find the gender balance our industry currently reflects.

I am nominated along with 4 other women in the outstanding pastry chef category, which makes it hard to see any gender inequality for women. And the company I work for is filled with female employees at every level, including our director of operations, sous chefs, pastry chefs, dining room managers, accounting teams, private dining coordinators, and media directors. So from my position, things looked just peachy, what was the problem?

But something about that didn’t sit right with me. And I knew that I wasn’t answering anyones questions because I didn’t actually understand the topic in general. So I sat down with a few different women I know better educated than me in the subject of feminism and asked them to show me what the diminished presence of female chefs in the james beard awards looked like through their eyes.

And here’s the deal. I still don’t want to open my mouth on the subject. It’s a grey zone, a big, murky grey zone filled with view points, opinions, and subtleties, and I’m a black and white kinda gal. I stick to things that either are, or aren’t, a quality that flourishes in the exacting world of pastry. But the more I listened to these women talk, thinking I’d never experienced any different treatment because I was a women, the more I realized I had.

In Seattle, a magazine was sent to photograph me for the Pastry chef of the year award they were bestowing on me. The photographer came in, and his first directive was to ask me to lick something off a spoon, or frosting off a whisk. I said no. He pushed the subject, saying it was a direct request by his art director. And again, I said no. I asked him if he would ever ask a man to lick something off a spoon. He kind of chuckled, and said, no, no he wouldn’t, and the topic was dropped. I have no idea if the art director was a man or a woman, but the idea that because I was a woman, my sexuality was available to use along with my professional identity is not something I was comfortable with.

Last year, I was nominated for the same award I am up for this year. As soon as the nominations were announced, I started discussing the most important topic with my coworkers and friends; what should I wear? I made a decision quickly to wear a tuxedo. I mean, when else would I get the chance to tux it up? I started looking at pictures of Janelle Monet, Bianca Jagger, Le Smoking by Eves St. Laurent, and all the pictures i could find of women looking amazing in tuxedos. As I sat looking at the photographs online, the general manager of the restaurant piped in and asked, “don’t you think a gown is more appropriate?” He pushed the envelope, reminding me that I was representing the company, and people like Janelle Monet could get away with it because they looked more feminine than me. Needless to say, I wore a tux, patched together by pieces I found in vintage shops, and a pair of turquoise italian loafers, no socks, in the style of my boss, the boss, Donnie Madia. And I loved every minute of it.

I realized, looking back, that it’s not the moments like these, glaringly obvious in their intent to force me into a gender role thought appropriate by someone else, easy to push through, that cause problems. It’s a story like this one.

At staff meal, a male server told another male server, “don’t be a woman about it.” And I didn’t think a thing of it. Infact, it went completely unnoticed by me, and if I had any reaction to it, I probably laughed.

It’s an insult I’ve heard a million times, and one I’ve thrown around with abandon. Don’t be a Pussy. Woman. Giant gaping vagina. Little girl. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I’ve seen people give tampons or women’s underwear as gag gifts to a man they consider sensitive. Or stick maxi pads all over their locker. And I probably laughed each time.

The comment above would have gone unnoticed by myself if another girl hadn’t spoken up and said, “don’t say that. that’s not ok” The conversation between the two continued, with the male telling the female that no one was a bigger feminist than he was, and that if she wanted to stay in this industry she better get used to things like that. He accused her of picking on him.

I realized, if we really want to be able to say that the ratio of women to men being given James Beard awards is an accurate representation of the quality of work being done, not the trickle down effect of a misogynistic male favored industry,  it starts in our kitchens, on our floors, by making sure everyone knows it’s not ok to use the word woman as an insult, or anything like it.  The tone has to be set by us, the men and women who manage the restaurants, every day. And the questions have to be asked to men too. It’s not just important for people to hear what I, a woman, thinks about underrepresentation of women in the awards and how to remove that road block, but to ask the male chefs what they think can be done to reduce overrepresentation of men, and how does that translate into the tone they set in their own restaurants.

I don’t think the James Beard Awards are the cause of the difference between men and women being awarded. I think it’s an accurate representation of who is left standing after 20 years of laughing at your own gender, and diminishing the qualities associated with it to adapt and survive the early years like I did, and those women braver than I was, who stood up and said “don’t say that. that’s not ok.” and pushed to the top despite the laughter.

 

 

 

Blackbird Crepes

coffee hazelnut crepes illustration

I have been the pastry chef of Blackbird restaurant for almost 3 years now. A respectable tenure by all means, but one that comes at the end of a long line of pastry chefs. It’s an interesting roll to take on, a custodial position in an established restaurant that hasn’t always belonged to you, one that will likely be passed down to another person.

I didn’t help open blackbird, or help mold the style of the restaurant. Rather, I am part of it’s evolution, and am entrusted with representing it’s current core values while upholding the standards that carried the restaurant through 17 years of business. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me, and I’m grateful for the sweat and tears of my predecessors and the nationally recognized pastry department they all helped to build.

The desserts have evolved a great deal over time, as has the entire restaurant. Recently, when the partners chose Perry Hendrix as our chef de cuisine, Paul saw a glimmer of his original cuisine in the work of Perry. We started to hear tales of the early years of Blackbird, what brought them their original success, and how we could recapture and reintegrate those qualities into the mature restaurant blackbird has grown into.

When Paul invited me to create a dessert for a special dinner in which he was cooking some of his original dishes, I knew I wanted to rework a dessert from Blackbirds early years. I wanted to understand the foundation my dessert program was built on. It didn’t take much asking before it was clear Blackbird had a signature dessert from the first day.

This dessert was mentioned by every one of the the partners, the big guys who now manage an award winning restaurant group, grown up from the self-proclaimed knuckleheads that once hustled the floors of blackbird every night. Each of these people immediately told me about the crepes.

These crepes were made out of a chocolate batter, and folded into triangles to encase a rich coffee flavored mascarpone cream, stacked and served with crushed hazelnut brittle, and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Today, this dessert would likely be more at home at Avec, as Blackbird has followed the trajectory of contemporary cuisine and the desserts are no exception.

I set to the task with kid gloves. I wanted to give my bosses their dessert once more, one that captured the heart of the restaurant that still beats today. While Paul told me to “Cree it up”, I wanted to add as little of myself as necessary, just enough to indicate the time and place this dessert is being served, a thin veneer allowing the original dessert to shine through.

We looked at the core of the dessert, and decided to start with the creamy center of the crepes. I tried everything I could think of to replicate the coffee mascarpone. We moussed it, whipped it, melted it, and even tried hand making the mascarpone itself. Finally I reached out to one of Blackbirds early pastry chefs and admitted my dilemma. Elissa Narrow is now the pastry chef for Paul Virants handful of restaurants in the Chicago area, a working relationship that began in the walls of blackbird itself. The dessert wasn’t hers, rather born of Sheira Harris, the original pastry chef of Blackbird. Elissa kept the dish on the menu after she took the reigns, knowing it was something unique to the restaurant and a crowd favorite. She divulged the secret of the mascarpone and I balked.

Trablit.

No, I thought. Not trablit. I hate trablit.

Trablit has been available to the public as a concentrated extract of coffee since the mid 1800’s, an invention of a french pharmicist eager to provide a product to his customers that allowed them to enjoy a high quality cup of coffee where ever they were. However,  my only experience with the inky brown potion has been in a professional setting. Most pastry centric purveyors will carry it, and I have seen it added to chocolate cookies, butter creams, ice creams, and all manner of chocolate confections.

The first time I tasted it, I flipped. What was this magic elixer that made everything taste like the best coffee ever?! Then, after years of over consumption, I cracked. One day, it no longer tasted good. It tasted too much like coffee. It became too intense.

When I inherited blackbirds pastry department I came across a bottle of trablit and attempted to discard it. My cooks rioted, begging me to keep it. I gave them the green light, with the caveat that it only be used in staff meal, and I would not eat anything made with it. They agreed, and the trablit disappeared from sight.

When Elissa illuminated the addition of trablit in the original coffee mascarpone, I hesitated. I didn’t want to order a bottle just to see what the original tasted like, I wasn’t going to use it anyways. Gross. But a little hunch sent me to our pantry, and sure enough, hidden high on a shelf tucked behind some tall bags of tea, I found the trablit. My team was keeping it tucked out of sight, and it’s clearly not the bottle I tried to banish 3 years ago. They have been secretly reordering it.

So I mixed a few drops of my coffee flavored nemesis into sweetened mascarpone, swallowed my pride, and tasted. And gosh darn it, don’t ya know. It was delicious. So delicious, that it became evident that this coffee mascarpone was the heart of the dish. Flavors and textures quickly fell into place around it, and the dessert was ready for the menu within days.

A dome of coffee mascarpone is piped onto the base of a large bowl, and is covered in a riot of crepes, cut into ribbons and brushed with cocoa nib infused brown butter. To replace the chocolate sauce, we nestle little dots of a deep chocolate cremeux along the twists and turns of the crepes. The nooks and crannies formed by the tangled crepes are filled with cubes of coffee gelee, crispy bits of chicory streusel, enrobed hazelnuts, and crunchy bits of burnt sugar that catch the light in the dining room, glimmering like gems.

It may not look anything like the dish served all those years ago, but the flavors will bring anyone back to the day the restaurant was born. In our way, we have worked to honor and elevate this dish, bringing this blackbird relic to the forefront of our menu again. Whether you’ve eaten this dessert in it’s original incarnation, or are tasting it for the first time today, I hope it captures the heart of blackbird for you.

Plated Dish

Chickory Streusel

Coffee Mascaropone

Enrobed Hazelnuts

Teff Crepes

Coffee Cubes

Rum Bling 

Chocolate Cremeux, pipeable

Cocoa Nib Brown Butter

 

Warm Chocolate Purse

chocolate purse illustrationThe pastry department at Blackbird, with all it’s nuances and challenges is structurally straightforward. Our menu invites guests to dine with an appetizer, entree, and dessert, and our pastry kitchen is staffed with a traditional chef, sous chef, and line cooks who both create and plate our desserts, controlling the experience from start to finish. It’s challenging in and of itself but the structure of the department is ordinary, and with it we can accomplish most that we set out to do.

Avec, on the other hand, has proven to be a fickle beast, and creating desserts to fit the structure of Avec’s kitchen and dining experience has never stopped being a challenge. Creating the appropriate culmination for the dining experience has at times proved elusive. The menu is Mediterranean, but authentic Mediterranean and Italian desserts have rarely sold well. Save a tirimisu, desserts from warmer regions like those inspiring the cuisine at Avec are often fruit, or a little granita and some cream. We have offered these, but inevitably, it’s the cobblers, bread puddings, and cheesecakes that people order instead. So we have come to adopt american desserts and twist them with Mediteranean flavor. We always make sure to call our pudding “budino”.  After all, while Avec takes it’s cues from another culture, the restaurant exists in the midwest and serves people with midwestern desires and appetites.

Pinning down the creative framework we would work within is not the biggest challenge.. Instead, the kitchen itself is our most limiting factor. If you’ve ever dined at Avec, andlaid eyes on the glowing embers in our woodfire oven, or the 6 overworked gas burners next to it, you’ve seen the entirety of the kitchen. While we slice, dice, chop, and mix on counters in the basement prep kitchen, nothing can be cooked outside the 6 square feet surrounding the stone oven. Desserts themselves are stored in a small refrigerator under the espresso machine and plated on any scrap of the 2 foot counter left available after coffee is made. This is done not by cooks, but by the people who bus tables and run food. The desserts require absolute simplicity to achieve a high quality result in such cramped quarters. And that woodfire oven? Well it just loves to burn things.

We have held on to desserts that work well within these limits, bread puddings baked and reassembled in oven proof terracotta casuelas, needing nothing more than a little heat from the wood fire oven to be prepared; budinos and pannacottas, preset in little cups ready to grab and serve aside simple cookies; and cakes, slices of cakes of all sorts that can be plated with a little sauce or whipped cream.

While we know what works, occasionally we still try to put something new on the menu, push our boundaries and see what we can achieve. Most recently, we attempted to wrap a molten chocolate batter in brick pastry before being baked, a crispy pouch of a shell with a frilly top. This chocolate purse was on the menu at Spago frequently, and something I’d wanted to adapt for Avec for some time.   We plated our warm chocolate covered with puffed rice tossed with sesame and urfa pepper, a scoop of spiced date ice cream nestled into the frilly crown. It was perfect.

Perfect when baked in the controlled convection ovens at Blackbird.

Not so perfect when transferred to the 900 degrees of the wood fire oven at avec. Before the batter had a chance to souffle and warm inside the pastry, the frill was a charred mess.

We began tinkering with the way we wrapped the chocolate, trying different shapes that would decrease the char of the brick pastry by manipulating surface area. Each shape we tried decreased the frill, finally eliminating it, increasing the crispy shell around the chocolate in an unfortunate manner. In the end we simply piped the batter into a casuela, and baked it to order in the wood fire oven, no pastry to risk burning at all. It’s delicious, no doubt. But it’s no different than the variation we served last year other than the spiced date ice cream scooped over the top and the puffed rice.

If you have a kitchen in which you can bake things to order, then by all means, try this dessert. The presentation is striking, and the contrast between the crispy pastry and the warm gooey chocolate cake inside is unparalleled. Add a scoop of ice cream and this dessert won’t fail to impress. I’m glad we tried to expand ourselves, even if the end result was the same dessert we served last year. We can continue to ask the question of Avec, “how far can we go” and we might continue to get the same answer year after year. But complacency is a risk when the limitations are so binding, and I’d rather try and fail than never ask Avec how much more we can do.

Chocolate Purse Batter

Chocolate Purse- Assembly

Chocolate Sesame Truffle

Medjool Date Ice Cream

Puffed Rice-urfa biber crunch

Plated Dish

Best chocolate cakes in the U.S.- Food and Wine Magazine

Profiteroles

profiteroles and avocadosI’m not sure I look up to anyone in this industry quite like Sherry Yard.

When our paths crossed, I was at a point in my career where leadership was becoming a skill I wanted to cultivate in myself. When I looked at the people in leadership positions through out my time in kitchens, many of them dominated kitchens in ways I did not believe would be successful for myself, in large part due to our difference in gender.

I was looking for someone with a leadership style I could successfully integrate, one that would help me to bring the team I led to their best every day, and help me navigate my own career growth. I knew a large part of this was how my cooks and bosses perceived me, and how differently behaviors are perceived coming from a man versus a woman. I needed to experience a leadership style that would help me take advantage of my personal strengths, and being a woman, those that grew from my female nature. The men I had worked for provided qualities that I admire and have assimilated into my role as a chef, but there were as many traits I had to leave behind.

Long story short, I needed to work for a girl.

Lucky for me, the call to do just that came quickly.  An LA area code popped up on my cell phone while shopping one summer day in Seattle, and within 48 hours I was on a plane down to meet the woman who would do more to shape me as a leader in the restaurant world than she could know.

Little did I know, she would also do more to reshape the way I created desserts than I could have imagined.

I’m going to have to make an embarrassing confession, one that makes me a little ashamed of myself. I took a job as Sherry Yard’s sous chef thinking there wasn’t much she would teach me creatively. I was coming back from the edge of cuisine, Alinea, Noma, Kadeau, Denmark! I’d seen the gods on their olympic mountains and watched infinity grow. I understood foraging, cultural reclamation, textural manipulation, and how to impeccably recreate impossible cuisine every night for those who came, like me, to worship at these temples.

The menu at Spago held desserts that I’d seen all over the country. Classics like soufflés , apple vol au vents, cobblers bubbling in copper pots. Then there were the signatures, like the Kaiser Schmaren, an Austrian classic transformed by Sherry years before, souffléd to order and served with warm berry sauce. Pineapple and Banana wrapped in rugelach dough, a unique and comforting turn over. Liquid centered warm chocolate cakes wrapped in crispy pastry, and a cookie plate centered with favorites like chocolate chip and italian rainbow cookies.

My deepest gratuity is that I came crashing to reality within the first two days of being at Spago, hitting the ground to see Sherry in her pink coat laughing down at me. It occurred to me, after tasting the desserts, and seeing the immense effort and technique that went into the uber efficient department, that the reason I felt like I’d seen all her desserts before was that her style, defined almost 20 years earlier, was so striking and so successful it had been appropriated by the masses, and facsimiles were now spread across the country. She wasn’t part of the masses, she had inspired the masses.

The bigger lesson I needed was to stay humble, and remember that there is much to learn in every kitchen if you are looking for it. I could have missed the opportunity that lay before me had I let ego blur my vision, and I learned more in my time with Sherry about pastry than every other job I’d had combined.

The first task Sherry put on my prep list was puff pastry. And gosh darn it, I had to admit didn’t know how to make this most classic of pastry techniques.

I’ll bet Sherry knew that.

I could make you a liquid custard that when poured on your table transformed into semi solid creme brûlée in front of your eyes, but I hadn’t laminated dough since pastry school. I understood how to use a pacojet and could work the anti griddle, but I hadn’t touched a sheeter for 15 years. It was clear I was here to learn much more than just how a dynamic woman is a leader in a male dominated profession. I still needed to learn how to be a pastry chef.

My time at Spago was eye opening, the most pivotal experience I’ve ever had in a kitchen. Yes, I saw everything I wanted in Sherry as a leader, learned simple things about body language, and sat wide eyed as she told me stories about her own growth as a pastry chef. I am constantly telling my cooks, “I can tell you what Sherry Yard told me” the same way a mother might tell her children, “your grandmother always said…” Spago was my last stop before blackbird, and the classics I relearned became crucial for my ability to intertwine the progressive ideas and techniques I’d experienced with sellable a la carte desserts. Not desserts sold as part of a tasting menu, but desserts chosen after bellies had been filled with bottles of wine, appetizers, and entrees. It’s not a stretch to say Sherry Yard put the dessert back in my desserts.

I took another cue from her this month, when a photograph of a monolithic cream puff with the hilt of a steak knife protruding from its crown it made it’s way to me, a Sherry Yard twist on a classic dessert, presented for the restaurant she created in DC, City Perch. At that moment, we were working on a dessert with heat stable chocolate pudding served warm against frozen avocado ice cream, and were deliberating as how to present these two divergent temperatures in an elegant way.

When the simple dome of baked choux pastry wrapping Sherry’s cream puff came into sight, I was reminded again to stop overthinking it and put a little dessert in it.

Our chocolate flavored shells, baked from pate de choux with a simple cocoa craqueline over the top, are split half an inch from the base and hollowed out with a spoon. The base is filled with heat stable milk chocolate pudding made with the butterscotchy Tanariva from Valrhona. Chopped roasted macadamia nuts are pressed over the puddings surface before the shell is toasted in the oven. The dome is removed from the oven early, and once cool to the touch, packed with avocado ice cream. Reassembled last minute, a bit of roasted macadamia butter anchors this hot-and-cold profiterole to the plate in a nest of red pumello and chewy jewels of candied grapefruit. Stars of fruity avocado puree radiate out from the center, and macadamia nut is grated with a microplane over the top to finish.

I’m now comfortably settling into the leadership aspect of my position, during a time when our creative style at blackbird is maturing. And with something as simple as a cream puff, I am grateful to be continuously humbled and reminded by the woman who helped bring me here, to keep putting the dessert in our desserts.

 

Warm Milk Chocolate Profiterole- baking and assembly procedure

Pate De Choux- chocolate

Craqueline topping for cream puffs

Tanariva Cremeux- heat stable, for filling shells

avocado leaf ice cream

macadamia butter

avocado pudding

candied grapefruit jewels

Additional Components: pomelo cells, roasted macadamia grated on microplane

Plated Dessert