As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve started to see certain big name chefs grow to demigod celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars and restaurants across the city, there is much more talent that often goes unnoticed. "Next in Line" is a monthly column celebrating back-of-the house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Monica Glenn
Position: Head pastry cook. I work with Paul [Qui] and Jorge [Hernandez], our sous chef, to develop and create all the desserts for the menu, and I do all the day-to-day production as well.
Hometown: I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, up in the panhandle.
How did you end up in Austin? I went to California after I graduated high school — way up north in Humboldt County — and then my sisters were going to school here, so I came to Austin. I was just sort of floating through college, and my dad suggested I try something else. So I enrolled in the Texas Culinary Academy up north [now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts].
"Shawn Gawle makes things whimsical and fun but still extremely accessible. It’s hard for pastry to cross those boundaries without getting too weird for some people." — Monica Glenn
When did you first start cooking? My parents had five kids, so early on they’d have each of the kids make dinner once a week. So I remember being 8 years old — we had this cookbook that we’d go through every week and cook something with our parents. So I’d been growing up cooking like that for a long time, but I really wouldn’t have done anything professionally if my dad hadn’t said, “You know, you really seem to be interested in this.” Whenever they’d come into town, I’d do dinners and make all these crazy things you’d see on Food Network or something. So he really pushed me in that direction, and I went from there.
What was your first cooking job? After I graduated from the culinary academy, I worked at Parkside through their internship program. So I worked with Callie Speer there for three months, and then she introduced me to Philip [Speer], whom I worked with for three years at Uchi.
What other places have you cooked? I was at Uchi for the first year after they opened Uchiko, and I kinda ran the program over there. When Uchi Houston opened, I wanted to work with Kaz Edwards, the chef de cuisine, and help him open that restaurant. I worked for about a year in Houston, and I loved it — I really like Houston, I’d go back in a heartbeat — but I was ready to try something new. I started off moving to the Scottish Rite dorm at UT, and I was going to do their baking. They wanted to start a bread program and get a garden going, so I helped them start that up for three months. Tim Dornan was the chef de cuisine over at Uchiko, and I knew he was leaving there to come here (to qui). I’d staged at Corton (in New York) when he was working there, and the way he works and moves in the kitchen is so graceful and composed. He’s just one of those personalities you want to work in a kitchen with, you know? So as soon as I heard he was coming over here, I got ahold of him and was able to get hired on.
What chefs were your biggest inspiration? Tim’s definitely one, just as far as how you move and hold yourself, and even how you represent a kitchen. He’s very honorable and he’s really good at what he does. Philip and Callie, of course — they’re the first people who developed me, and I owe pretty much everything to them. And Shawn Gawle — he’s the pastry chef at Saison, and, when I was staging at Corton, he was actually the pastry chef there. He does a really great job at making things really whimsical and fun but still extremely accessible. Anyone can look at it and say, “Wow, that’s awesome!” Sometimes I think it’s hard for pastry to cross those boundaries without getting too outside the box and weird for some people.
"I love the chemistry behind pastry. You’re basically trying to create some kind of texture to act as a vehicle for a flavor." — Monica Glenn
How would you describe your personal style?
I think I’m still kind of developing my personal style. I’m still kind of young in this. But I like things that relate to childhood, things that bring back memories. That’s what I really like to focus on. And it’s been great working with Paul, as far as his Filipino background, and seeing all those crazy desserts and being able to develop that style while putting some Texas twists on it, since we use local ingredients.
What do you love about pastry?
I went through the pastry program, but I started a savory externing at Uchi so, when I first got hired, I could’ve gone either way. But Philip needed an assistant, so I started working with him and I didn’t look back. I really love the exactness of pastry. It’s one of those things where you can make a recipe a thousand times but, until your body kind of memorizes the movements to it, it never comes out right. So I just love the challenge of exacting your technique and everything about that.
I also love the chemistry behind it — all the hydrocolloids, I can look them up and figure out the backgrounds behind them and try to pull things together that way. Even eggs, gelatin, agar — with pastry, you don’t have a piece of meat or something that you’re highlighting. You’re basically trying to create some kind of texture to act as a vehicle for a flavor. So I’ve really gotten into doing a lot of the research of the molecular makeup of a lot things so you can use things differently and interchange a lot of ingredients. A lot of things like calcium and salts affect it a lot, and just looking at the molecular structure and seeing how it might be affected is fun. I’m still a novice, but it’s just kind of like a game, looking into ingredients and learning more about them.
And were you studying any sort of sciences before you left college for culinary school?
No, not really. I would’ve never thought about it correlating so much. But Philip, when I started at Uchi, was really big into it. It’s hard to find the information just looking on the Internet, so I had a lot of books from him and a lot of his own knowledge, which helped me get my foot in the door so I could do my own research.
What are your favorite things about working in a kitchen?
I really love task-driven jobs. I worked really briefly in California as a secretary for a law firm, so you’re sitting and doing dictation for eight hours a day, and that’s just awful, just waiting for the time on your clock to go down. I just hate that kind of job. I really love that you come in for the day and you have your list of things that you need to complete and you’re just moving all day long and you’re on your feet. I really like how much you have to work with everyone else. You really have to be very related to your savory chefs, and you work so closely together. I see so many cool things, like breaking down fish and meat — so many things I would never see if I were working for a bakery or something.
What are your least favorite things about working in a kitchen?
The hours are always crazy, but that’s fine with me. I’m a working kind of person — I like to be busy. And ... I mean, I really just like working in kitchens. I think I picked the right career!
You just recently participated in Indie Chefs Week — how was that?
It was great! This was my second year to do it. Last year, it was really fun because it was so new, and nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. And that kitchen is so small, you get really close to the people you’re working with, so it’s nice to meet all these people from around the country. A lot of these people Ned [Elliot] met through Twitter, and being able to uphold those connections and actually make that happen is pretty cool. This year, it was really cool to see a lot more females in the kitchen and more people who’ve been in the business for five years or less. So he did a great job this year highlighting some of those younger cooks.
What did you make?
We did bibingka, which is another Filipino dessert we’re playing around with. It’s basically a rice cake that you torch-- you brulee the top of it so the bottom is a little raw still. And then we served that with some of our cajeta that we make in house, made with some really good local goat milk from Water Oak Farms.
Do you have a signature or favorite dessert on the menu at qui?
Pretty much everything here is made through collaboration. The cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich is really popular right now — it’s just kinda different and kitschy. And we just recently put on the menu a champorado, which is a chocolate rice pudding dessert I’m really excited about. It took a long time to develop it. That’s kinda how it is with the entire menu here. It’s been a sparse, tight pastry menu, but it’s nice to — we’re not going to put anything on there for just any reason. Paul’s adamant about — if there’s just two items, it’s fine, as long as we’re really proud of them, and I’m extremely proud of what’s on the menu right now. I think this one’s going to sell really well, and it’s something I’m really happy to show people. We’ve actually pulled it apart: we’re doing an aerated chocolate mousse, and then a coconut rice, and then seasoning it with ginger and tangerine, and the customer pulls it together on the plate themselves.
What’s your favorite music to listen to while working?
Lou, our morning chef, he’s been jamming it out. I love all types of music, and I kind of go through different phases. For a while, I was listening to classical music in the kitchen. Then I was listening to house music in the kitchen. That was a short spurt — they were like, “You’ve got to quit doing that. That’s a little too intense.” So I kinda backed up on that. Lou, right now he’s doing classic rap from the '90s, so we’re really into that- — a little P. Diddy and all that kinda stuff.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I have a dog, and she kinda takes up all my time outside of work. She’s a little pitbull mix, and we enjoy going to the Greenbelt and doing a lot of running, Red Bud Island and all that. Also, I’ve been trying to get into rock climbing. I have a friend who really likes to do it, so it’s something I’ve been trying to get out and do more. It’s really cool — you have to have a good understanding of where your weight is — weight distribution in your body — which is probably good for me, because I’m not very graceful. It’s good practice!
Favorite food to eat when not working?
I’m a big carnivore, so at home I eat a lot of meat. I grill up steak and usually do two sides of vegetables. I love Mexican food, Tex-Mex style stuff is really close to my heart. My family used to take trips to Santa Fe so a lot of the traditional Mexican cuisine that’s in New Mexico I really love, but I’m game for anything really. I’m all about food!