Pitting Austin pastry chefs against each other can be like comparing apple pie to orange sherbet. Some take a cerebral approach, seeing how far science can push their art. Others are guided by nostalgia and the exuberant expression of kitchen traditions. And then there are those who let the ingredients guide the process.
But as different as the seven nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Pastry Chef of the Year can be, they are all guided by one principle: the desire to make the last bite of the meal as memorable as the first.
Read on to find out why each hits our sweet spot, then find out on April 12 who takes the cake at our annual tasting and awards ceremony held at Fair Market.
Tavel Bristol-Joseph, Emmer & Rye
Remember that scene in Ratatouille where Remy sees fireworks tasting a strawberry with cheese? Eating Emmer & Rye’s desserts is a little like that. You might not have known that salted cheddar would bring out the depth of chocolate mousse or that smoked juniper could even be used in ice cream, but you can be assured that Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s incredible palate will leave you feeling enraptured.
Britt Castro, Holy Roller
If you are going to be the pastry chef at a restaurant owned by one of the most well-respected pastry chefs in town (Callie Speer), you better know your stuff. In less than a year, Britt Castro has proved she is more than up for the challenge with treats like banana pudding, root beer floats, and warm cookies that feel nostalgic while still being innovative. Her skills especially shine during the restaurant's Sunday School brunch, where Castro makes witty treats based on the seven deadly sins.
Mary Catherine Curren, ELM Group
Want to know what this ELM Group pastry chef is all about? Order the insanely delicious strawberry cake at Irene’s. Flecked with fresh Texas strawberries and crowned with pink cream cheese icing, it’s the type of dessert usually reserved for birthdays, but here it is available all year. You won’t find foams on Mary Catherine Curren’s plates, nor will you find overly precious garnishes. What you will find are well-balanced flavors, farm fresh ingredients, and the sense that every meal should be a celebration.
Jessica Maher, Lenoir
The dessert section of this South First Street staple’s menu is called “Dream,” an apt descriptor for the visionary mixture of textures and tastes you will find on each one of Jessica Maher’s plates. As with the savory portion of the prix fixe, the sweets incorporate almost all local ingredients, whether harvested or made from local artisans (her CV includes a stint at stringently locavore restaurant Dai Due). If you see something on the menu you want to try, book a table immediately. Much like their namesake, these dreamy desserts will be gone in a flash.
Kendall Melton, Contigo and Chicon
A vet of several local restaurants, Kendall Melton has brought her signature sense of humor to each place. From Chocolate Dirt and Worms at Contigo (with gummies and salted peanuts) to a dark chocolate cake with caramel popcorn and frozen nougat at Chicon, her desserts are joyful reminders that even the most serious student of the pastry arts (Melton often stages in France to constantly improve her craft) is there to make diners smile.
Amanda Rockman, New Waterloo
She beat Bobby Flay, was a James Beard Award semifinalist, and has gained more plaudits than we can count. It’s no wonder that Amanda Rockman's desserts seem like they have nothing left to prove, often avoiding the overly showy in favor of the good. We first noticed Rockman's offerings at South Congress Hotel, where her brunch treats at Central Standard and pastries at Café No Sé stood out. Now as the executive pastry chef for the full New Waterloo hospitality group, she is setting a delicious tone for the growing list of restaurants.
Laura Sawicki, Launderette
We’re not ready to call her the Susan Lucci of the James Beard Awards just yet, but it is high time that Launderette’s inventive pastry chef takes home the win. Laura Sawicki's desserts for Launderette always hit the sweet spot — approachable without being mundane and beautiful without making the presentation more important than taste. She is also the force behind Launderette’s near-iconic birthday cake ice cream sandwich, which is the very definition of winning.