Jessica Maher, Lenoir
What was your favorite childhood dessert, and has that dish inspired any of your current restaurant desserts?
Fruit pies, ice cream, and cookies: simplicity at its finest. My mom baked pies all the time, still does, and always baked at least three pies at a time. Cookies were easy to make and very easy to eat; it didn't matter what type. And ice cream, well, everyone loves ice cream.
What made you decide to go into pastry as opposed to the savory side of things?
I never really committed to one or the other. I love eating sweets, so I never get tired of it. I probably have equal experience in savory and sweet, but baking comes a bit more naturally to me probably because it was something I could do on my own when I was a kid. The pace in a pastry kitchen is different because baking takes time, but with that comes the pressure to get it right the first time.
Aside from your own desserts, what pastry chef or restaurant compiles an impressive pastry program?
Todd [Duplechan] is very creative, and he inspires me to try and match the desserts with the savory part of the menu. We talk about the menu constantly, trying to work through what is available to us locally and seasonally and make that work with our hot-weather, French-Texan menu. I still find most of the restaurants I've worked for in the past inspirational, and I love seeing what people are putting on their menus everywhere. I feel like the other pastry chefs nominated for this award are probably more qualified, experienced pastry chefs, and they all really make beautiful pastries. Laura Sawicki's dessert menus at Sway and La Condesa are so thoughtful, well-executed and delicious. There was a time when Todd and I would go to La Condesa for brunch almost every Saturday, and even if they had to roll me out of there, I was going to eat dessert.
There has been a lot of growth and change in the Austin pastry scene over the years. In your opinion, what's still missing?
Austin's doing pretty well, actually. We may not have the sheer number of artisan shops that big cities have, but there's definitely no shortage of talented chefs, bakers, butchers, growers, brewers, etc. It's probably only a matter of time before you can think of any type of food and someone will be serving it. I was going to say a chocolatier, but I know there are local folks doing that, too. Honestly, there are an awful lot of food-related businesses here. We're pretty lucky.
What can we look forward to from you in the years to come?
I think one pastry job is enough for me! Todd and I are talking about opening another business, but it's not a restaurant concept. He's full of ideas, but I'd like to keep things a bit simpler for myself. Diversification would be nice. Cooking for a living is wonderful, but we have a family and should enjoy some other activities, too.
To break away from pastry a bit, where is your favorite hole in the wall place to grab dinner?
We tend to stick around our home base, which can get a little redundant, but I find myself picking up food from Whip-In and Home Slice Pizza pretty often because they're reliably good. Also, I go to Pho Thaison and the Honduran taco trailer in the old Mucho's gas station parking lot. If we have more time, we'll head to Noble Pig in Cedar Park, Sunflower, and Tam's Deli. We also eat at Elizabeth Street Cafe, Sway, La Condesa, Salt & Time and Dai Due at the SFC Farmers' Market. I guess we really are creatures of habit.