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Meet the Tastemakers: Austin's top pastry chefs on childhood desserts & current inspiration

Austin Photo Set: Layne_tastemakers_pastry chef_march 2013

The 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards are around the corner, and to gear up for the ceremony we decided to speak with a few of the honorees

The nominees for pastry chef — Jessica Maher (Lenoir), Laura Sawicki (La Condesa, Sway), Jodi Elliott (Foreign & Domestic), Steven Cak (Parkside, The Backspace, Olive & June), and Plinio Sandalio (The Carillon) — spoke with CultureMap about childhood desserts, inspirational pastry chefs, and what projects they have at the backs of their minds.

Top from left, Laura Sawicki, Stephen Cak, Plinio Sandalio.
Bottom from left, Jessica Maher, Jodi Elliot

Laura Sawicki, La Condesa

What was your favorite childhood dessert, and has that dish inspired any of your restaurant desserts?

In my family, there was nothing more sacred than dulce de leche. We ate it with everything — cheese, apples, ice cream, cakes, crepes, saltines, flan — you name it. Half the time, we wouldn’t even bother pairing it with anything. Throughout the years at La Condesa, dulce de leche has appeared in many forms on the menu, but the DDL cake, as we call it in the kitchen, is by far the best thing I have ever created. It honors that luscious caramel in the most profound of ways.   

What made you decide to go into pastry as opposed to the savory side of things?

I never even questioned it. Some people were urging me to go into the savory program because it would make me a more well-rounded cook. I had worked the line before, but I just knew I wanted to focus on pastry. Deep down, I have a cook’s sensibility and it shows in the way I approach my baking. A lot of it is intuitive for me and not nearly as structured as some may think. I absolutely love the interplay of simple ingredients — flour, sugar, butter, eggs, cream — and the endless possibilities they are capable of creating. The science aspect is also a fun part; truly understanding the nature of an ingredient is pretty remarkable. I love my job, and that makes it easy to work as hard as I do. 

Aside from your own desserts, what pastry chef or restaurant has an impressive pastry program?

There are so many people doing remarkable work. Back in New York, my dear friend Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar has revolutionized the industry and taken it in an entirely new direction. I worked for Karen Demasco back when she was the executive pastry chef of Craft and CraftBar. Everything she creates is absolutely magnificent. I love Easy Tiger’s contribution to the Austin food scene. Before them, it was impossible to find good, crusty hearth bread. Elizabeth Street Cafe is also creating some pretty delicious pastries. I should also add that all of the pastry chefs sharing this nomination are doing some pretty fantastic things. We each have a totally unique style and aesthetic, so there’s room for so much excellence.

There has been a lot of growth and change in the Austin pastry scene over the years. In your opinion, what's missing here? 

Hmm. Maybe a pastry chef-run restaurant?

What can we look forward to from you in the years to come?

I have a lot of dreams that I hope will materialize in the future. I don’t want to say too much because that would ruin the surprise. 

To break away from pastry a bit, where is your favorite hole in the wall place to grab dinner in Austin? 

My boyfriend and I go to Home Slice on a weekly basis. I absolutely love salad, pizza, and beer. I love the vibe, the music, and the staff. It’s not a hole in the wall so to speak, but it’s my favorite. Recently, I have been loving the vegetarian mezze platter at Tarbouch [Lebanese Grill]; it’s around the corner from our home. Din Ho Chinese BBQ is also amazing. It’s great with a big group and leaves you in a delicious food coma!

Stephen Cak, Parkside, Olive and June, Backspace

What was your favorite dessert as a child, and has that specific dish inspired any of your current restaurant desserts?

Growing up, I ate a lot of crème brûlée and tiramisu. So much in fact that I tend to avoid eating them now. Unfortunately, the indulgence has prevented me from utilizing crème brûlée, but we have had several plays on tiramisu in the Backspace. 

What made you decide to go into pastry as opposed to the savory side of things?

I actually spent about five years on the savory side of the kitchen before finally making the transition to pastry. I found that my artistic side comes into play more often in pastry. There also seems to be a more scientific approach in recipes, methods and techniques, which is how my brain tends to operate.

Aside from your own desserts, what pastry chef or restaurant compiles an impressive pastry program?

Michael Laiskonis, formerly of Le Bernardin, is my pastry hero. He has the ability to blend modern and classical desserts seamlessly. He is also the most humble famous pastry chef I've ever met.

There has been a lot of growth and change in the Austin pastry scene over the years. In your opinion, what's missing here? 

Austin's pastry scene is very impressive and diverse. There is always room for more talent though!

What can we look forward to from you in the years to come?

Hopefully we continue to open more establishments of varying cuisines. We do a lot of research and development of different foods and strive to put out the best product possible at our restaurants. Years ago, I had dreams of opening a bakery and ice cream shop, but my focus has now shifted. Running three pastry/bread programs can be challenging at times, but with more on the way, all of my attention will be placed on these new and current projects.

To break away from pastry a bit, where is your favorite hole in the wall place to grab dinner in Austin?

There is a restaurant near my house that a coworker informed me of — it's called Taco More. I'm addicted to their cabrito consomme.

Photo by Jessica Pages
Austin Photo Set: News_Adam_meet the tastemakers_pastry chefs_april 2012_plinio sandalio_the carillon

Plinio Sandalio, The Carillon

What was your favorite childhood dessert, and has that specific dish inspired any of your current restaurant desserts?

Bolivian coconut alfajore. Essentially, it is a cookie sandwich made with salted shortbread cookie patties, dulce de leche filling, and unsweetened coconut. It plays off the sweet and salty flavors that I try to incorporate in all of my desserts. I’ve never been a fan of coconut, but going back to this dish reminds me of my childhood. Currently, I have a dish that focuses on coconut. It has six other “c” flavors that enhance the flavor of the coconut.

What made you decide to go into pastry as opposed to the savory side of things?

I started with savory. I worked in several Japanese restaurants and would go home smelling like fish. Seriously, who wants to come home smelling like fish? On a more serious note, I saw a savory side in desserts that no one was doing. I took all that I knew about savory and applied it to desserts. My line is set up like a line cook's line. Desserts get plated to order.

Aside from your own desserts, what pastry chef or restaurant compiles an impressive pastry program?

Micheal Laiskonis. I admire his work and commitment to craft above any other chef in New York City. He’s soft spoken, incredibly smart, and knows his flavors better than any other chef I’ve met.

There has been a lot of growth and change in the Austin pastry scene over the years. In your opinion, what's missing here? 

A legitimate dessert bar. The inverse of a restaurant: 85 percent desserts, 15 percent savory, and all the booze you could want. 

What can we look forward to from you in the years to come? 

A legitimate dessert bar. 

To break away from pastry a bit, where is your favorite hole in the wall place to grab dinner in Austin?

I’ve recently discovered Llama's Peruvian Food Trailer. Julio cooks the best food I’ve had in Austin. He brings all the flavors I grew up eating. I’ve told him his food is the closest anyone has ever gotten to my grannie's cooking, and those are hard shoes to fill.

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.

Jodi Elliot, Foreign & Domestic

What was your favorite childhood dessert, and has that specific dish inspired any of your current restaurant desserts?

Dessert in general was my favorite as a child. That's how I knew very early on I wanted to be a pastry chef, a baker, or really any job that involved cookies. My favorite dessert was, and still is, a brownie sundae. I loved experiencing the different layers of flavors, textures and temperatures. I definitely use that as a guide to all of my desserts. I love to put desserts in bowls so people are forced to dig down and get the perfect bite. 

What made you decide to go into pastry as opposed to the savory side of things?

I was a picky eater as a kid and still am in some ways, so I had an appreciation and infatuation with desserts. Also, butchering meat and fish is not something I ever wanted to do. 

Aside from your own desserts, what pastry chef or restaurant compiles an impressive pastry program?

There are so many. I am most impressed with Gramercy Tavern in New York City. I worked there in 2000, and just the sheer volume of desserts we produced every day was impressive. Their quality and commitment to using amazing ingredients is something I respect and admire immensely. My friend Nancy Olson is the pastry chef there now, and I love everything she does. Also, what Christina Tosi has created with Milk Bar in New York City is incredible, and her whole operation is unbelievable. I got to tour her commissary in Brooklyn last year and she's extremely inspiring. I find inspiration from all kinds of things: restaurant's sweet and savory dishes, the weather, a color, a holiday, a childhood memory, etc. 

There has been a lot of growth and change in the Austin pastry scene over the years. In your opinion, what's missing here? 

I would love to see more bread in Austin. European, crusty, amazing bread!

What can we look forward to from you in the years to come?

I have quite a few things in the works right now. I'm looking to open a bakery and dessert bar. I'm also writing a cookbook based on the bake sales. 

To break away from pastry, where is your favorite hole in the wall place to grab dinner in Austin?

I love, love, love Tex-Mex and margaritas! It used to be Jorge's, but they closed recently. There's a ton to choose from, but a few I enjoy are Enchiladas Y Mas and Habanero Mexican Café.

Tickets to the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, April 11 at the Driskill Hotel, are on sale now.