ATX Tastemakers 2014
Best Pastry Chefs in Austin

Austin's best pastry chefs sweeten the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards

Austin's best pastry chefs sweeten the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards

Arro rosewater profiteroles
Arro's rosewater profiteroles.  Photo by Thierry-Clément Bignolet
Barley Swine aerated pepper cheesecake
Aerated sweet pepper cheesecake, from Kyle McKinney.  Photo by Knox Photographics
Chavez malted milk mousse
Chavez's malted milk mousse.  Photo by Nick Simonite
Congress restaurant yogurt mousse
Congress dessert.  Photo by Jody Horton
Jodi Elliott coconunt sundae
Jodi Elliott's dessert.  Photo by Aimee Wanske
LaV dessert
LaV dessert.  Photo by Jody Horton
Lenoir mitibleu and grapefruit cake
Lenoir's mitibleu and grapefruit cake.  Photo by Jody Horton
Olivia dessert apple
Beggar's Purse from Olivia.  Courtesy of Olivia
Swift's Attic popcorn and a movie
Popcorn and a Movie, from Swift's Attic.  Courtesy of Swift's Attic
Arro rosewater profiteroles
Barley Swine aerated pepper cheesecake
Chavez malted milk mousse
Congress restaurant yogurt mousse
Jodi Elliott coconunt sundae
LaV dessert
Lenoir mitibleu and grapefruit cake
Olivia dessert apple
Swift's Attic popcorn and a movie

It is no secret that Austin’s restaurant scene has blown up exponentially over the past several years. Its pastry chefs, in particular, are thinking outside the plate to produce innovative, playful desserts that are just as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate.

Incorporating more savory elements than ever, and using techniques ranging from classic to molecular, the 10 nominees for CultureMap’s 2014 Tastemaker Award for Best Pastry Chef are bringing some pretty sweet competition to the table. 

Steven Cak
After training at Arizona’s Scottsdale Culinary Institute as well as graduating from the Culinary Institute of America with honors in pastry and baking, Cak worked with Chef Chris Broberg at Cafe Grey and Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit in New York City before landing in Austin to take over the Parkside Projects pastry program, which includes Backspace, Olive & June and Chavez.

Years in the industry: 12

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? A smoked chocolate and malt dessert at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis by Adrienne Odom. I was fortunate to get to work with her later in my career at another restaurant. I learned a lot from her.

Guilty pleasure sweet treat: My guilty pleasure sweet treat would be Sour Patch Kids. They are addictive and I buy them in 2-pound bags.

Favorite dessert from childhood: I have always loved ice cream and it will always be my favorite.

Current favorite creation of your own: My favorite style of desserts are fruit and cream based ones. So currently I would say the Mango con Queso dessert at Chavez. Bright, refreshing flavors.

Mary Catherine Curren 
This Austin native graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, where she met her future husband, Chef Andrew Curren. After stints at New York’s Water Club and Cookshop, they returned to Texas and she became the pastry chef at Zoot until they opened their first venture, 24 Diner. She’s now the executive pastry chef at their French bistro concept Arro, putting creative twists on classic desserts.

Years in the industry: 11

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? No one dessert made me want to become a pastry chef, but I was definitely inspired by my grandmother, who made amazing pies and biscuits. I just naturally gravitated to baking. If I was bored, I’d make a batch of cookies or bake a cake. I always found it very comforting.

Guilty pleasure sweet treat: I adore almost anything sweet — from junky candy bars all the way to beautifully composed desserts. My guiltiest pleasure would probably be Starburst Jellybeans. 

Favorite dessert from childhood: Birthday cake. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting and colored sprinkles. I still ask my mom to make it for me every year. 

Current favorite creation of your own: Since I've been pregnant (the baby is due in May), I can't get enough chocolate! The Dark Chocolate Pot de Crème at Arro satisfies my craving every time. 

Jodi Elliott
Another graduate of CIA Hyde Park pastry program, Elliott gained experience in the kitchens of prestigious restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern, The Savoy and Per Se before spearheading the pastry program at Austin’s Foreign & Domestic. Lines for her Saturday bake sales regularly wrapped around the block long before Elliott was named The People’s Best New Pastry Chef by Food & Wine in 2013. Several locations of Bribery, her anticipated new dessert and cocktail bar concept, are set to open this year.

Years in the industry: 17

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? Making pies for Thanksgiving when I was 8 or 9 years old.

Guilty pleasure sweet treat: Peanut M&Ms or Very Cherry Jelly Belly jelly beans .

Favorite dessert from childhood: Brownie sundae — it's still my favorite!

Current favorite creation of your own: One of my favorites is my version of my grandmother's buttermilk pie. I'm baking it in a jar and serving it with roasted rhubarb, lemon cream and basil caramel. 

Jessica Maher
On the brink of attending graduate school for forensics, Maher decided instead to go to culinary school. She cut her teeth at Jeffrey’s in Austin, followed by New York’s Jacques Torres Chocolate and Bouley, where she met husband Todd Duplechan. The two have been keeping busy at their award-winning restaurant Lenoir, where Jessica was creating innovative plated desserts. Now 8 months pregnant, she’s promoted former sous Jasmine Jones to fill her place. Keep an eye out for Maher and Duplechan’s vintage and rare cookbook shop, set to open this summer.

Years in the industry: 14

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? I don't know if it really made me want to become a pastry chef, but the first dessert I really loved to make was a chocolate pot de creme. It was so simple, but making sure it had just the right consistency took concentration, and I discovered that I loved following the process to the T to get it just right. There were a lot of desserts after that gave me that same sense of satisfaction, but that was really the first.

Guilty pleasure sweet treat: All sweets are my guilty pleasure, and I rarely deny myself. I would say I'm a sucker for almost any pie (as long as it's good) and chocolate malts. Mmmmm, I might get one today (I am pregnant, after all).

Favorite dessert from childhood: Pie of any kind was definitely my favorite dessert as a kid. My mom made pie all the time for friends, and she'd always make extra for the house. She still does. Honestly, I don't think she can make less than four pies at a time. Specifically, my favorites were peach pie and strawberry rhubarb. If there was a pie in our house, it didn't make it through the night. I could, and still can, eat a whole pie by myself.

Current favorite creation of your own: Our cheese plates bridge the gap between cheese and dessert, so all those people who tell us they don't like dessert can still find a little something sweet to end the night with. It is a grapefruit pound cake made with olive oil and ricotta, served with grapefruit segments soaked in a ras el hanout syrup, marcona almonds and a big chunk of mitibleu, which is a roquefort-type cheese from Spain that we get from Antonelli's. It's got a touch of sweet, nuttiness, spice, citrus and a punch of creamy, grassy blue cheese funkiness that really works well. 

Kyle McKinney
After attending culinary school in Scottsdale, McKinney started working in the pastry kitchen of the Hilton there, but transferred to Austin location because they had a sushi bar. Besides a stint at Maiko working with sushi, he stuck to the world of sweets, working at the Four Seasons before developing the pastry program at Barley Swine, where he became known for unique and precise creations. Now he’s planning his next moves which, unfortunately for us, will occur outside of Austin.

Years in the industry: 19

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? There wasn’t a particular dessert that made me want to do pastry. It was the science and free thinking about ingredients that pastry offers that drew me to it. I wanted to expand my knowledge and pastry was a great canvas for me to stretch my artistic legs as well. 

Guilty pleasure sweet treat: Ice cream. Lots of ice cream.

Favorite dessert from childhood: My favorite childhood dessert is totally pumpkin pie. My family would actually give me several for Christmas when I was a kid.

Current favorite creation of your own: My kick right now is making my own grain and nut milks. Fresh strawberries, granola and homemade almond or rice milk sherbet. Yum!  

Janina O’Leary
Not many chefs can say they got the chance to meet Julia Child while enrolled at the French Culinary Institute, or work under Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali and Pichet Ong, for that matter. But O’Leary can claim all five. After moving back to Austin to take on the pastry program at the W Austin’s restaurant TRACE, O’Leary has now moved on to join the talented team of the newly opened and highly anticipated laV.

Years in the industry: 14

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? My mom and aunt were bakers and I grew up with them cooking at home. They were a huge influence. So to answer your question, anything my mom and aunts baked.

Guilty pleasure sweet treat: Ice cream! 

Favorite dessert from childhood: My mom's cinnamon rolls or my aunt's German chocolate and pecan pie.

Current favorite creation of your own: I have really enjoyed implementing the bread program at laV. It's the first time Austin is really tasting my breads. So, that's been great. Also, the lavender and earl grey ice cream has gotten great feedback.

Plinio Sandalio
Sandalio spent the first eight years of childhood in Bolivia before moving to Houston, where he attended the Art Institute for culinary arts. He gained both sweet and savory experience, working first as sous chef at Rickshaw and Soma, pastry at Noe, Gravitas and Textile, and trying his hand at mixology at Anvil. After relocating to Austin, he worked as David Bull’s pastry chef at Congress before moving to The Carillon, where he continues to craft meticulous final courses.

Years in the industry: 8

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? Bunuelos.

Guilty pleasure sweet treat: Zebra cakes.

Favorite dessert from childhood: My aunt’s bunuelos. 

Current favorite creation of your own: Burnt toast ice cream. 

Callie Speer
Soon after her first kitchen job at Cipolina in Austin, led to a job at esteemed Jeffrey’s, Callie Speer dropped her physics major to pursue the culinary arts. She went on to become the pastry chef at Mars followed by Parkside. Married fellow pastry magician Philip Speer, she now thinks up the playful desserts at Swift’s Attic.

Years in the industry: 13.5

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? No particular dessert —I just really loved the art of desserts, or pastry cheffing, if you will.

Guilty pleasure sweet treat? Thin Mints.

Favorite dessert from childhood? Funfetti icing — I would just eat the icing by the spoonful!

Current favorite creation of your own: Banana pudding with stout beer bubbles, peanut brittle, sherbet and crispy chocolate mousse. 

Finney Walter
After attending college at a liberal arts school, Walter found himself working in kitchens in upstate New York, San Francisco and Austin — including the Driskill, Uchi and Vespaio. He moved to Paris for a year to hone his skills in several small bistros before landing at at the three Michelin Star-rated The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California. Upon his return to Austin, he created the pastry program at Mettle and is now settling into his role as pastry chef of Olivia. 

Years in the industry: 14 

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? At the Chateau de L'Ile in Strasbourg, as a kid, the pastry chef brought out a pair of "chocolate mice" for my brother and me — a pair of chocolate mousses made to look like their animal counterpart with almond slivers for ears, etc. Pretty classical.

Guilty pleasure sweet treat? Honestly, that would be Red Vines. 

Favorite dessert from childhood? Linzer heart cookies during the holidays. 

Current favorite creation of your own: The Beggars Purse of Green Apples, but I’m still tweaking recipes and drying procedures for the laminate that holds everything together. It's different from things I have done at other restaurants, but still a reference to things I have done in the past and the idea of working with flavor memories.

Erica Waksmunski
Waksmunski graduated from Johnson & Wales in Charlotte with a degree in pastry arts before working at Everest in Chicago, Flyte World Dining and Wine in Nashville, Chez TJ in Mountain View, California. She’s also staged at many Michelin Star restaurants, such as Songs & Daughters in San Francisco, Ubuntu in Napa, and Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, California. She’s now responsible for the inventive desserts gracing the menu at Congress.

Years in the industry: 11

What dessert made you want to be a pastry chef? I had a Christmas party the first time I was living in Nashville and I catered it myself out of my kitchen. It was mostly baked goods — I knew then that I wanted to do that for a living. 

Favorite dessert from childhood/guilty pleasure sweet treat: Either fries or Ruffles potato chips dipped in a chocolate frosty from Wendy's. 

Current favorite creation of your own: The fried puddin’.


The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards will take place May 7 at Brazos Hall. Tickets, and more information about the event, are available here