When did you know you’d be a pastry chef for a career?
I had no idea. It kind of all happened to me, to be really honest. The first job where somebody said, “Okay, you’re the pastry chef,” it was shortly after I started. I’d been a pastry cook for two-and-a-half years, and Alain Giraud had just opened Bastide. I’m there, and I kind of don’t like it. This is too Frenchy, this guy uses too many gelatins, too many things that come from the freezer. Alain and I always had a great relationship, so I said, “I don’t think this is for me,” and he said, “Yeah, I don’t think this is the place for you.” With a handshake, we left it very good. At the time, I’m like, “I’m not sure where I want to go next. Maybe I should go back to Campanile,” but I had been replaced already, so I couldn’t get back in. I started asking around, and Suzanne’s husband, David, who I had worked with at Campanile, was going to open a small restaurant with David Rosoff, who’s now at Mozza. It was called Opaline. It’s where BLD is right now. Those guys were like, “Okay, come on board.” I remember I started there and he said, “I’ll just write a very simple menu, and you just have to execute it. You can bring the recipe, whatever, I’ll just give you the parameters.” So he did that. I never considered myself the pastry chef. The opening menu was very well received. We had fairly decent dessert sales. We had positive press for the pastry kitchen, and eventually they were like, “Okay, you deserve the position.” They put me on salary.
What are the desserts or pastries you remember enjoying as a kid in Costa Rica?
I’m not sure that I was exposed to very native pastry. My step mom, who I grew up with, her family is half Spanish and half French, so I remember my grandma making puff pastry. She died when I was five, so I must have been very young. She would make it and put the little mark with her fingernail. Her house smelled strongly of butter. She died of a heart attack at 56, which I think says a lot about her butter eating habits. She would make sablé cookies, very, very buttery and delicious.
My stepmom would make the family repertoire. There was one dessert that she would make that nobody dared make. When I turned 30, my mom’s present was to hire somebody to teach me that, and that is sort of a Costa Rican dessert. It’s a Napoleon, very, very thin of layers of dulce de leche and very brittle-y butter pastry. Dessert wise, there’s definitely something about the Latin American dessert tradition that is a little bit sweeter, the fruit is tropical, if any, there’s a lot of milk and milk products, a lot of dairy, full fat everything.
Have you made the Napoleon here?
I made it for Mother’s Day here, actually, and it’s great.
How did this opportunity come about?
Dan is my boyfriend. We’ve been together for eight years, and we met in cooking school. Just coincidence, we always work at the same places. We worked at Campanile together, he was the chef de cuisine of A.O.C. when I was pastry chef at the other two restaurants. When we moved to clarklewis, he was the head chef and I was his pastry chef. Something happens when you have that team of chef and pastry chef. I’ve had that relationship with a few people, and when it’s there and it works, you need it. I think that when he started working here, eventually it became obvious, yeah, I needed to come on board.
People think that pastry kitchens are very independent, but they’re actually not at all independent. They’re very subjected to the main kitchen. I have a lot of managerial responsibilities, so definitely that, but it terms of menu writing, you can’t work independently. It would make no sense if I had a lot of desserts that have a lot of apple if there’s a lot of apple on the menu. You always have to keep it balanced. For example, when Dan has a lot of brown butter on the menu – which is one of my favorite ingredients – I have to mellow out on dessert because you don’t want everything to taste the same from start to finish.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
Yeah, I would definitely consider Nancy Silverton and her pastry chef at the time when I was at Campanile, Kimberly Boyce, super big time. And even though Suzanne Goin is not a pastry chef, I would still say that she mentored me a lot. Her choice of ingredients, the way that she approached a dish was very internalized.
What would you say that Nancy and Kimberly taught you?
What I liked most about them is that they were never too worried about appearances, in every sense. Something about cooking can be very ego related. Something about restaurants is very ego driven, especially now, more than ever. In the year 2000, the Food Network was big, but it’s not what it was now. Thank God there was no Facebook or Twitter back then, and even when I met Nancy, she was already very famous. She was already a James Beard Award winner. She had six books under her wing. Even though she was a very accomplished woman, I never saw her seeking media attention. Never. It was profound that just by being herself and executing what she does best, was able to be admired and sort of praised, without building on her persona. That, in terms of character, was a huge lesson.
Then of course in terms of technique and discipline, the lessons are huge. I guess Campanile made me a very talented plater. They would get 300 covers on a Saturday night. You get your butt kicked, literally, and you’re going to be there from 2:30 in the afternoon until they close, and by the time you go home, you’re going to be very tired, but 300 people had dessert and it was fine.
What’s the criteria for an AMMO dessert?
I don’t think there’s a criteria, like, “Check, check,” but what is definitely true, the dessert menu has to describe the time of year. Our dessert menu has to describe the fact that whoever is working in the pastry kitchen – which at this time is me and another pastry cook – that we’re talented, that we know what we’re doing and that we know a certain amount of techniques. It’s a dessert menu that relates a lot to the dinner menu, so it makes sense to start a meal with our very seasonal salads and move to entrées that I consider the appropriate size. So breaking apart from a huge meat portion with veal demi glace. And then sort of, how do you bring a dessert that is totally in tune with that? Nobody’s going to go home with a belly ache.
What’s the most recent dessert you developed, and what was your approach?
Last week we did a book signing with Jimmy Williams. He’s an awesome man, a gardener and landscaper that works out of the farmers market in Santa Monica and many other markets. He just wrote a book, and it’s called “From Seed to Skillet.” Even though it includes a very small chapter on recipes, it’s not a cookbook. We had a book signing dinner with him, and obviously the whole purpose is to have people come and purchase the book and have it signed and be able to talk to Jimmy. It’s also to have a dinner that relates to the book. The recipes were so few and so summer oriented that we had to tweak them so it would be appropriate for this time of year. The dessert, and I think there’s only one dessert, is called a slump, which is a very rustic crisp or cobbler. My decision was then, “How do I make Jimmy sound true and have a dessert that is seasonally appropriate, delicious and the best way to end the meal?” I chose apple, since a slump is supposed to be soupy. I added cranberries to make it juicy and delicious, and a little bit of crumble topping, and I could have done ice cream, but it felt like the whole thing could be hard to eat when you have a harder ice cream on top of something very soft. It could be not very fork friendly or spoon friendly, so we just did a rich custard sauce around it. And you know, it was a perfect dessert that you could serve to a larger number of people, and everybody will have an equally great experience.
Can you see serving that again?
For us, day to day, I want something more refined, and I want something more personal. When you do a prix fixe dinner, everybody’s having the same thing. When I make desserts for our regular menu, I like to make them in small batches. For example, I just pulled the bread puddings out of the oven. There are 12 of them, 12 very special bread puddings that somebody can’t scoop, things that are done with a little more attention.
Is there any single pastry or dessert that you can’t imagine in the AMMO rotation anymore?
No, and this applies to the kitchen as well. They keep a pace sort of like mine. If [Mattern’s] changing the menu aggressively, I’ll change the menu aggressively. If he’s more mellow with the menu, I’ll be more mellow with the menu. Cause I don’t want people to say, “I go to AMMO all the time, everything’s so different and seasonal but dessert. Everything’s stuck in winter or stuck in summer.” That would be my nightmare. What I definitely tried to do is change as often as the kitchen changes and also to never get bored. I’ll get bored, people will get bored. And it’s very cool for people to come and say, “Where is something? That was my favorite.” And then, slightly disappointed, order something else and learn to like it.
For example, we have a chocolate bread pudding that we prepare in the wood-burning oven with marshmallow, and it gets all torchy and burned. There’s sort of a little bit of a following with that dessert, so I took it off the menu, because it was a little bit out of control. I want people to try something else. I took it off the menu, and then very, very gently put it back on earlier today.
If you could only eat one more pastry or dessert, what would it be and why?
If I have to have one more dessert before I die, it would probably be Nancy Silverton’s Apple Rustic. That was the dessert that made me want to work there, and there are many things I like about it. When people ask, “What’s your favorite dessert?,” I tell them that was the one and everybody’s like, “What? What? A galette-y looking tart with streusel on top and apples? Why?” Apples can be very, very, very trivial, and a lot of people cook them as if they’re a very, very trivial dessert. Apple is the potato of dessert land. What I like about that dessert is that’s conceptualized as if apples were precious. They’re very good, very unique and very special when they’re served with a little caramel, a little buttery pastry and just a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Who would make it?
Nancy, or actually a whole school of Campanile pastry cooks, and there must be 40 or 50 of us out there. Any of those 40 to 50 of us can make it.