An in-house pastry chef is hard to find, but worth the search
Not long ago, I was dining at a little Platte City café that served home-style food. The kind of restaurant that you might guess served homemade apple pie or bread pudding. But the waitress was much more excited about that night’s special dessert: a pretty square of chocolate mousse deliciousness called Tuxedo Cake.
“Do you make this here?” I asked the server.
“Oh no,” she said, laughing. “It’s from Costco.”
The dessert was pretty good. Why wouldn’t it be? The big-box store Costco supplies a lot of ingredients and products to local restaurateurs. Desserts, too. I’ve seen the store’s signature fudgy, chocolate layer cake — without attribution, of course — in several Kansas City restaurants. It’s inexpensive, it’s rich, and most people can’t tell — or don’t care — that it’s made in a commercial bakery and not in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Another major dessert source for local restaurants is Overland Park’s Golden Boy pies, which has been supplying pies and cakes to establishments (including Town Topic and Nick and Jake’s) across the metro since 1973.
You can still find saloons and diners that outsource their pastries to little old ladies, who bake lemon cakes and cinnamon rolls in their homes — it’s not legal, so I’m not mentioning any names. Anthony Accurso, of Accurso’s Italian Restaurant, still lures his grandmother Mimi into his restaurant’s kitchen to bake her fluffy cheesecake. It’s still the best-selling dessert in the place.
Many restaurants in the city, if they don’t buy frozen desserts from a big commissary kitchen, cut back on the number of desserts they offer in order to keep prices down.
“My husband and I had dinner at PotPie recently,” says Erin Brown, the owner and head baker at Dolce Bakery in Kansas City. “They only had two desserts, but the one we ordered, a brown-butter blueberry cake, was divine.”
Brown says she doesn’t get requests from area restaurants to supply desserts: “They can get cheaper options elsewhere,” Brown says. “The profit margins would be too tight to use our desserts.”
Chef Pete Peterman, the bread baker at Baked in Kansas City, says pastry chefs in hotels and even country clubs are becoming a rare species.
“It’s all about budget cutbacks and reduced demand,” says Peterman, who made his own desserts for his restaurants. “Restaurants just can’t pull it off anymore. When profit margins are tight, it’s more cost-effective to subcontract those items out.”
It’s rare to find a restaurant that can afford the luxury of an in-house pastry chef. Michael Smith, named for the award-winning chef, has one. Upscale boîtes like Affäre, Story, Lidia’s and the American also employ in-house pastry chefs. So does successful West Side bistro Novel.
“Yes, I have a pastry chef,” chef-owner Ryan Brazeal says. “And his name is Ryan Brazeal.”
Brazeal makes many of the desserts at Novel but admits that he also hires another local chef to come in and help create other pastries.
For years, the best pastry chefs in any city were hired by hotels. The first-class ones required pastries for events and banquets as well as for the three meals served in the dining rooms.
“That’s all dying out now,” says former Westin Crown Center executive chef Martin Heuser, now the chef-owner of Affäre. “It’s very sad, but many hotels find it easier and cheaper to have an array of frozen desserts on hand. They just cut them and plate them up. I employed two pastry chefs at the Westin, but they both left to take other positions.”
Heuser is a trained pastry chef as well as a veteran chef. He recently hired Kristi Hogue as his in-house pastry chef (replacing Joe Jackson, who now oversees the kitchen at Blue Grotto). He can’t imagine a restaurant kitchen not having a chef focused on dolce.
“I’m from Europe, and the pastry chef is a very important figure in any professional kitchen,” he says. “It certainly is with me. Dessert is the last dish of the evening, and people remember that dish more than any other thing they might have eaten at that meal.”
That being said, Heuser adds, pastry chefs can be notoriously difficult to work with. “There is, historically, always a test of wills between a pastry chef and an executive chef. I love them and will always have a pastry chef, but they usually need to be handled with kid gloves.”
“Pastry chefs are not difficult,” says Nicolette Foster, the executive pastry chef at Baked in Kansas City. “We do think so much differently from chefs. We’re much more precise. I think there’s always going to be a need for pastry chefs. The desserts we create distinguish a restaurant from its competitors. You can taste the difference from something prepackaged or frozen.”
Jackson, a 27-year-old self-taught pastry chef, worked under several mentors in Paris before moving back to Kansas City. He says he learned a lot from Heuser, but the hours were too long.
“It’s a demanding profession,” Jackson says. “There’s a lot of creativity involved, but a lot of work. The requirements to be a great pastry chef include skill, patience and the ability to think outside the box.”
Chef and TV personality Carla Hall may have explained the differences between a chef and a pastry chef in the simplest terms: “The biggest challenge of being a pastry chef is that, unlike other types of chefs, you can’t throw things together at a farmers market. When you’re working with baking powder and a formula, you have to be exact. If not, things can go wrong.”
“You do need to be methodical and have an understanding of science to be a pastry chef,” says 27-year-old Carter Holton, the main pastry guru at the eight-month-old Sasha’s Baking Co. “But if you understand the formulas and the basic ratios, you can pretty much do what you want.”
Holton points out that “you have to have unconventional ideas to create unconventional desserts.” He recently invented a white-chocolate gin cake, made with rhubarb and pistachio. But he is concerned that too many restaurants “are hung up on savory items and cut corners on desserts.”
“When you’ve had a fantastic meal at a restaurant, and the last dish of the night is a disappointing dessert,” Holton says, “the whole meal becomes a letdown.”