When Heather Gressett, pastry chef for Chestnut and Corner Kitchen restaurants, was a little girl, she and her family were regulars at a small, family-owned Mexican restaurant in Santa Barbara, Calif. She vividly remembers the moment the seed was planted in her soul for a career she didn’t even know existed.
“A little girl my age, who I assume was part of the family, brought a flan to our table. She didn’t say a word, she just carried it over and set it down in front of me,” she recalls. “We didn’t order it; it was, ‘Here you are, a gift from me to you.’ To this day, that remains my favorite dessert, because it taught me at a young age that food is a language we can all speak, from culture to culture. It is a language of love.”
And what category of food is more universally loved than dessert? It serves as an indulgence, a reward, a celebration and even as a salve for a broken heart. Even so, the predominantly female chefs behind the magic confection curtain in restaurants don’t always feel that the love is professionally reciprocated.
At the 2018 James Beard Awards gala in Chicago, 27-year-old Camille Cogswell, pastry chef at Zahav, a modern Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, received the coveted medallion of Rising Star Chef. Her achievement is even more notable in light of the fact that she is only the second pastry chef in the 28-year history of the awards to receive the recognition as “a chef 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”
Cogswell, who received a diploma from Asheville High School several years before she graduated with a degree in baking and pastry arts from the Culinary Institute of America, hopes that some of her impact on the industry extends to more respect for the profession. “In Europe, in the rigid structure of haute cuisine, the position of pastry chef has always been held in high esteem,” she says. “Traditionally, those positions have been held by men. Here, for many years, the stereotype was if you were a woman in the kitchen, you would do pastry, and that was seen as a lesser thing. That perception still lingers, but I think it is changing.”
Among the women whacking away at that perception are Kaley Laird, pastry chef at Rhubarb, the Rhu and Benne on Eagle, and Ashley Capps, pastry chef for Buxton Hall Barbecue. Their job descriptions and daily routines give lie to the demeaning assessment Laird says she has heard: “‘It’s just cookies, right? It’s easy enough, just follow the recipe.’”
Laird counters, “It’s a hard and rough career. And it’s not given the same respect, status or salary as chefs on the savory side.”
Capps smiles when she says, “When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I’m a pastry chef, they get very excited. They’re like ‘Ooh, you make dessert, how fun!’ They don’t realize what goes into it and how hard we work.”
Laird, who blames/credits her mother with giving her the baking bug through early immersion in the craft of Christmas cookies, went directly from a high school work-study job doing pastry for a local restaurant in western New York to the CIA. “You choose baking and pastry arts or culinary arts, and I chose pastry because I thought I could learn to cook, but I wanted to study pastry.”
After graduating from CIA then getting a degree in business from Niagara University, Laird moved to Yountville, Calif., and a position as pastry commis at Bouchon Bakery. “It’s the lowest man on the totem pole,” she explains. “Your job is to do exactly what they tell you to do, work your butt off and get paid nothing. I worked really hard at every station and revamped and rewrote every station because I worked faster than anyone ever had. I was very aggressive for a commis.”
When she did not get the promotion and compensation she felt she deserved, she moved on to other restaurants in Napa, then San Francisco, building an impressive resume but becoming disillusioned by staffing structures. “Restaurants thought they could save money by eliminating pastry chefs and giving the job to cooks, because the perception was it is easy,” she says. “The cost of living there meant all you did was work to make ends meet. I wanted to figure out this work-life balance thing I heard about. I didn’t know anything about Asheville, but I knew it was close to the coast for the beach, and I love hiking.”
Laird also knew little of chef John Fleer, his tenure at the lauded Blackberry Farm in Tennessee or his then 2-year-old restaurant, Rhubarb, in downtown Asheville. But his name popped to the top in a Google search, and she sent him an email with her resume, which he replied to personally.
“Our first interview was over the phone,” recalls Fleer. “I was superimpressed by her intelligence. She knows what her style is and what she wants to do. She has walked the line between sweet and savory, and I believe in that. She is very adventurous, especially in plated desserts, and I like that.”
Diners at Rhubarb perusing the four daily plated dessert selections and house-made ice cream see Laird’s adventurous inclinations but only a fraction of what she actually does on the job. While you’re patting yourself on the back for making a 6 a.m. yoga class, Laird has already been on the job for three hours in the pastry kitchen on the third floor of The Rhu, the bakery and café that opened a couple of weeks before she came on board four years ago.
It is there that everything baked — from biscuits to brioche, cakes to cornbread, sourdough loaves to scones and, yes, cookies, including gluten-free — begins and is then disbursed to The Rhu downstairs, to Rhubarb, to Benne on Eagle and to multiple wholesale accounts. She oversees as many as 12 people when fully staffed, including overnight bakers, morning openers and someone who reports to Rhubarb at 3:30 p.m. to plate desserts.
“When you take on someone who has the ability to do and execute more than plated desserts, you also need to find ways to support a team to support that person,” says Fleer. “The Rhu and our wholesale operations support a full pastry staff.”
Taste of nostalgia
Capps, who was the opening pastry chef for Rhubarb before taking on the same role at Buxton Hall, fully appreciates that concept. “I’m a person who thrives off teamwork, collaborating and pairing with the chef and every department, wherever I’m working,” she says. “Elliott [Moss] has a very clear vision here — Southern, whole-hog barbecue calls for nostalgic, old-fashioned desserts.”
Capps, who grew up baking pies, cakes and cookies with her grandmother, mother and sister in Burlington, says retro Southern desserts are definitely in her wheelhouse, but it’s the artist and the trained pastry chef in her that steers the baking program at Buxton on a creative track. She went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University Charleston while a senior in high school, detoured to study fine arts at UNC Asheville, then finished her pastry degree at A-B Tech, where she still teaches.
Entering Buxton Hall, the overwhelming odor is of smoke and pork, but descend the stairs before entering the cavernous dining room, and the scents of cinnamon, vanilla, apple, sourdough and chocolate waft from the pastry kitchen where Capps leads a staff of four, including two of her former students. Four clipboards on the wall define the program.
“One is what Buxton the restaurant needs for the dessert menu,” she explains. “The second is all the breads, biscuits, rolls, crackers. The third is catering, and the fourth is special order and special events. Everything is made in-house, including the vanilla wafers.”
The wafers, known as Bu’nilla wafers, are the backbone of Buxton’s dessert calling card, the banana pudding pie. “We’re not doing fancy molecular foams here,” Capps says with a laugh. “So what can we do to make everything special? We flavor our pie crusts to complement each type of pie. With the banana pudding pie, we make the wafers, brown the butter before it goes in the crust to give it more flavor, make our pudding custard with fresh-cut bananas, crushed vanilla bean, a little bit of allspice and cinnamon, then put brown sugar in the meringue and torch the dickens out of it. It’s like your grandma’s banana pudding made by a pastry chef.”
Gressett, who is fairly new to Asheville and doesn’t have Laird’s and Capps’ high profile or massive volume, appreciates that even when desserts claim just a small part of the menu, the regard for the profession is growing. “Just since I’ve started in the industry, there’s been a shift,” she says. “I think attitudes are changing and our skills are more respected.”
Count Fleer in the fan club. “I started my career in pastry,” he says. “The first two years I worked in a restaurant, they didn’t have a pastry chef, so I was that person. Sometimes, in small, new restaurants you have no choice. But because of that, I’ve always had respect for the kind of person it takes to do pastry, and the importance, at least in the way I view my restaurant, of having a person focused on that. I strongly believe in the pastry chef’s place in our world.”