3 Top Pastry Chefs Share their Secrets
From breads that set the stage to chocolate crescendos that complete the meal, pastry chefs have elevated their role in restaurants and their prestige in the industry.
Pastry chefs have more on their plate these days. Many are in charge of baking breads from scratch for their restaurant, while others have developed entire selections of chocolate lines and roving pastry trolleys. FSR caught up with three highly regarded pastry chefs who are making waves in their respective cities for going above and beyond with their sweet extras.
Executive Pastry Chef, Boka Restaurant Group
Nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Pastry Chef award this year, Meg Galus earned her stripes as a top pastry chef in Chicago while working for Gale Gand at Tru, and later moving to other acclaimed restaurants and hotels in the city. Now with Boka Restaurant Group, Galus oversees breads, pastries, and desserts at the group’s original fine-dining restaurant Boka as well as at Momotaro and Swift & Sons, the group’s latest concept and answer for a modern steakhouse.
In her diverse role, Chef Galus is challenged with developing the pastry menu for three very distinct restaurants. She spends the bulk of her time at Boka and Swift & Sons, but had to do some extensive research to consult on the dessert menu at Boka Group’s Japanese-inspired Momotaro to try to go beyond a basic matcha crème brûlée and seek more creativity in the form of yuzu cakes and steamed citrus puddings.
At Boka, she lets her creative freedoms expand in the form of whimsical, artfully plated creations, such as the hazelnut and coffee dessert that features a quenelle of plain, whole milk ice cream from a small Illinois dairy farm and a brush of coffee and praline cream dotted with hazelnut crumble, candied hazelnut, and whipped praline. Other desserts are inspired by what is in season and nearby, namely blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and other stone fruit.
At Swift, she has focused the dessert menu around classics like Boston cream pie, but plated in a more deconstructed way. And she introduced a chocolate trolley that roves around the dining room and features 10 to 12 rotating creations like chocolate truffles, chocolate financier, chocolate and apricot cake, candy bars that are molded and dipped in chocolate, chocolate mille-feuille, homemade caramels, and other treats.
Not to be dominated by the sweets finale, Chef Galus puts as much emphasis on the start of the meal with fresh-baked breads, including her favorite: a sourdough pumpernickel served warm with local farm butter. “It’s imperative that I be a bit of a chameleon,” she says. “It’s imperative that the desserts on each of the menus mesh with and reflect the savory menu. It can’t just be about Meg Galus ‘doing her thing.’ The most fun thing about my job right now is that I don’t feel pigeon-holed into any one style of plating.”
Executive Pastry Chef, Gotham Bar and Grill
New York City
Training at Germany’s Elisabeth-Knipping Schule in Kassel and learning from master chocolatier Jean-François Castagne at The French Pastry School in New York City helped set Ron Paprocki for the perfect side project: developing a line of chocolates this year for Gotham Bar and Grill, where he has served as executive pastry chef for the past four years.
The whimsical, playful style he honed while executive pastry chef of New York’s Gordon Ramsay at The London extends to his chocolate line as well. Super creativity has always been in Paprocki’s blood. His first career was in landscape architecture, which, he explains, requires two skill sets—working with your hands and being able to create something beautiful from a blank slate.
Certainly he achieved that with Gotham Bar and Grill’s first line of chocolates, which includes a series of hand-painted, filled bonbons as well as custom-blended chocolate bars for use in plated desserts and also for retail. Flavor combinations for the bonbons include cherry-balsamic; white chocolate and lemon-infused olive oil; Mount Gay rum and mocha; and peanut butter with ground peanuts, sea salt, and milk chocolate in a dark chocolate shell.
To source the perfect chocolate, Paprocki identified a reputable but small Swiss chocolate company, which procures wild, indigenous beans from Bolivia to produce the restaurant’s aromatic, 70 percent dark chocolate house-blend. Paprocki melts the chocolate he receives in bulk, tempers it, and reshapes it into bars for resale or for use in the bonbons. Currently, Paprocki’s chocolates are available at Gotham and sold online and at select gourmet food shops in New York.
Creating the bonbon takes between two and four hours a day, over the span of three days. Chef Paprocki manages the time by splitting the work with another pastry cook and making large batches at a time, doing so more frequently during holiday season.
“Right now we have the capacity to make 1,700 chocolates in one batch,” he says. On day one, Paprocki sets the chocolate shells and makes the fillings; on day two he fills in the chocolates and sets them, and on day three he paints designs on the tops—all by hand. “There is this higher level of challenge when you work with chocolates,” he says. “But it makes the work environment more exciting, and it is another outlet to be creative.”
Chef/Partner at Willa Jean
Ice cream and laminated dough. Those are Kelly Fields’ two pastry loves as part of her job as chef/partner at Willa Jean, which opened in August 2015 and is part of John Besh’s empire in New Orleans. A bakery counter stands at the front of the restaurant, and every day Chef Fields makes a variety of croissants, kouign-amann, Danish, and even laminated, super-tender biscuits as part of Willa Jean’s comfort food, home-style menu.
Formerly the executive pastry chef at Besh’s fine-dining August restaurant, Fields has had to go “back to the basics” in her new role. “Instead of foams and powders, I try to relearn how to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie, for example,” she says. For Fields, that means aging the dough in the walk-in cooler for 24 hours before scooping it into balls and then freezing them before baking. Fields has also been recognized for her classic layer cakes and, to her surprise, for her rice crispy treats. But these aren’t just any rice crispy treats: Field’s treats fold in crunchy, Valrhona chocolate pearls and chocolate-covered puffed rice for extra richness and texture. For a play on a red velvet cake, she uses the traditional roasted-beet method for adding color and turns what would be a cream cheese frosting into a creole crème cheese ice cream.
Making ice cream is one of her passions and an important part of each day. Lately, her favorite is an eggless variation made with a reduction of Pedro Ximénez sherry, and resembling a silky and beautiful, rum raisin-like ice cream.
In addition to spending roughly 12 hours a day at Willa Jean, Fields continues to oversee the pastry program and train staff at another Besh restaurant, Lüke, and she spends time brainstorming with the new executive pastry chef at August. “I do see a trend where the responsibilities of the pastry chef are growing more than ever, but the value is a no-brainer for any restaurant,” Fields says. “Though everyone has specialties, the more well-rounded you are, the more fun you’re going to have in your job.”