Just Desserts

Austin's Pastry Chefs

Lovers who dined out for Valentine's Day earlier this week were no doubt impressed with the tantalizing and delightful desserts available. Restaurant business growth in the late Eighties and early Nineties attracted and nurtured an extremely talented and diverse group of pastry cooks and dessert makers in this area. This is not to say that there haven't always been some wonderful desserts in Austin. In the post WWII years, it was Cuneo's famous Rum Cake. The ice cream desserts shaped like horses' heads at the Hitching Post delighted children in the Fifties and the Night Hawk was always the place for the best cream pies. In the Seventies, the Old Pecan Street Cafe was one of the first Austin restaurants to develop a reputation based primarily on desserts, such as the Italian Cream and Fat Chocolate Cakes. Sour Cream Lime Pie from Desserts by Shirley was revered by Wylie's Sixth Street crowd. Regulars at Bob Lowe's Galleria restaurant were staunchly devoted to Pam Conlan's rendition of Sachertorte, Linzertorte, Charlotte Malakoff and the Chocolate Poppyseed Cake. Sweetish Hill's Prinz Tom Torte was wildly popular and although Fonda San Miguel was famous for the cuisine of Interior Mexico, it was also the place to get Susan Trilling's Pennsylvania Dutch Sour Cream Apple Pie.

Famous desserts in the Eighties boomtown of Austin were Oreo Cheesecakes and Rocky Road brownies from Chez Fred, Hyde Park Fudge Cake from TFB, the Chocolate Orgasm at Basil's, and the Chocolate Intemperance at Jeffrey's from Art Meier's Texas Tortes. Willie's Pies sold very well in many restaurants around town. Customer loyalty to the marvelous Mocha Toffee Torte and the Peanut Butter Pie at the original small Castle Hill Cafe helped boost that longtime favorite restaurant into a bigger location.

Many businesses now have their own pastry chef or dessert maker, creating dessert menus specifically tailored to the cuisine of the restaurant, and patrons are regularly dazzled with the offerings. While the more established restaurants maintain some traditional favorites out of deference to their loyal clienteles, the new court of pastry queens and kings are devising challenging and lighter gustatory enhancements to satisfy Austin's sweet tooth. Alain Braux, Amandine French Pastries & Cafe It's a safe bet there is only one person working in Austin who has the names of both Roger Verge and Gaston Lenotre on their resumé, and that man is Alain Braux. Certified executive pastry chef and certified master baker Alain Braux operates Amandine French Pastries & Cafe. The Nice native studied the making of ice creams at the Ecole Gastronomique Lenotre, and early in his career worked as an assistant to the pastry chef at the legendary Moulin de Mougins for the noted chef Roger Verge. After 10 years in Europe and three years in New York, Braux moved to Houston to open and run the Lenotre operation there. Alain and his family finally settled in Austin, opening Amandine in 1989.

Like all successful French pastry shop owners, Braux has always taken the seasonal approach to dessert sales, offering more substantial cakes, tortes, and chocolate creations during the winter months and serving up ice creams and sorbets when the weather is warm. This policy just happened to dovetail nicely with the public's desire for leaner, lighter sweet refreshments, and the Amandine French Sorbet line was born. These days, the pastry case at Amandine is still full of various tortes, brownies, and Braux's signature exquisite petit fours, but the contents of the sorbet case are growing, with lemon-lime, raspberry, apricot, and the current bestseller, chocaccino sorbet, an elegant mixture of chocolate and coffee flavors that has almost no fat. With Chef Braux's focused attention, the frozen desserts have made their way into several local grocery stores, are being sold wholesale to restaurants and hotels by the gallon, gracing many menus around the city. Nicole Hart, Jeffrey's Though she is responsible for the desserts at a very prestigious restaurant, Nicole Hart doesn't refer to herself as a pastry chef. "I tell them I make sweets or that I'm a dessert maker," she says with a smile, describing her particular style as "nouveau gourmet meets homespun." Raised in the north central Texas farm community of Covington, Nicole learned to cook from her older sister Shelly and was always active in small-town bake sales, winning blue ribbons in 4-H competitions for both her prized pies and her prize heifer. She vividly remembers her first Julia Child cookbook, an inspiration accounting for some interesting meals at the farm and some huge messes in the family kitchen, according to her father.

Several years after attending UT, Hart answered an ad for kitchen help at the West Austin gourmet take-out shop, Lilly and Company, and ended up staying eight years. She credits proprietor Jane Lilly for creating a supportive atmosphere where learning and innovation were possible and even encouraged. After Lilly, Nicole moved around the block to Jeffrey's and trained for a few months with George Reiff before taking over the dessert operation completely. Possessed of a self-described "insatiable sweet tooth," Hart endeavors to create desserts intensely flavored with seasonal ingredients available locally, such as the best fresh fruits in season supplied by Heart of Texas produce. Lisa Fox, Coyote Cafe Lisa Fox, pastry chef at Coyote Cafe's Austin outlet, is straightforward about the fact that she doesn't really have a taste for sweets and had no intention of becoming a pastry chef. "I was cooking at Icarus [a popular American food bistro in her native Boston] when the pastry chef left suddenly and I only agreed to fill in," recalls the petite dynamo. The hiring process lagged on and ultimately, Fox was hooked on baking breads and making desserts and never went back to the line. "I studied and researched a lot," she remembers. She describes Carol Field's book The Italian Baker as her bread-baking Bible during the Icarus days. Because Lisa doesn't care for rich foods or heavy chocolate concoctions, her style of light, palate-cleansing fruit desserts began to develop early on.

Moving to Austin with her new husband, chef Emmett Fox, in the early Nineties, Lisa worked a few months with George Reiff at Jeffrey's and found him to be a kindred spirit, saying "we both have a good foundation in the basics and then like to wing it from there." Her first local pastry chef job was at Mars where she created some recipes that still sell well at the restaurant, and she then moved on to develop a large repertoire of desserts at 612 West.

When the Coyote Cafe bought out 612 West, the owners wisely hired Fox, an obvious asset to the firm. Dessert sales are good and she has a loyal clientele, many of whom come specifically for dessert and coffee. The newest dessert menu at Coyote is entirely her own -- elegant creations augmented with excellent ice creams and sorbets -- the perfect coda to Coyote's robust flavors. The corporate aspect of the Coyote job has also educated Lisa about departmental management and staff training, allowing her the opportunity for mentoring emerging talent like her assistant, Suzie Gutenberger. Some day in the future, she and her husband would love to have their own restaurant. Mary Perna, Zoot Austin is currently home to three chef/pastry chef husband-and-wife combos, the newest of which is Zoot pastry chef Mary Perna and her husband, Apple Annie's chef Anthony Amplo. The couple visited Austin often, attending SXSW with Mary's brother, Lone Wolf Productions exec Richard Perna. The New York natives fell in love with the city and moved here. "I only submitted resumés to three people, David Garrido at Jeffrey's, Tom Gilliland at Fonda San Miguel, and Stewart Scruggs, here at Zoot," she says, adding that she and Scruggs soon realized that they had met before when he performed an externship at a Connecticut restaurant where she was a chef before he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. Working at Zoot seemed fated.

These days, Perna is the busy executive pastry chef for Zoot, Hyde Park Bar & Grill and Dolce Vita, doing some savory baking and turning out dessert menus that change regularly. "Of course, we've kept the peach cobbler and chocolate cake that everyone loves at Hyde Park," she says, ruefully, "but I have free reign as far as the desserts at Zoot are concerned." Perna says her creations are influenced by the Italian desserts of her heritage and regional, provincial peasant flavors. In her work, Perna strives for bold flavors and bright splashes of color. She misses the ethnic neighborhood grocery stores in big Eastern cities and is always on the lookout for ingredients she remembers, calling wholesalers and scouring the shelves and bulk bins at Central Market and Whole Foods. Rebecca Rather, Schlotsky's Bread Alone Bakery When Rebecca Rather was working for successful Houston caterers Affair Extraordinaire and Acute Catering or running her own Rather Sweets, the Beaumont native's goal was to be the pastry chef for famed Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone. She accomplished that, making stellar desserts at Tony's and La Griglia for four years before being hired to open the new Schlotzsky's/Bread Alone Bakery and Coffee Shop in Austin. Last year, Rather and her daughter Francis packed off to the Catskill Mountains to train at Daniel Leader's Bread Alone Bakery in Boiceville, New York before taking residence in Austin.

Today Rather oversees both the bread and dessert operations in the very busy new South Austin Schlotzsky's flagship facility and expects to help the corporation expand the bakery and coffee shop concept at other locations around the country. She is busy building Bread Alone's wholesale business, selling breads to Coyote Cafe, the Shoreline, Skyline Grill, and a growing list of restaurants around town. Her signature desserts such as the tart and creamy Key Lime Pie and a rich, luxurious Toffee Cake studded with crunchy bits of candy have a distinctly American flair.

Among the hardworking pastry chef's influences are the recent dessert cookbooks of San Francisco's Stars restaurant pastry chef Emily Luchetti and L.A.'s Campanile and La Brea Bakery baker Nancy Silverton. Rather loves to scour library and bookstore cookbook and food magazine sections to stay in touch with what's cooking around the country, and has hopes to put out a cookbook of her own at some point. George Reiff During the many conversations that preceded this article, the name of George Reiff kept coming up again and again. I was determined to interview the accomplished musician/pastry cook who had influenced so many of the pastry cooks in Austin during the past several years. The East Coast native came to Texas in the early Eighties to play bass with Joe King Carrasco. Like many musicians, his music career had also included food service jobs and when he found himself in Dallas in need of work, he convinced Brazos restaurant chef Nancy Beckham to make him her pastry chef. That position offered George an opportunity to refine his baking talents and begin to develop a style which he now describes as "haute grandma," the ability to take traditional elements or methods and skew them in a new direction.

Reiff says that the innovative 1985 cookbook Chez Panisse Desserts by that restaurant's pastry chef Lindsey Shere was a tremendous influence on his dessert style, inspiring him to look for balance and harmony in fresh, seasonal flavors. Upon coming to Austin in the Eighties, he was one of the first local pastry cooks to use homemade ice creams, sorbets, and cookies in his restaurant dessert creations. He worked at Granite Cafe for a time before going to Jeffrey's, where his influence continues to have an effect. As often happens in his cooking/playing career, a great job playing bass for the Charlie Sexton Sextet took him out of the pastry kitchen and on the road most of last year. These days, George Reiff is doing some consulting at the Shoreline Grill, developing some recipes, and training a young woman named Alba who reminds him of himself.

When he's traveling with a band, George Reiff makes it a point to check out restaurant desserts wherever he goes. While playing in Los Angeles recently, he sampled a whole new batch at Spago, and in Japan, he noticed chefs copy elaborate French or American desserts with the exact precision with which they manufacture electronic equipment. During one of his stints in Austin, George had a wholesale pie business with fellow musician Kathy McCarty called, appropriately enough, Haute Grandma. In fact, Reiff knows so many musicians who also cook or bake, he jokes that someday they should all open a bakery or restaurant -- though he allows that the hours of operation might be unconventional.n

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