Pastry Stars

How Katherine Clapner, Judy Marts, and Aimee Olson rose to the top of their profession

When 1,000 guests arrive at the Hilton ballroom for the Stars Across Texas grand tasting event on Friday night, they'll be in for an unexpected treat. For the first time in 20 years, the centerpiece of the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival will include a considerable percentage of pastry chefs, bakers, and chocolatiers presenting examples of their signature creations. Event chairwoman Katherine Clapner, executive pastry chef at the Hilton, is justifiably proud of the lineup, having invested two years of hard work and determination in making it happen. In 2003 and 2004, Clapner hosted afternoon dessert and wine pairing receptions in the Driskill Lobby during festival week, but she always had her sights set on more dessert representation in the main event. This year, she has seen to it that Stars Across Texas will showcase plenty of Texas' most enticing sweet specialties right alongside the dynamic savory dishes. Inspired by Clapner's determination to share the spotlight with some top Texas dessert professionals, we'd like to introduce you to three local pastry chefs who will be very busy with festival activities this weekend. Chronicle contributor MM Pack sat down with Clapner as well as Judy Marts, the new executive pastry chef at the festival host Four Seasons Hotel. I chatted with Aimee Olson, pastry chef and chef educator in charge of the Baking and Pastry Program at the Texas Culinary Academy, one of the sponsors of this weekend's festival.

Pastry Stars
Photo By John Anderson

Passion and Professionalism: Katherine Clapner

There's no getting around it: Katherine Clapner is a ball of fire. Her brown eyes snap, and the tips of her auburn curls practically spark as she waxes enthusiastic about her career, her life, and her passion, which all amount to the one thing: pastry.

For 20 years, Clapner has baked her way around the world; she's currently pastry chef for the downtown Austin Hilton hotel. She and her staff of three provide all the breads and desserts for the hotel's restaurants (Finn & Porter, Liberty Tavern, Java Coast), special events for up to 3,000 mouths, and room service for 800 guest rooms.

While this may sound like a tall order, Clapner's earned her chops in such impressive venues as London's Savoy Hotel, Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, and on the road with Stephan Pyles. Although she says she has been lucky, that she's "been in the right place at the right time all my life," it's clear that hard work and talent are equally responsible.

Clapner grew up in Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth, "in a family that ate out a lot." Her culinary roots sprouted during her college days (while studying advertising); she began helping a caterer friend and quickly realized that food was the life for her. At 22, she enrolled in the second baking-and-pastry class offered at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and commuted on weekends to NYC, where she cut her teeth at City Bakery under the tutelage of the legendary Maury Ruben.

She remembers that 35% of the culinary students were female in 1989, but only 5% of the instructors were. "I believe that the right women went to culinary school then and survived and were better for it. Now they're teaching the younger ones, who benefit from that experience."

Clapner did her externship at the Savoy Hotel in London, working for room and board. "I was supposed to stay six months, but I left two and a half years later, and only because I couldn't renew my visa," she remembers. "There was no reason to go back to school – I was learning everything at the Savoy. The chefs there were Germans, Austrians, Swedes, French: We were practicing the oldest of the old."

Not surprisingly, Clapner is a staunch proponent of classical foundations in the pastry arts. "If you don't know the beginnings, you've got nothing to stand on," she says. "There are really no new recipes created, we just have some better ingredients and equipment now. You've got to know the rules: If you don't know why they exist, then you don't know enough to break them."

Post-London, Clapner landed at New Orleans' Windsor Court Hotel working with pastry chef Shane Gorringe. "To this day, so many things I do are based on what I learned from Shane." Next, she became pastry chef at the Four Seasons in Chicago. "And I was so not ready for that," she recalls. "I'd only been in the business for five years. I lasted six months, and it was, let's say, a humbling experience. I consider each job a kind of catalyst, but it's important to remember that you don't need to run before you can walk."

Undaunted, Clapner moved on to Charlie Trotter's restaurant, where she worked six days a week, 6:30am to 1:30am, for two years. "We scrubbed the stoves and polished the brass every night. And I'll never put my hands on ingredients like that again every day. I was proud of my work there, but I had no life."

Following various positions in Chicago, New Orleans, and Italy, Clapner signed on with Stephan Pyles and Carlton Restaurants Worldwide, where she worked at Star Canyon and other venues around the country. She counts Pyles as a major mentor who "pushed me ... I was around celebrity chefs, working in the public eye. I did lots of traveling with him, and it was great fun."

Central Market recruited Clapner to develop pastries in Fort Worth, Plano, Dallas, and Houston. "Opening the CM bakeries was one of the best lessons I've ever had: We could never have enough bread, dessert, or people, but it was still a blast." She arrived in Austin courtesy of Central Market, and she subsequently did stints at Ranch 616 and the Mansion at Judges' Hill.

At the Hilton, Clapner works under Executive Chef Mark Dayanandan; she enthuses about his culinary classes for the staff and his knowledge of the sweet kitchen, which apparently is an anomaly. "Really, 75% of chefs have no idea what pastry chefs do."

Although she runs a tight ship, she heaps praise upon her staff, saying, "My guys are good, some of the best I've seen." Reflecting on what she looks for when hiring, Clapner mentions tranquility as well as skill, the willingness to learn in addition to passion. "And fitting in is huge – my entire world revolves around an 8-foot table, so we've got to be able to work together."

"You have to be so flexible, more than the rest of the kitchen; so many things make you successful: your ingredients, your tools, your discipline, your imagination. That's a biased opinion," she decides. "A savory chef would say the same, and they would also be right."

To aspiring pastry chefs, Clapner advises, "Don't go for the money when you're starting out; go for the knowledge. And don't get an attitude – it's only food. Do listen, because you're going to learn something from everybody. I learn from my staff every day, whether I like it or not. And there's so much love involved with food. Look for that, find that."

In Clapner's opinion, Austin is not really much of a pastry place. "The city has some good 'dessert moments,' but it isn't Chicago or New York. People don't eat much bread in this city – I don't know why, but I'd like to figure it out. As far as pastry goes, we're better than we were, but not as good as we should be. South Congress needs a good East Coast-style bakery."

Clapner is certainly doing her part to educate Austin about pastry: In addition to her job, she chairs the massive Stars Across Texas event (held at the Hilton today, Friday, April 8) as part of the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival. Last year, she orchestrated the festival's first ever pastry event; this year, she has integrated 20 pastry chefs into the Stars gala, pairing local and national, savory and sweet offerings.

"Why not?" she asks. "Dessert represents one-third of the meal." MM Pack

Pastry Stars
Photo By John Anderson

The Complete Package: Aimee Olson

When Aimee Olson talks about her current job, she refers to it as "the complete package," a position that puts all her education and job experience to the best possible use. As the chair of the Baking and Pastry Program at the local Texas Culinary Academy, Olson directs a team of chef educators, develops curriculum, and teaches regular classes in addition to representing the school at numerous community events. (For example, she and a team of student volunteers prepared 1,000 pieces of dessert for Friday's Stars Across Texas tasting.) Culinary students spend six weeks getting an overview of basic French baking and pastry techniques, while those who choose to pursue the Baking and Pastry degree plan participate in a nine-month program divided into intensive six-week blocks of study. Olson oversees it all, ably assisted by a team that includes chef educators Cara Anam, Kristie Sasser, Jeff Ontiveros, Bronwen Weber, Marion McDonald, Amy Osborn, Jackie Parchman, Stephen King, and Sarah Hotton. The Austin TCA campus is an outlet of Le Cordon Bleu schools, and the Baking and Pastry curriculum Olson helped to develop here is now a model for other schools in their network.

Her considerable professional accomplishments notwithstanding, Olson didn't set out to become a chef who trains other chefs. In fact, when she first told her parents she was interested in culinary school, they were less than enthusiastic about cooking as a career choice. "They insisted I get a real college degree first," she recalls. "Looking back, I realize now what good advice it was. I really value the time I spent in college."

After completing a BA in communications at the small University of Denver, Olson enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, where she completed two-year programs in restaurant management and baking and pastry production. The Chicago cuisine scene offered plenty of job opportunities, but two years of cold, gray winters made Olson homesick for sunny Austin, and she returned here in 1996.

Stints producing wedding cakes at Texas French Bread and decorating custom cookies at Penny's Pastries offered Olson the chance to hone her overall decorating skills while she contemplated her next move. With encouragement from TFB founder Judy Wilcott and the support of her parents, Aimee soon embarked on an adventure "that completely changed my life." She traveled to Paris alone and spent a year studying pastry arts at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu School. "Spending a year on my own in a foreign country, learning French techniques where they originated, experiencing their tradition of eating fresh, seasonal food," Olson says. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Back in the states, Olson followed the sun to Colorado, where her career took a very serious turn. As the executive pastry chef at the exclusive four star Hotel Jerome in Aspen, she was responsible for all the desserts, pastries, wedding cakes, and amenities for the hotel's three restaurants and extremely busy banquet facilities. During the nearly three years that Olson worked at the Jerome, the Aspen Food & Wine Festival rolled into the popular ski resort every June, bringing established culinary celebrities as well as the hottest new up-and-coming chefs in the country to town. Like other resident employees, Olson got to work alongside the cream of America's culinary crop every summer. She met her future husband, butcher Sean Weiss, at one festival, and well-known Boston chef Barbara Lynch, a future employer, at another. "I was at a point where I wanted to concentrate on plated desserts for a while, and Barbara was planning to open a second restaurant in Boston. She asked me to come and be her pastry chef in the new place," Olson explains. The newlywed couple relocated to Boston, but the planned new restaurant never materialized. "I made desserts at No. 9 PARK for about a year, but when we decided to have a baby, we knew Austin was where we wanted to raise a family."

Aimee Olson was one of the first chefs hired when Le Cordon Bleu schools purchased and expanded Austin's former Le Chef College. Unlike restaurants or resort hotels, teaching jobs come with benefits and regular nine-to-five weekday hours, perks that make it possible to manage both family and a career. When she refers to "the complete package," she does so with obvious contentment. Weiss works as a butcher at the Barton Creek Country Club, and 3-year-old Gavin Weiss spends plenty of quality time with an eager grandma. When young people ask Olson for career advice, she encourages them to complete college before culinary school and says, "Travel, go to France, Italy, wherever. Eat, study, explore. Do it now while you're young and unencumbered; you'll be glad you did." Students who emulate Olson's wise and practical example could well end up with a version of the complete package all their own. – V.B.W.

Pastry Stars
Photo By John Anderson

It's Good to Be Queen: Judy Marts

The first time I met Judy Marts, she was up to her elbows in hot dishwater. Perhaps not what you'd expect from the executive pastry chef at Austin's Four Seasons Hotel. But Marts, along with Executive Chef Elmar Prambs and other staffers, had taken time off from the hectic hotel schedule to prepare and serve lunch at the Caritas Community Kitchen.

An unassuming person who brooks no nonsense, Marts has been in her Austin position only since November, when she succeeded longtime pastry chef Tony Sansalone (who left to open his own bakery). However, the job is something of a homecoming for Marts: Early in her culinary career, she worked in the kitchen as an entry-level pastry cook.

A San Antonio native with a degree in home-ec education from UT-Austin, Marts' first career was in finance. She worked for many years as a secondary market processor at the San Antonio Savings Association. However, the demise of the savings and loan industry in the late 1980s caused her to rethink career options.

"I'd enjoyed cooking since I was 9," she remembers. "I always was the person in the office who made the birthday cakes and holiday cookies. Once I realized that the savings and loan industry was really going away, I wanted a new career where I'd never have to wear pantyhose again.

"Although I'd never even toured the back of a professional bakery, I started looking for culinary schools where I could study baking, and there weren't that many in those days. Somehow, I was just never interested in the hot side of the kitchen."

Marts went to Baltimore International Culinary College (now Baltimore International College) for an associate's degree in baking and pastry. She recalls that most of her classmates were 10 to 15 years younger than she, and she identified more with the instructors. "Because I was older and had gone through student teaching myself, I had a different appreciation of the teachers. I'm still good friends with my very first pastry chef."

Marts returned to San Antonio in 1991 to work at Le Bistro bakery and restaurant. "The baking kitchen was 10 feet square, and I made French-style pastries. I started work every day at 4am. Except for school, this was my first experience on the other side of the pastry case.

"Meanwhile, I was sending letters to hotels all over the country. Amazingly, after one phone interview, the Atlanta Ritz-Carlton hired me as an entry-level pastry cook. I spent 18 months there, where I learned how to manage quantities for 300 to 500 guests. We did the desserts for the hotel restaurants, the afternoon teas, the meetings, and the banquets. I didn't have to worry about things like scheduling and food costs. I just focused on learning how to bake."

Marts missed Texas, however, and the Ritz-Carleton sous chef knew chef Prambs at the Austin Four Seasons. A phone call later, she was hired. "I started in 1993. Richard Winemiller [now chef-instructor at Bowie High School's culinary program] was the pastry chef. I began by making the cakes, pies, and cookie mixes.

"I learned from chef Richard during the day, and at night I was the only pastry person. I plated desserts for the banquets, and I learned how to multitask and manage large production batches. My job was to keep the pastry freezer stocked with the basics used to build the chef's recipes.

"Chef Elmar is a totally hands-on executive chef," Marts continues, "very different from my Ritz-Carlton experience. I had great respect for him from the minute I started working there, and he taught me so much. He doesn't ask anyone to do anything he doesn't do himself."

Eventually, Marts was promoted to assistant pastry chef and, for a time, served as acting pastry chef. In 2000, however, opportunity knocked. "I wasn't looking for a job, but the company asked me to go to Hawaii to help open the new Four Seasons Hualalai Resort on the Big Island," Marts says. "I couldn't say no."

Marts stayed at Hualalai for three years. "At first, I was freaked out being in the middle of the ocean, but I learned to appreciate island life. It was so different from anywhere I'd been, and I had to learn about 'island time.' I used all kinds of exotic fruits that I hadn't even heard of, such as rambutan and dragon fruit, and I got good with local ingredients like fresh coconut and pineapple."

When Four Seasons opened a resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 2003, Marts was interested in that part of the country and, she says, "I wanted to go to a not-city kind of place. The GM at Jackson was from Austin, and he hired me. I helped open the property, and it was quite an experience. The food-and-beverage administrator was a great educator, and I learned a lot about administration."

After she spent a year in Jackson Hole, chef Prambs asked Marts to come back to Austin. "It was really hard to leave Wyoming," she says, "and if it had been anywhere except Austin, I wouldn't have gone. But Texas is my home."

What's different at the Four Seasons this time around? Marts laughs. "Well, for one thing, I'm in charge of the pastry kitchen now. And the Four Seasons is 10 times as busy as it was in '99. The cafe and the hotel have just gotten better and better, just as the city has gotten better. I still feel new here; it's only been a few months, so I still worry and I'm still learning this position. My people are so capable, though. I have a great team. We have fun and we laugh a lot together."

Regarding current food trends, Marts observes, "I see a lot of things coming back to basics in pastry. And there's definite interest in more rustic desserts, although we still showcase them in high-end presentations. People are craving traditional flavors – apple pies, apple tarts, bread puddings – anything called cobbler just flies out of this kitchen. But still, guests like classic restaurant desserts that they won't do at home, like molten chocolate cakes and soufflés."

Reflecting on her executive role, Marts says, "I really enjoy the training part of my job, but I don't have much tolerance for the discipline part. I have a strong work ethic, and I expect the same from my staff.

"Most days, it's good to be queen; other times, I'd just like to bake. I still love getting down and dirty with the baking, and I love wearing the uniform. No pantyhose!" MM Pack

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