Chef D'oeuvre

Austin pastry stars recount the dish that made their career

Milk + Honey at Juniper
Milk + Honey at Juniper (Photo by Adrienne Dever)

When someone says desserts aren't for them, they're mistaken. What they're really saying is that they don't crave the mediocrity often displayed in grocery stores' bake cases, or the surprisingly bland triple-chocolate this-or-that tacked on to a dinner menu as an afterthought.

But alongside the award-winning chefs who have risen in Austin are their pastry chef counterparts. This city has been indulged with desserts that will have you licking your lips for weeks (there's a reason why Lenoir's dessert portion of the menu is titled "Dream.") These desserts find the perfect balance of flavors, push boundaries, and sometimes just taste so good that you close your eyes and melt in the middle of the restaurant.

But before these heavenly desserts graced our city, pastry chefs had to be inspired to pursue their craft. For some, it was a flavor they encountered or a childhood memory. For others, it was a dish they created well into their careers. Here, some of the city's best pastry chefs recount the dish that makes skipping dessert unforgivable.

Thomas Calhoun

Pastry chef, Lenoir

Dish: Sopapillas

"My mother was never much of a baker, but one of the few things she would make us as a snack would be sopapillas. She would take the day-old flour tortillas she made, fry them to get a crispy outside and soften up the middle, then spread butter, sugar, cinnamon, and salt on it. We just thought it was crazy good. In hindsight it was all the right things to satisfy a sweet craving."

Susana Querejazu

Executive pastry chef, Odd Duck and Barley Swine

Dish: Carrot cake doughnut, cajeta, coconut rum raisin ice cream, carrot butter, carrot chips

"We would have carrot cake on birthdays when I was growing up, and I thought it'd translate perfectly into a doughnut. I always try to have a doughnut on the menu whenever possible. I used cajeta as a glaze on the doughnut because it was seasonal, but my dad would always have sweetened condensed milk in the fridge ready to eat. We would spoon it onto everything. I also love rum raisin ice cream and thought it'd add a nice contrast of temperature and texture to the dish. The rum-soaked raisins work really well frozen, and who doesn't like coconut ice cream?"

Kirsten Bellah

Pastry chef, Juniper

Dish: Milk + Honey

"The Milk and Honey dish actually came from my love of dairy, and cows, and bees. I ended up with the nickname Bumblebee, that has since shortened to just Bee, from a former chef while I was working at Uchiko, and it has followed me all the way to Juniper. Since getting that nickname, I've fallen in love with anything related to bees and honey, and really wanted to do a honey-centric dessert at Juniper. Honey is a pretty blank canvas that is available all year round, and we have some really great local honey, too."

Philip Speer

Co-owner and chef of the upcoming Bonhomie

Dish: Peanut butter semifreddo with apple miso sorbet at Uchi

"This dish would have to be the peanut butter semifreddo with apple miso sorbet that was created at Uchi in 2005. This dessert still runs strong at the multiple locations and will always be one of my very favorite desserts. The dessert was inspired by my daughter Ella and her sack lunch. I made her lunch that morning, and it was a peanut butter sandwich, apple juice, chips, raisins, and some other treats. I was in a little bit of a mental block at that time and was smacked in the face with the dessert idea. The peanut butter semifreddo was the base of the dessert, then I added some peanut brittle, for texture, and dehydrated some apple slices for the chip. I rehydrated some raisins in saké for the sauce and made an apple sorbet. I added white miso to the sorbet because I've always loved how miso plays with peanuts, and it balanced the apple nicely. Obviously apples, peanut butter, and raisins all work together. Every toddler I've ever known eats a steady diet of these items."

Kendall Melton

Pastry sous chef, Odd Duck

Dish: Ginger tuile, Champagne sabayon, smoked peaches, and white chocolate

"I would say that the dish that really made me a better chef was the smoked peach dessert at Contigo. I was still green and finding my footing there, and when I started working on that it really helped me think about more possibilities with more conventional and unconventional ingredients. That specific dish helped me find my foothold in whimsical pastries."

Soraiya Nagree

Owner and baker, La Pâtisserie by Luxe Sweets

Dish: Rose macaron

"Rose is the flavor from my childhood that has had such a lasting impact on my career. It is a very popular flavor in Indian desserts, and when I went to Paris for the first time when I was 10, I tasted a rose-flavored macaron and fell in love with all things French. I loved how there was a hint of my heritage in something so modern and refined."

Tavel Bristol-Joseph

Pastry chef, Emmer & Rye

Dish: Tres leches cheesecake

"I have a not-so-secret obsession with cheesecake. I seek it out everywhere I go. I look for texture and it doesn't matter if it's a plain cheesecake. If the texture is on point, I'm in heaven. This obsession didn't even start until I was a student at the New York Restaurant School. There I made and tasted my first cheesecake. This was a defining moment in my life. I always knew I wanted to be a pastry chef, but at that point all I wanted to do was make more cheesecakes. ... With the creation of the tres leches cheesecake, I was inspired to make it from desserts that influenced me in my two favorites cities: Brooklyn, N.Y., and Tucson, Ariz. The base of the tres leches was inspired by the rich Mexican culture in Tucson. My favorite part is the sweet, milky, cinnamon flavor it poses. It reminds me of rice pudding that I loved so much growing up in Georgetown, Guyana."

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