Posts Tagged interviews

1789 Pastry Chef Travis Olson Serves Up Modern Desserts in an Historic Setting

Travis Olson

Travis Olson, Pastry Chef at 1789.

The decor at 1789 is steeped in history – the restaurant is housed in a Federal period house, and inside you’ll find fine china plates, upholstered wooden chairs, detailed woodwork, and walls covered in historical prints. But the desserts coming out of the kitchen under the skilled direction of pastry chef Travis Olson, are anything but old-fashioned. Think fresh, seasonal ingredients, innovative flavors, and modern updates of classic American desserts.

A dedicated student in high school, Olson found his career path after a disillusioning half semester at the University of Virginia. After leaving school, he quickly enrolled in the professional program at L’Academie de Cuisine, and graduated in 2001. After nine-months assisting pastry chef David Guas, Olson started working at Clyde’s Restaurant Group. He did stints at different Group restaurants, including the Clyde’s in Georgetown, Gallery Place and Willow Creek, before moving to his current job as pastry chef at 1789.

Olson’s passion for pastry started early, however, at the age of twelve, when his family moved to England while his mother pursued a PhD at Oxford in ornithology (both of his parents work for the Smithsonian). “I didn’t have any friends,” Olson explained, “so I just started baking. I was ambitious – I made éclairs, Sacher-Torte, profiteroles” and other fancy, European desserts.

Today, Olson’s approach to pastry is distinctly American. “I like making those classic American desserts – pies, cakes, shortbreads,” he says. The desserts at 1789 certainly reflect this. Olson’s favorite dessert on the menu is the pineapple split, which pairs caramelized pineapple with vanilla ice cream, butter cookies, and a sauce made from candied ginger. The caramel banana bread pudding also uses classic American flavors, but updates them with the addition of eggnog ice cream and a medjool date puree. For a coconut dessert he takes an American staple – the pound cake – and makes it into something new and seasonal: buttered pieces of coconut pound cake are heated on a griddle and served with caramel sauce, warm pink grapefruit, and tangerine ice cream.

Travis Olson - Dessert

Deep fried truffles atop a white chocolate semifreddo.

Olson isn’t a big fan of all-chocolate desserts; chocolate is “my least favorite ingredient to work with” he says. He’s not into “the whole concept of death by chocolate” in desserts, preferring to pair chocolate with different flavors to lighten the dish. Case in point – the chocolate dessert on the 1789 menu is a dark chocolate cake topped with caramelized meringue, served with peppermint ice cream and pulled peppermint sugar threads. Yes, there are chocolate truffles on the dessert menu, but they’re breaded, deep-fried, and served with white chocolate semifreddo, fresh citrus, and spun sugar.

Olson also doesn’t like to deconstruct desserts, which is a trendy offering on dessert menus these days. “When you deconstruct things, it takes away,” he says. “My desserts don’t feature those little components. I like to make desserts that are fulfilling – not too prissy or architectural.” Instead, Olson tries to make desserts that work together as a whole, where the flavors and concept are “inherent to the ingredients, not imposed upon the ingredients.”

This approach may be why Olson was nominated for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s Pastry Chef of the Year award in 2009, less than a year after starting at 1789. Olson also thinks that his mentors, most of which have been chefs, have given him a different approach to pastry. “I’m less constrained by recipes,” he says. “My approach to ingredients and how to combine them, I was taught by chefs.”

Winter is a difficult time for Olson to design a menu, since most fruit is out of season. “What inspires me the most is fresh fruit,” he says, and the restaurant has relationships with local farmers and orchards to supply their produce. But he’s not thinking about the summer menu yet. “I always want to look ahead and have a plan, and then the fruit starts coming in and it all changes,” he explains.

Well, at least this gives DC pastry fans something to look forward to this summer.

1789 - Dining Room

One of the dining rooms at 1789.


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David Guas Talks About His New Cookbook, New Orleans, and Desserts With The “Granny” Factor

David Guas, Pastry Chef, author, stove-top pudding lover. Photo courtesy of simoneink.

David Guas’ new cookbook, DamGoodSweet, practically drips with sugar. The down-home, unfussy New Orleans style desserts like sweet corn cake with root beer syrup, lemon doberge cake, and pecan and brown butter ice cream are sure to satisfy any sweet tooth. But Guas’ book also overflows with memories; each recipe is accompanied by a story of his life growing up in New Orleans. The recipes don’t just give directions – they document the bakeries, stores, and local food vendors of Guas’ youth, a landscape that hurricane Katrina permanently altered.

Guas moved to the DC area from New Orleans 11 years ago, after working as a pastry chef at Windsor Court Hotel, to open DC Coast. He served as the Executive Pastry chef for Passion Food Hospitality restaurants until 2007, overseeing the desserts for Ten Penh, Ceiba, and Acadiana. Guas left to form his own consulting company, DamGoodSweet, in 2007. Faithful readers will remember that one of his consulting projects was developing the cupcakes for the Red Velvet Cupcakery. Guas is currently looking to open his own bakery – appropriately named the Bayou Bakery – although he has yet to find the perfect space.

Guas sat down with ModernDomestic last week, where we talked about nostalgia baking, desserts with the Granny factor, and what he likes to cook with his two sons.

MD: How did you end up working in pastry?
DG: I’m an “accidental” pastry chef. I applied in the kitchen at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, and all they had open at the time was in the pastry department. After some persuading, the master pastry chef decided to hire me, but only if I wouldn’t make him regret his decision.

MD: Once you got your foot in the door – at any time did you think you’d move back down into the kitchen?
DG: That was my mindset in the first couple months. But the next thing you know, I started getting pushed around shift-wise to a lot of different shifts, and I was always finding something new and interesting to learn in that department. The executive chef at the time was Jeff Tonks and he took an interest in me. Before I knew it I was collaborating on the menu with the executive pastry chef and playing around with desserts at home. Jeff offered me a position to open his restaurant – DC Coast in the summer of ’98.

MD: How would you describe your approach to cooking?
DG: The way I cook in the book is the way I like to eat – you can dive into a bowl of pudding, or a not-so-sweet, nontraditional red velvet cake. It’s a pretty true marker of how I consider myself as a person – these are down home and any-day-of-the-week kind of desserts. They’re not overly fussy. It’s a break from that à la carte mentality of component desserts – where you got your main dessert with a sauce and a crisp and a tart. The style of the restaurants I came from was fussy.

But with the economy, more people are cooking at home, and they really don’t cut out desserts because they’re trying to save money. If anything you need it more so now than ever, because it tells you that everything’s going to be okay. I call it the granny factor. There’s a lot of desserts that have the “G” factor.

MD: “Nostalgia” desserts are pretty trendy these days – do you think they’re here to stay?
Nostalgia never went anywhere. It was masked by other fancy things. That’s the beautiful thing about what those type of desserts are – they’re going to stand the test of time. The restaurants that aren’t struggling as much right now are those ones with mid price points, that know where their products come from. A great example is Elevation Burger – they fry their fries in olive oil, and the burgers are delicious. You know where the beef comes from. I don’t mind paying for that.

MD: Do you ever bake with your kids?
DG: All the time. We’ll do the simple things, like cookies and brownies on the weekend. Anther thing I do is stove-top puddings. They actually adore my chocolate and banana pudding.

Banana pudding, a favorite in the Guas household, from DamGoodSweet. Photo by Ellen Silverman.

MD: How did Hurricane Katrina influence the book?
DG: That was the motivation – I wanted to get the stories [of New Orleans] down for my two sons, and to document the restaurants and the sweet shops.

MD: Are there any bakeries in the book that aren’t there anymore?
DG: Lawrence’s Bakery [also called Mr. Wedding Cake], and McKenzie’s Bakery. Mr Wedding Cake – that was right near my dad’s office, and McKenzie’s was pretty much everywhere around the city. McKenzie’s closed, but not because of the storm – but Lawrence’s did.

MD: Do you have a favorite bakery in DC? I ask this partially for my own purposes – I really want to find a good bakery in the DC area.
I don’t go to a lot of bakeries, I really don’t. If I want brownies and I don’t want to make them myself I’ll go to Artisan Confections. Saturday only he makes these Valrhona brownies that are the bomb. And he does chocolates too.

But my entire neighborhood wants me to open a place. We have Randolph’s and Heidelberg’s, and they are what they are. They’re not going to change, and they’re not going anywhere. But I bring a youthful energy to desserts.

MD: So what’s the current plan for the Bayou Bakery?
DG: Bayou Bakery plans haven’t changed, it’s just a matter of finding a space. I talk to my broker every day now. I’m looking for a turnkey operation, and those are hard to come by.

MD: Any recipes from the book you plan to sell?
DG: One hundred percent of them. We’ll have king cakes during carnival – everything. It’s my opportunity not to do the à la carte stuff.

MD: One more question – where do you like to eat in DC?
DG: I love Brasserie Becks – I love going there and getting a beer and some mussels. I love the salads. I love sitting at the bar at Ceiba or Ten Pehn. Black Salt – Jeff Black’s restaurants, is really close to our house – just across the chain bridge. Phenomenal food, great product, great menu.

Cup custard (yum), from DamGoodSweet. Photo by Ellen Silverman.

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Interview With Santanna Salas, Pastry Chef at Bourbon Steak DC

Santanna Salas

Santanna Salas, the new pastry chef at Bourbon Steak, DC.

Desserts can present a challenge at a place like Bourbon Steak, the fancy steakhouse located in Georgetown’s Four Seasons hotel. After a dinner of rib eye or filet mignon, “it’s hard to have the guests want dessert,” says Santanna Salas, the restaurant’s new pastry chef.

At 23, Salas brings five years of experience working with pastry and a keen palate to the kitchen at Bourbon Steak. For Salas, palate is the most important quality for any chef to have – “to make sure your standard is going out, you have to taste everything,” she says.

Salas got her start competing in cooking competitions in high school, and worked at Michael Mina Bellagio as a baker and assistant pastry chef during college. “I wanted to be a sports nutritionist,” Salas says of her college days. “It was a way to incorporate food into my work. But I fell in love with being in a kitchen.” She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a Bachelors in food and nutrition, but has continued to pursue her passion for pastry.

Salas overcomes the challenge of luring diners to the dessert menu after heavy dinners by keeping things light – she creates refreshing desserts that play on old favorites. “Classics, with a twist” is how she describes her approach to pastry, and it shows.

Tiramisu, deconstructed.

Her butterscotch pot de creme is brought down to earth with Macallan 18 Whisky, and paired with pumpkin spice cake and pepitas. Her favorite dessert on the menu is also on the lighter side – the passionfruit panna cotta, flavored with lemongrass from the restaurant’s kitchen garden, and served with a coconut sorbet.

Salas’ tiramisu has the flavors of the original with a lighter touch: she forgoes the ladyfingers for an espresso sponge cake, and serves it with mascarpone mousse and cocoa sorbet. “When I think of tiramisu, I think of something heavy,” Salas says, “but this is really light and refreshing. For a steakhouse, that’s what you have to do.”

Bitter chocolate cake, artfully arranged.

Other desserts on the menu include a coconut candy bar – a high-class reinterpretation of an almond joy – which layers milk chocolate, praline caramel, and almonds. A caramel apple is served with cinnamon ice cream, and a bitter chocolate cake is served with hazelnut ice cream, and milk and honey ganache. As for the upcoming winter dessert menu? Salas would like to do a dessert with carrots, and experiment with holiday spices, like eggnog.

Right now, Salas is still settling into life in DC, where, she says, the smaller restaurant community and cold weather is a big change from Vegas. “I eventually want to open up my own bakery,” Salas says of her future plans, but right now she’s keeping an open mind and seeing where opportunity leads her.  After all, “I never thought five years ago I’d be working at one of the best restaurants in DC as a pastry chef.”

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An Interview With Tiffany MacIssac, Pastry Chef at Birch and Barley

Birch and Barley - Cookies

There's more than just beer available at Birch and Barley.

DC pastry lovers – take note: Birch and Barley isn’t just about the beer.

No, there are equally great things happening in the kitchen under the skilled direction of Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac. A self proclaimed “cookie snob,” MacIssac most recently worked as the pastry chef at Allen & Delancey in New York City before moving to DC to take the job at Birch and Barley, the newest restaurant from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.

Tiffany MacIssac

Tiffany MacIssac - the Pastry Chef at Birch and Barley, the long-awaited beer-centric restaurant that opened last week in Logan Circle.

In case you were wondering, MacIssac prefers her cookies freshly baked and still warm from the oven – when a cookie is in its most Platonic, enjoyable state. In fact, one of her ideas for the newly opened restaurant is to have a “late night cookie bake,” where lingering customers can purchase freshly baked cookies from their waiter.

After all, after a couple beers, who wouldn’t go for a fresh, warm cookie, straight from the oven?

It’s ideas like this – creative spins on classic comfort foods – that should make Birch and Barley patrons as excited about the desserts as they are about the beer. I sat down with MacIssac at Birch and Barley last Saturday, and she impressed me with her creativity, attention to detail, enthusiasm, and, of course, her lovely desserts.

DC’s beer lovers should be pleased that MacIssac is no beer novice herself; she and her husband Kyle Bailey, Birch and Barley’s Executive Chef, brew their own at home. “I appreciate beer for all its details,” says MacIssac. “I think it’s so much more interesting than wine. And for the price, you can try so much more of it – it’s a small commitment.”

Birch and Barley - Dessert Plate

From left to right: pumpkin pie ice cream, pudding pop, "Hostess" cupcake, oatmeal cream pie, passion fruit marshmallow, and chestnut honey caramels.

Her dessert menu for features classic, nostalgic desserts that are updated with thoughtful, elegant touches. Her chocolate peanut butter tart is paired with a whiskey vanilla milkshake, which she thinks will become the restaurant’s signature dessert. Her French toast is deep-fried in clarified butter and served with oatmeal ice cream. Also on the menu are caramelized bananas served with a bacon caramel sauce and a figgy toffee pudding made with black mission figs. And for the kid in you, there’s a cookie plate – complete with a gourmet “Hostess” cupcake filled with white chocolate mousse and a melt-in-your mouth oatmeal cream pie.

Some of the menu items incorporate beer, such as the honey crisp apple beignet, made with apples roasted in hard cider and battered in an oatmeal stout batter. For the table bread service, she makes a pretzel roll that uses porter, giving the bread “a rich golden color and a nice yeasty flavor.” If you need help paring a dessert or any menu item with a beer, never fear – Greg Engert, the NRG beer director, has been intensively training the wait staff on expansive beer menu, so they should be well equipped to offer food pairing suggestions.

Birch and Barley - Sorbets

From left to right: concord grape, vanilla buttermilk, apple cider, cranberry, and passion fruit yogurt sorbets.

MacIssac also offers a rotating selection of fourteen sorbets, which is one of her favorite menu items (she even thought of opening an ice cream shop before the Birch and Barley opportunity came up). “Everyone at the table has a different favorite,” she says of the sorbet plate, which features five flavors at a time. On the day I visited, I tried concord grape, cranberry, passion fruit yogurt, vanilla buttermilk, and apple cider sorbets. “The vanilla-buttermilk sorbet gets the strongest reaction,” MacIssac added, which was certainly true in my case. It was light and tangy and refreshing – and definitely my favorite of the bunch.

MacIssac is committed to making everything in house at Birch and Barley, from the breads to the cookies to each component of her desserts. “I don’t see why a pastry chef should use [pre-packaged] graham cracker crumbs,” MacIssac says. Right now, Birch and Barley’s bread program is almost entirely in house – the only thing they order out is the Ciabatta for the sandwiches at ChurchKey. And if MacIssac has her way, soon they won’t even be doing that.


Glamour shot from ChurchKey - I want those chairs!

So yes, you can get excited about the beer – about the 50 beers on tap, and hundreds of beers in bottles. But also, get excited about the pastry – like a “Hostess” cupcake that actually tastes like chocolate, delicately flavored passion fruit marshmallows, and the possibility of a “build your own sundae” dessert (another one of MacIssac’s ideas for the dessert menu). Get very excited.

You really should be.

Birch and Barley - Beer Organ

Okay, so you can still get excited about the beer. The "beer organ" at Birch and Barley carries the beer to the taps at Churchkey, which is upstairs.

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Interview With Josh Short, Executive Pastry Chef at Buzz Bakery


Josh Short, Executive Pastry Chef

I’ll be honest. I have never been to Buzz Bakery in Alexandria. It’s not that I don’t want to – I do. Buzz, which is a Neighborhood Restaurant Group establishment, has been on my “to visit” list ever since  I read about them in the Washington Post Cupcake Wars. But let’s just say that when you live in Adams Morgan and don’t have a car, getting down to Alexandria requires a certain amount of personal will that I rarely have.

Still, Josh Short, the Executive Pastry Chef at Buzz Bakery found the time to talk with me a couple weeks ago about, among other things, the pastries at Buzz, the dessert menu at Talulla (another NRG joint), gluten-free baking, and cupcakes (you knew that was coming).

Short has an impressive resume, training at New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and getting his start in the Vegas restaurant scene. In the DC area, he’s served as the Executive Pastry Chef for the Star Restaurant Group, and was a 2005 and 2008 nominee for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s “Best Pastry Chef of the Year” award. In his current position, Short oversees all the baking operation at Buzz Bakery – cookies, cupcakes, pastries, and all. Short also collaborates with the chefs of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group restaurants (Rustico, Tallula, EatBar, Vermilion and Evening Star Café), to create and implement their dessert menus.

Does that sound exhausting? I’m exhausted just typing that last paragraph. Needless to say, I’m glad Short found some time in his busy schedule to dish about baking with ModernDomestic.

MD: Is there anything really good on the fall dessert menu at Tallula?

JS: Right now, we’re making a toffee chocolate brownie cake. It’s a layer of double chocolate brownie, and on top of that we put a layer of our own, homemade, English toffee, then a layer of chocolate mousse, and then pistachio ice cream. It’s great.

MD: How do you come up with desserts for Tallula and the other Neighborhood Restaurant Groups restaurants? What’s the process like?

JS: I’ll go over there and sit down with a chef. He’ll come up with ideas, and I’ll talk about what’s new and trendy.

MD: Are there any trends you see for this fall?

JS: Apples are a trend this fall because they’re getting ready to be in season – apple tart tatins, caramel apples, that kind of thing. I’d like it to be figs, but I have a hard time finding them – I want to make fig jam really badly.

MD: When you’re planning a desert menu, do you have to have a variety?

JS: Yes, you’ve got to hit everybody’s palate. And there are a lot of diet restrictions with our customers – like gluten free – that you have to think about.

MD: I always think that gluten free baking is so much harder to do.

JS: At first I thought that, but now I’m really into it. Have you heard of this place called Babycakes, in New York? Most of their stuff is vegan, and some is gluten free. I’m made these raspberry scones out of their book and they’re so good. I’ve made them three times this week.

MD: I always shy away from ordering gluten free desserts.

JS: I was the same way – I thought “this is not going to be very good.” Here’s the thing – you have to use good ingredients. I use rice flour and almond flour [in gluten-free baking], which is full of fat and flavor, and adds a whole other dimension to the dessert. We sell a gluten-free brownie at Buzz that uses rice and almond flour, and it’s really good.

MD: Buzz is known in the cupcake blogosphere for your signature cupcakes. Like the bacon cupcake you sold in August [devils food cake topped with a bacon peanut butter frosting].

JS: The bacon cupcake – that was fun. We got the idea for that because Vosges came out with that chocolate bacon candy bar, and we were skeptical. But once we tried it, we realized it was really good, and we thought, “how could we make this better?” The peanut butter adds a whole other dimension. And it helps that we use really good, applewood smoked bacon. I think people are skeptical of the bacon cupcake, until they try it.

MD: Do you do signature cupcakes every month?

JS: Yes. Right now it’s a s’mores cupcake. October will be a Guinness cupcakes for Oktoberfest, caramel apple cupcakes, and pumpkin cupcakes. I just got this new Halloween book, and I’m really excited – I want to do ghosts and other Halloween cupcakes, probably using marshmallows.

A bumblebee cupcake from Buzz.

A bumblebee cupcake from Buzz.

MD: Do you think the cupcake craze is just a craze?

JS: I don’t think there’s room for anymore out there – the fittest are the one that are going to stay open. But I don’t think it’s a fad – I don’t think it’s going to die out.

MD: Is there something that you love to bake that you never do – because it’s not profitable?

JS: Not really – everything can be profitable. If you put a lot of expensive ingredients in an item – like nuts and chocolate – your customers will pay for that. So I don’t think there’s anything out of our price range. But there are some things that you can’t eat all the time. Like cupcakes we make for the 9:30 club are so good – chocolate cupcake filled with a vanilla butter cream, topped with a mousse, and glazed with chocolate. But you can’t eat one of those every day.

When I first came here, we did a lot of fancy french desserts, but people didn’t want that. Simple, down-home cooking is more my thing now – straight forward desserts. It’s the flavors, but it’s also the memories that are tied to the flavors. That’s more my thing now.

MD: Any other events happening this fall?

The Neighborhood Restaurant Group is putting together an event for Octoberfest on Saturday, October 10. Rustico will have a band and different special beers, and we’ll have the Guinness cupcakes. It’s a benefit to help raise money for DC Central Kitchen. You should grab some friends and come down.

MD: I will try!

And I will – it’s an excuse to get down to Alexandria, drink some good beer, and finally check out Buzz. Who else is with me?

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