Beast + Bottle's Andrea Wight: "Getting Denver to see dessert as more than just sweets and chocolate is always a challenge"
This is part two of interview with Andrea Wight, pastry chef of Beast + Bottle. Part one my chat with Wight ran yesterday.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? Recently I brought in Johnny Iuzzini's Dessert Fourplay, but it's too big to fit it on the kitchen bookshelf, so I propped it up on one of the metro racks facing the line. The staff joked about how Johnny was making me blush during service. All joking aside, I really love that book, and it has a lot of great molecular techniques in it, especially for beginners. I also love The Fat Duck Cookbook, Alinea, Bouchon Bakery, Momofuku Milkbar, Tartine and At the Crillon and at Home.
What's your fantasy splurge? Definitely a Pacojet. I'd love to be able to spin our ice creams and sorbets daily.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: My KitchenAid mixer. I use it more than anything else in my kitchen.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Cookbooks. For home cooks, I really love The Cake Bible and Rose's Heavenly Cakes, and the French Laundry cookbook is really great to give as a gift, too. It's like being in a classroom, if only because it's so detailed and structured.
Best baking tip for a home cook: Taste everything, make an effort to understand why recipes work, and let yourself experiment.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young pastry chef? I am currently an aspiring young pastry chef, but I'd say be willing to adapt and be open to criticism, be willing to work hard and work a lot of hours, and don't take yourself too seriously.
Is having a pastry chef separate from the executive chef important in a restaurant? I think it depends on the restaurant. At Beast + Bottle, I think it works well. That said, it would be tough to find a dish on any of our menus that didn't involve some sort of collaboration. Designating individuals to spearhead segments of the menu gives everyone a little more focus and something to get really passionate about.
What's your biggest challenge as a pastry chef working in Denver? Even though I think our guests have been pretty brave, getting Denver to see dessert as more than just sweets and chocolate is always a challenge.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Clutter and disorganization. It happens quickly in a small kitchen, and even when we try our best to keep things tight, chaos is sometimes inevitable.
Your best traits: I'm hardworking and loyal.
Your worst traits: I'm very impatient, particular, stubborn and overcritical, and I have a very hard time stopping myself from saying things that I shouldn't.
If you could train under any pastry chef in the world, who would it be? Today it would be Dana Cree at Blackbird in Chicago. Her dishes are beautiful and technically sound, and I love her philosophy on building dishes and the importance and place for molecular gastronomy. She comes from such a disciplined background, and I would love to learn from her.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I'd love to open a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains. I worked at a bed-and-breakfast in Montana for a summer and loved being able to personalize dishes and connect with guests on a daily basis.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Whenever we can make someone's meal, day or celebration all the better, we're euphoric.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Despite our serious and passionate approach to food, the Beast + Bottle kitchen is never lacking in antics. From the "Wall of Wade Kirwan through the Years" -- a series of childhood photos of himself that he hangs in "L'Andrea," which is my station -- to James Rugile's "Would you rather have your forehead microplaned, or be hit in the back of the head with a pizza peel final, destination edition" to the "dance-offs" to see who jams the best and is awarded the designated owner of that jam, there's never a dull moment.
Weirdest customer request: I haven't had too many strange pastry requests, but when I was working at a resort in St. John, Virgin Islands, we had this crazy guest who loved to feed the resident stray cat, and she requested that the dining room be split into two sections: one for "kitty lovers" and one for "kitty haters." She proposed that this plan be executed by having the hostess ask diners which side of the dining room they preferred to sit in -- the "kitty lovers' side" or the "kitty haters' side."
Worst dessert disaster: I've had many, but I distinctly remember the meat-cake fiasco of 2012, during which time I was working at Vesta Dipping Grill. I'd often make treats for co-workers on their birthdays. Most everyone likes sweets, so it was a pretty easy task -- or so I thought. One of our line cooks never ate dessert and offhandedly mentioned that one of his favorite comfort foods was meatloaf and mashed potatoes, so for his birthday, I made a cake of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I baked the meatloaf in round cake pans and frosted it with mashed potatoes. When it was done, it looked just like a cake iced with vanilla buttercream. Unfortunately, he showed up early to work, so to keep it warm and hide it, I put it in the oven, but I couldn't get him out off the line long enough to get the cake out of the oven, and before I knew it, the mashed potatoes had slid down the sides of the cake, and it was a disaster.
Greatest accomplishment as a pastry chef: I just started, so give me a few years, but heading the pastry program at Beast + Bottle is pretty cool. I love that my work is also my passion, and I feel really lucky to love what I do and to love the people I do it with.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I just started volunteering for Cooking Matters, an organization that partners with Share our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign. It's a six-week course designed to help educate children and their families about how to prepare affordable and nutritious meals. Volunteers spend about two hours a week teaching basic cooking skills and nutrition to children and their families. The class I shadowed paired elementary children with their moms, and it was a blast. The more I learn about Share our Strength/Cooking Matters, the more impressed I am.
If you hadn't become a pastry chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd most likely be spending my time cooking savory food, and if I left the industry completely, I probably pursue a career in nutrition. I was fortunate to have a flexible master's program that allowed me to incorporate various food science- and nutrition-based courses into my degree. The breakdown and function of food has always been really fascinating to me.
How many people really do order dessert first? Not that many. We have a lot of people who come in just for dessert, but so far, no one has come in and ordered dessert first. Then again, I could eat ice cream every day for breakfast, and sometimes do.
Last dessert before you die: A cupcake ice cream milkshake.
What's in the pipeline? As bountiful as summer was, I'm excited to move into autumn and winter and bring some warmer flavors to the dessert menu. I'm currently working on a brown-butter chestnut cake that'll be paired with a roasted parsnip, pear and cranberry salad.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Be adventurous and open to trying savory ingredients, or just ingredients that normally aren't featured in typical desserts. Go out of your comfort zone and try something new.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I only see restaurants and chefs getting better and better. In the few short years I've spent in Denver, I've been pleasantly surprised by the increase in the demand for -- and awareness of -- great food and service. In response to the demand, I think Denver chefs are doing an impressive job utilizing all the products that Colorado has to offer to create a more elevated dining scene. I'm excited to see what's next.
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