This is part one of my chat with Jason Lebeau, pastry chef at Coohills; part two of my interview with Lebeau will run tomorrow.
I came from the era of one-pot wonders," says Jason Lebeau, who grew up in Maryland in the '70s, when Betty Crocker cookbooks doubled as culinary bibles, Julia Child was dropping chickens on TV, and pineapple ambrosia was the dessert du jour. Lebeau wasn't particularly interested in those diversions, although he was enthralled with "wanting my hands in bloody red meat," he remembers. There was something about steak and burgers that "fascinated" him.
See also: - Coohills hires mixologist Noah Heaney, gears up for Beats on the Creek - Chef Tom Coohill on food snobs, foie gras, fishy fish and food bloggers - Round two with Tom Coohill, exec chef/owner of Coohills
But in junior high school, when he first started playing around with recipes, it wasn't a steak or a burger that inspired him; it was the apples that dangled in the nearby orchards. He grabbed a bushel, made an apple pie that he entered in the state fair and waltzed away with a third-place ribbon. "I was pretty stoked about that, and the girls at school totally dug it -- they couldn't believe I could bake a pie," says Lebeau, who today is the pastry chef at Coohills.
Lebeau attended culinary school at Baltimore International Culinary College, graduating with a pastry and baking degree in 1987, and while he had aspirations of being a baseball star and a rock-and-roller -- he played in a band for years -- he's spent the majority of his career baking bread and burying his hands in chocolate, meringue and sugar.
He landed his first gig as the "cookie bastard" at the JW Marriott in Washington, D.C. "I was green, a grunt and wet behind the ears, so I spent all my time baking cookies, especially tons of elephant and donkey cookies for George Bush Sr.'s inauguration," he remembers. "And that's when I realized that, shit, this is a lot of work. But I liked it and I was hungry and wanted to learn, so I put all my energy into those cookies."
And then an opportunity to move to Los Angeles convinced him that there might be life after chocolate chips and snickerdoodles -- and, with any luck, his rock-and-roll band might allow him to retire with millions. No such luck. "Luckily, I had the brains and sense to know that the band thing might not work out -- it didn't -- but I knew I had a degree and some good experience and could always find a job in pastry," he says.
The pastry part worked out, and Lebeau spent five years in L.A. doing pastry stints at Universal Studios and the Hotel Bellaire, creating desserts for major Hollywood film stars, before an earthquake rattled his crust. "After the Northridge earthquake, I said, 'Screw it, I'm out of here,' and my girlfriend -- now my wife -- wanted to move to Colorado, and that was fine with me, because I don't have any problem dealing with four feet of snow," he quips.
But he did have a few issues at the Briarwood Inn, where he was hired as the assistant pastry chef. "Everyone was pleasant and nice," he allows, "but all the stuff was old-school and dated. There were no composed desserts, and it was so different from what I was doing in Los Angeles that I knew I had to find something else."
He'd heard that Kevin Taylor was a big name in Denver -- a "force in the food scene," says Lebeau -- and Taylor hired him as the pastry chef at his namesake restaurant, where Lebeau put in thirteen years. "That was my first job where I was in charge, and while it was challenging and there was always something to prove, Kevin knows food, and he gave me opportunities to travel and work with some of the world's greatest pastry chefs," recalls Lebeau, who was eventually laid off. "I was the highest-paid guy on the totem pole, and to be honest, it was all work and no play, I had kids and a family, and the time had come for me to make a change."
Through a mutual contact, he met Tom Coohill, who just happened to be looking for an opening pastry chef. "We clicked right away, he knew pastry, and he recognized that my life was my family -- that I didn't need to live at the restaurant -- and that was really important to me," says Lebeau, who in the following interview explains the chocolate obsession, pleads for more adventurous diners, and reveals why the school of hard knocks is better than culinary school.
Ten words to describe you: Dedicated, industrious, approachable, adventurous, rebel, dad, understanding, dependable, worrier and a rocker.
Five words to describe your desserts: Clean, consistent, classic, balanced and inviting.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Good chocolate, nut pastes, flours and seasonal fruits.
What kitchen tool would you be completely lost without? My bench knife, otherwise known as a dough scraper, is a tool that everyone could use in the kitchen. I use it to scale bread, ice cakes, roll chocolate cigarettes, and I can even use it to clean with. I get upset when the line cooks use my bench knife and bend it; nothing beats a good, straight, sharp knife.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: A good digital scale with grams and ounces. It's a must-have, given that baking is a precise, exacting science.
Favorite ingredients you work with: Fresh yeast is really important, because I make more bread and laminated dough than ever for things like croissants and Danishes. If the yeast is dying or starting to grow mold, I'm in serious trouble.
One ingredient that you won't touch: Persimmons. I ate one early on in my career, and it sucked every bit of moisture out of my mouth and puckered up my lips. Even when I tried to cook with it, it turned to mush. I've never touched or thought about it since.
One ingredient in baking that's way overused: Sugar. As much as I love it and understand that it's needed to make desserts, so many desserts wind up being just too sweet. The natural sweetness of fruit or chocolate is enough and should stand on its own.
Dessert food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I don't know if it's exactly a food trend, but it seems like more and more restaurants have pastry chefs [on staff], as opposed to pantry cooks trying to make a dessert or, worse, buying pre-made products. Trend or not, I hope it continues.
Dessert food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: The gluten-free fad. I've read that only about 1 percent of Americans are truly celiac, yet everyone seems to think they need to eat gluten-free these days. Eat some fresh fruit or a chocolate bar if you can't have gluten.
Which dessert needs to retire from dessert menus? Crème brûlée. I get that everyone wants it because they can't replicate it at home, but it's only eggs, sugar and cream with caramelized sugar on top. If you must have it, be adventuresome and try making some different flavors, like passion fruit, strawberry, coffee or pistachio.
Which dessert should be brought back from the past? Any of the classic French desserts that have faded out of style: baked Alaska, crepes Suzette and cherries jubilee. The whole tableside-flambé experience has such a wow factor, and they taste great, but because of fire codes and incompetent servers, we'll probably never see a resurgence of those.
Most memorable dessert you've ever had: Crepes anywhere in Brittany, France. My mother-in-law is from there, and whenever we go to visit, crepes are at the top of the list, along with some real French cider.
Why are people so obsessed with chocolate? It tastes good and it's good for you. Whether it's savory, sweet, mixed in a drink or paired with fruits or nuts, you can never go wrong with a good chocolate. I mean, who doesn't like chocolate?
What's the secret to baking bread? Timing; good, strong flour; a hot steam-injected oven; and patience.
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A lot of people say that they love to cook but hate to bake, because of the precision of baking. What makes it so exacting? Humidity, weather and altitude all play a factor, and overheating, over-whipping and cooking things for too long can all ruin any part of the baking process. Proper measuring of ingredients is critical, and using old baking soda, baking powder or leaveners can all spell disaster.
Biggest dessert fail: Trying to make saltwater taffy. You need a taffy-pulling machine for that, and I just didn't have the proper tool for the proper job. I still have loose fillings from experimenting with it, and while it tasted good, it wasn't the right consistency. Real saltwater probably would have helped, too.
Best baking tip for a home cook: Get a good scale, invest in a good professional mixer, and preheat that conventional oven. Just opening the door will drop it fifty to one hundred degrees, so resist the urge to peek.
If you hadn't become a pastry chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd be a baseball player. I played it growing up and even had the chance to try out for the minor leagues, but I wimped out. Back then, I was a wuss without confidence.