This is part one of my interview with Kris Padalino, pastry chef at Bittersweet; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Kris Padalino never envisioned herself as a pastry chef. Sure, she grew up in a big Italian family that feasted on pasta, her grandfather is a butcher and her brother is a chef, but Padalino's initial career goal had absolutely nothing to do with food. "I have degrees in biology and math and wanted to go to med school and become an anesthesiologist," recalls Padalino, the 29-year-old pastry chef at Bittersweet.
But the thought of working in a lab struck her as boring, she admits, so she began baking wedding and birthday cakes -- an extension of her obsession with painting -- for friends and family on the side, and she never looked back. "I paint, and I like food a lot," she explains, "so I started baking cakes for fun and reading up on pastry chefs, and I was so struck by the creativity of their pieces that I was completely blown away and realized that I could be stuck in a lab all day long or go to culinary school and at least learn the basics of pastry." She attended Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, and the more courses she took, "the more I loved the craft," she says. "My passion just kept on growing with every class." Padalino landed an enviable externship at Campanile, which turned into a two-year pastry stint under the tutelage of renowned pastry chef Meadow Ramsey. "She's a very straightforward chef, but she was always happy to teach me and answer my questions, and I have so much admiration and respect for her," says Padalino, who then went on to create desserts at Michael's in Santa Monica, where she was hired as the executive pastry chef by Michael McCarty, who also founded the famed Santa Monica Farmers' Market.
But after seven years of doing time in California kitchens, Padalino, her chef boyfriend and her daughter wanted a change of scenery, and Denver seemed like a natural move. "We had friends here, the culinary scene was starting to heat up, and it was a lot cheaper, so we picked up our things and moved here in early 2012," says Padalino, whose first taste of the Mile High City was composing desserts for Kevin Taylor. "I was hired to do the pastries for all of his restaurants, and it was a great job, but I didn't have as much creative freedom as I would have liked, and I really needed to focus on just one -- maybe two -- restaurants. Five was just way, way too much, so I started to look for another job." She found it on Craigslist. "I saw an ad for Bittersweet and didn't know a thing about the restaurant, but I got an interview, staged a few days later, and knew this was a really amazing and creative place where I could learn and grow," says Padalino, who in the following interview admits that she despises cupcakes, pleads for a resurgence of chocolate cake, and explains why culinary school is better than the school of hard knocks.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? The amount of creativity I get to put into my work. No dish ever looks the same; it's like painting on a blank canvas.
Who or what inspires you? I like to draw inspiration from the group of creative people and objects that surround me. I can look at a painting, a garden, colors, a spice or a book and get ideas for the next dish. Antonio Bachour is another pastry chef whose dishes I never get tired of admiring. He uses color and textures to make his desserts vibrant and alluring.
Five words to describe your desserts: Playful, inspiring, bright, creative and simple.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I don't really have ingredient obsessions. I enjoy using everything at my disposal, but I do tend to use cinnamon and cardamom quite a bit in my desserts.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: A convection oven; it's stable, reliable and loyal...like a good man -- and nothing else compares to how well it bakes.
What kitchen tools would you be completely lost without? Aside from an amazing, properly calibrated oven to bake tasty treats, probably everything. Every piece of equipment in our kitchen serves a vital purpose, from the scales that measure every ingredient to the kitchen towels I use to pull the sheet pans out of the oven.
One baking ingredient that's way overused: Vanilla. Plenty of pastry chefs saturate a pastry item in vanilla, but there are so many other flavor components you can add. I love vanilla -- don't get me wrong -- but it's overused and generic. Try another extract, use liquor, or add herbs or spices to make your desserts more complex. Vanilla is just blah.
One baking ingredient that's way underused: It seems like butter is being used less and less. So many restaurants are cutting it out of recipes, and it makes me die a little inside. Desserts aren't supposed to be fat-free or low-calorie; they're a sinful delight that should please both the palate and the tummy. I'd rather have a full-bodied, orgasmic dessert with fat and calories than one that leaves me unsatisfied. Pastry trend you'd like to see in 2013: Doughnuts, doughnuts and more doughnuts. Have I mentioned doughnuts? I'm a sucker for them.
Pastry trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: I despise cupcakes. The ratio of cake to frosting is just absurd. I mean, who the hell wants to eat only sweet, stomach-aching frosting and pay $8 a pop for a damn cupcake? If that's the case, you're better off just going to the grocery store and buying a couple of containers of Betty Crocker frosting mix and sitting on your chair with a spoon. What happened to the rest of the cake?
Favorite dessert on your menu right now: I'd be lying if I didn't say my Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. No other chef in Colorado, at least none that I know of, has anything on their menu like it. It's definitely my pride and joy, and because it's gotten so many great reviews and people will come into Bittersweet just for that one dessert, it only makes me want to keep creating out-of-the-box desserts.
What dessert would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Roasted-garlic ice cream. I know it sounds awful, but I promise you that it's amazing.
Which dessert would you bring back from the grave? Good, old-fashioned chocolate cake, a ubiquitous pastry-menu staple from the '80s. I'm not a cake person, but moist and delicious chocolate cake and a cold glass of milk brings me back to my childhood, when my grandmother would make chocolate cake for me and my brother just about every week. No need to add anything extra to it -- just dark, rich chocolatey goodness.
Which dessert would you like to see retire from menus? Molten-lava cake and soufflés. You have a fifty-fifty chance of them making it to the table without looking like a hot, shitty mess. I'll never put one on my menu. Never.
Most noteworthy dessert you've ever eaten: The Penthouse in Santa Monica. Besides the breathtaking view from the top floor, I had a dessert that was a play on tres leches cake: caramelized pineapple, rum cake and a giant frozen sphere of coconut milk that had been dipped in liquid nitrogen and placed on top. It came out all smoky and mysterious, and I got to take my spoon and crack open the frozen shell to allow the semi-frozen coconut cream to ooze out. I haven't had anything like it since.
Best baking tip for a home cook: Don't be afraid to try new recipes and techniques. The thing about baking is to love what you bake. Don't rush it. The more pride and love you put into your food, the better it will taste.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young pastry chef? It's crucial for established professionals to share their experiences with those trying to enter the field. The future of the pastry world depends on it. Yes, you can find chefs who will take you under their wing and teach you many things about great food and cooking, but go to pastry school if you can; it's a vital part of your culinary foundation, and pastry school allows you to get your feet wet, plus it teaches you the fundamentals and vocabulary of the pastry world so when you become employed, you already have an understanding of the basic principals. A pastry career includes learning every day. Don't forget that.
What's your biggest challenge as a pastry chef working in Denver? Continuing to push new boundaries in a burgeoning market while cultivating a loyal following in such a diverse locale.
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What's your biggest pet peeve? I absolutely can't stand people who chew with their damn mouths open and make cow-smacking noises while they're doing it. It gets under my skin like nothing else. I also peeve about chefs who believe that they know everything there is to know about cooking. No, you don't; stop lying to yourself. If you're not learning and doing something new every day, then you're not as great of a chef as you think you are. Sorry.
Your best traits: My thirst for knowledge; I'm eager to learn anything and everything.
Your worst traits: I'm sometimes too critical and hard on myself. I always think I can do better even though I may have won the gold.
Last dessert before you die: Doughnuts, ice cream and beer.