Pastry Chef Michael Conti on High-Altitude Baking and Cooking With Cicadas
Michael Conti in the kitchen at Oak at Fourteenth, sibling restaurant to Denver’s Brider.
Some of the best dishes I ate as a critic were at sibling restaurants Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn, owned by partners Steve Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton, from the class-defining kale-apple salad to the lamb shawarma. But as I noted in my reviews, desserts always seemed underwhelming. So last summer, I was delighted to learn that Michael Conti had joined the team as the restaurants’ first full-time pastry chef.
Tasked with revamping the dessert menus at Oak and Acorn, Conti was also asked to design the pastry program for Brider, which launched in December and quickly nabbed Best of Denver awards for Best Fast-Casual Concept and Best Apple Fritters. Learn more about Conti, including his tips on high-altitude baking and why he once put cicadas on beignets, in our conversation below.
Westword: What was it about this job that attracted your attention?
Michael Conti: Steve Redzikowski offered me creative freedom and an environment in which to grow. Oak, Acorn and Brider gave me three different outlets to pursue my passion. I didn’t think I could get bored if I wanted to. The food, the atmosphere and the other chefs already employed are the main reasons I took the job.
Can you elaborate on what kinds of changes you’ve made to the desserts at Oak and Acorn?
Honestly, we changed them all, one at a time. Chef Steve and I would agree on a dessert and we would implement it the following week. The only staple is the chocolate Valrhona cake. Everything else is constantly revolving.
Brider has a tempting selection of morning pastries, including those award-winning apple fritters. What’s your favorite way to start the day? Pastries? Breakfast burritos? Eggs?
The sad truth is that I don’t go crazy. A cup of coffee and Brider’s housemade sausage are usually what I have.
You moved here from Chicago, right? What was it like adjusting your recipes for altitude?
I did: my wife, three-year-old daughter and myself. It was a challenge to adjust for altitude, but that’s what I was looking for.
You’ve certainly been successful at it, as Brider’s terrific cookies will attest. Do you have any tips for home bakers when it comes to adjusting recipes?
Test, test and retest. There is no magic answer for altitude. Items that were baked in Boulder needed more adjustments in Denver, and vice versa. There are only a few things I can tell you: Look out for hydration, your amount of baking soda and your baking powder. As a general rule, I increase my hydration, lower my baking powder, decrease my baking soda on some occasions and increase my baking temperatures by 20 to 25 degrees. Also, temp your oven — i.e., figure out exactly what temperature your oven is before you start. Good luck.
How long have you been in the business?
I have been cooking for close to sixteen years now, but I’ve been cooking with my mother for a lot longer.
Quick bio: How old are you, where did you grow up, where else have you worked, and did you go to culinary school?
I am 33 years old. I grew up just west of Chicago with my four brothers and sister. I have worked for Blue Water Grill and North Pond in Chicago, St. Regis Princeville in Kauai, and the Pump Room in the Public Chicago Hotel, to name a few. I attended Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago.
Why did you decide to go into pastry?
It’s funny. I applied and staged at Blue Water Grill for the hot line, and they offered me a pastry externship. I accepted, fell in love, and haven’t turned back since.
Porchetta and kimchi sandwich at Brider.
Some pastry chefs skew more savory, while others like to keep things sweet and simple. What is your philosophy?
I try to keep things simple by providing textures and layers of flavor while maintaining balance. By balance, I mean salt.
If you hadn’t become a pastry chef, what would you be?
Probably a failed musician.
What’s a career highlight?
Not sitting at a desk and being able to teach pastry to a lot of young chefs. We have a talented staff that wants to learn as much as possible. It’s great when you get a couple standouts who are really ambitious.
Do you have a signature dessert?
I do. It’s a gluten-free chocolate Valrhona cake with a milk-chocolate mousse, caramel sauce, espresso ice cream and a touch of Maldon salt over the top.
Do you find it necessary to offer more gluten-free options than when you started your career in pastry? I’m intrigued that your signature dish is a gluten-free chocolate cake.
I do find it necessary, but it’s not anything I mind doing. Like I said before, I really like new challenges. Actually, I have developed quite a few allergies in my young/old age. I am gluten-, soy-, lactose-, alcohol- and tree-nut free. So cooking for allergies is something I can relate to very well.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served, and what went wrong:
It was my first tasting for a few chefs. I thought it would be a great idea to use cicadas, since they had just shown up for the season. Here I am thinking “seasonality,” not really thinking that I’m serving the executive chef, the GM, the executive pastry chef and the owner...bugs. I thought a cicada beignet would be great. They did not touch any of it. So while they were talking to me about my other desserts that were presented, I ate all the cicadas.
So, after eating all the cicadas, did you get the job?
I did not. However, I did get to be the interim pastry chef until they hired Nathaniel Meads. It was great to do, but I was nowhere near ready for that position. They made the right call.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
What’s your idea of happiness?
Hiking with my wife, Elise, and daughter, Mila. Everything I do is for those two.
Name one famous person, living or historical, whom you’d like to sit next to at dinner.
Jim Henson. There is no one more creative than he was.
My dad. He was a perfect example of a father and husband. He showed me what a strong work ethic is.
Best advice you’ve ever received:
My mother never stopped telling me to “follow your dreams.”
Any question you wish I’d asked you?
“What is your favorite savory item to make?” Smoked ribs and roasted potatoes. Nothing better.
Brider is located at 1644 Platte Street. Find out more at 303-455-3084, or go to denverbrider.com.