Round two with Jason Lebeau, pastry chef at Coohills: "Keep your head down, shut your mouth and work"
1400 Wewatta Street
This is part two of my chat with Jason Lebeau, pastry chef at Coohills; part one of my interview with Lebeau ran yesterday.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Be willing to think outside the box and try something new. I love the classics and homey desserts, but I appreciate diners who are willing to take a chance on something they're not familiar with. Just remember that there's a pastry chef back there in the kitchen trying to win you over with their personal creations.
Your five favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants for sweets and/or pastries other than your own: Michael Bortz's breads at City Bakery are amazing, and I also love the desserts at Rioja, which are all spot-on. I'm a fan of Keegan Gerhard, as well, because he's a real chef who always has something to please every palate at D Bar Desserts. I recently ate at Root Down and was pleasantly surprised, and I like the desserts at Indulge. Executive chef William Wahl isn't a pastry chef, but he executes his desserts like any good pastry chef can.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? It's an exact science and very precise. You can't just randomly add more salt and call it good. Everyone always wants a different variation of a dessert, or a cake made yesterday, so I'm always challenged and on my toes -- and even though it may stress me out at the time, suffice it to say that I'm never bored.
What's your biggest pet peeve? A dirty kitchen and things that are left unwrapped.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My infrared thermometer. You never have to get it dirty; it's always precise no matter what you're measuring; and it also keeps my kids entertained in the car...and the line cooks, too, for that matter.
What's your fantasy splurge? A chocolate-tempering machine. I'm always so busy multi-tasking in the kitchen that having the time to temper chocolate isn't realistic, but having a machine would enable me to jump from breads to candies to any other given tasks with a lot less stress. Actually, I'd really like to be a chocolatier but have never had the time to experiment.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? I got Thomas Keller's Bouchon cookbook for Christmas, but it's still in the cellophane wrap. I believe my aprons and chef coats are piled on top of it. I'm too busy working and being a dad and baseball coach to open it.
Culinary school, or school of hard knocks? Definitely the school of hard knocks. I went to culinary school -- it costs too much and no one fails. Everyone graduates, and unless you have good connections in the real world, everyone starts making about $10 an hour, which is about the same as it was 25 years ago. I suggest researching and finding restaurants you'd like to work at, and once you get a job, keep your head down, shut your mouth and work. No one cares about your opinion. If you still think you need to go to culinary school to learn more about the scientific aspects, then go ahead and consider it, but there's no better place to learn than in a real kitchen.
What piece of advice would you give to a young pastry chef? Listen. Don't think you know everything there is to know. Instead, be a sponge and absorb everything you can; be responsible and dependable; don't bring your problems to work with you; learn your way around the kitchen; and wrap, mark and label everything. If you're baking from a recipe, read it once and read it again. Try to work for as many chefs as you can, travel if possible, and learn every aspect of the kitchen -- not just pastry.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring pastry staff? A willingness to listen and follow directions, someone who will get along with the rest of the staff and has a good sense of humor, and someone who knows how to work hard and can multi-task.
There seem to be more female pastry chefs than male pastry chefs. Why do you think that is? Actually, I think there are more male professional pastry chefs in the world as a whole, but in Denver, there are probably more females, maybe because their desserts are more theatrical, cuter, sweeter and daintier. Women, unlike men, have a delicate touch and won't crush fragile pastry components.
Is having a pastry chef separate from the executive chef important in a restaurant? Definitely. Most chefs don't know the first thing about pastries, and the executive chef usually has enough on his plate. We're there to help him have one less worry. Besides, it gives us pastry chefs a job and keeps all those frozen, preservative-filled, mass-produced desserts off the table.
How does chef Tom Coohill's menu influence your desserts? Tom is old-school and likes the classics, so I try to stay in that realm and keep in his wheelhouse. I love the classics, too, but I do try to put a more modern twist on them.
Favorite dessert on your menu: Right now, I'd have to say the marjolaine. It's the original, 100-year-old recipe from Fernand Point himself.
What's always lurking in your pantry? The basis of most desserts: butter, sugar, flour and eggs.
Weirdest customer request: I was asked to make a birthday cake that was supposed to have live fish swimming on it as part of the design. We ended up hollowing out the cake and burying a small fish bowl inside.
If you could train under any pastry chef in the world, who would it be? François Payard or Ewald Notter. I interned with François in New York for ten days. He was intense and ran a very disciplined kitchen, and everything was precise and well executed. I also took some chocolatier classes with Ewald Notter on the Denver campus of Johnson & Wales, and it was the exact opposite of interning with Payard. Notter was extremely laid-back and approachable, and he treated everyone as his equal. He's a true chocolatier artist and makes everything look effortless.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Figuring out how to perfect the French macaron at altitude.
Greatest accomplishment as a pastry chef: I've survived 25 years in a business that's always looking for the next young, cheaper version of a pastry chef. As time goes on in the kitchen, the older cooks get looked down upon by the younger generation coming up, but we're the ones with all the knowledge and experience and can still run circles around them.
Craziest night in the kitchen: New Year's Eve at Restaurant Kevin Taylor on Y2K. I believe we had three separate seatings and all five of Kevin's restaurants had different menus, plus I had to do a wedding cake on top of everything else. I got to work around 4:45 a.m., took a thirty-minute break around 5 p.m., and then returned for dinner service. We weren't done until 2:30 a.m.
What's been the worst disaster in the kitchen? I was recently cooking down caramel -- sugar water and isomalt, which is a diabetic sugar substitute that helps wick moisture and improves workability -- and it burned and turned into molten lava. It looked like black tar and was rising and falling in the pot as though it was alive. To make matters worse, it took a month to thoroughly clean the pot.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? It would be a bakery-deli-bar-in-one with a butcher, baker and drink maker. I'd do pastries and bread, along with housemade pâté or charcuterie -- not the imitation version you get in the large supermarket chains, but the way it used to be, and still is, in Europe.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I was the drummer of the house band in a really bad "tits and ass" B-movie called Malibu Beach Bikini Weekend, a cheesy, teenage late-night flick. I'm really quite embarrassed by it, and, yeah, so much for the rock-and-roll life.
Last dessert before you die: I'd rather not have a dessert. Instead, I want bloody red meat and salty fries. If it were a dessert, then I'd choose my father-in-law's French apple tart. He worked with world-renowned pastry chef Gaston LeNotre in 1950s Paris, and his tart is incredible.
What's in the pipeline? More bread, and Beats on the Creek, our summer concert series.
How many people really do order dessert first? Only the people who went somewhere else first...and had dinner there.
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