This is part one of interview with Andrea Wight, pastry chef of Beast + Bottle. Part two of my chat with Wight will run tomorrow morning.
A lot of us can recollect the first time we baked a batch of brownies, but what sticks in Andrea Wight's mind is the name her dad gave her when he popped one of her chocolate squares in his mouth. "My dad called me the 'little chef,' and I remember thinking, 'Really? I could make baking brownies my job?' I was completely befuddled," says Wight, now the pastry chef at Beast + Bottle.
Aside from her grandmother, who would pretend to be on TV while baking cookies, no one else in her family cared much about cooking, says Wight, who was born and raised in a small town outside of Buffalo, New York. "I loved food and had this weird passion for cooking," she remembers, "and I spent as much time as I could in the kitchen, even getting banned because I once dropped maple syrup all over the floor. It was the closest I ever came to getting grounded."
But a scolding from her parents didn't dampen her spirits. Wight attended Penn State, where she majored in hospitality management and graduated with a master's degree in the same discipline. And in between her studies, she worked as a pantry cook at a nearby restaurant, soaking up the kitchen atmosphere. "I loved and adored it," she says. "The menu changed every month, so I was learning about new ingredients all the time, and I loved the system of working on the line, of five people working together to put together one plate, and I was obsessed with the stress, the rush and the constant challenges."
After nearly three years on the line, she moved to St. John in the Virgin Islands to work seasonally at a resort, augmenting the off-months with cooking stints at a bed-and-breakfast in Montana. And in 2011, she moved to Denver to be near the mountains.
Her first gig was at the now-closed Venue, where she started as a line cook, eventually getting a turn at pastry work under the tutelage of Natalia Spampinato, the pastry chef at Il Posto. "Her desserts were just amazing, and I loved watching her work," says Wight, whose next foray into pastry was at Vesta Dipping Grill. She as hired as a line cook, but quickly began delving into pastries, creating desserts for Vesta's Monday suppers and for the staff on their birthdays. Vesta's kitchen is exactly the kind of classroom that catapults an aspiring pastry chef's self-esteem, she notes: "It's a huge teaching kitchen, and my confidence grew by leaps and bounds while I was there." Wight was also putting in time at the Squeaky Bean, designing desserts alongside Matt Thompson, the Bean's former pastry chef.
But she eventually quit both jobs to become pastry chef at Beast + Bottle, a kitchen that's quarterbacked by Paul Reilly, who spent a few months in Vesta's galley himself before opening his restaurant in Uptown. "Paul and I worked together at Vesta, and he asked if I wanted to be his pastry chef at Beast + Bottle, and I'd realized along the way that as much as I loved cooking savory food, I loved pastries a bit more, and I knew it would be a great opportunity to do one thing and do it really well," says Wight, who in the following interview exposes some of the theatrical antics that take place on the line, recalls the eccentric "kitty" kook who had a really weird request, and admits that her "meat" cake was an epic failure.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Andrea Wight: I love that our challenge is to take something that's already pretty great, like a perfectly ripe tomato, and elevate it by featuring it in a new way. At Beast + Bottle, we're fortunate to have close relationships with many of the same farmers and purveyors who provide us with the produce, eggs and meats that we use on our menu every day. It's pretty rewarding to have them -- or any guest -- come in and try a dish that's full of familiar components and walk away being surprised by a new pairing, technique or texture.
Five words to describe your desserts: Simple, inviting, playful, creative and intentional.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I'm not sure if I really have one ingredient obsession, but I do love almond paste, and I tend to add it to anything with a pastry crust.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: I hate picking favorites, so I'll give you three: our ice cream maker, butcher-block table and "Rhianna," otherwise known as our small convection oven.
What kitchen tools would you be completely lost without? My gram scale, small and large offset spatulas, silpats, and this very ergonomically burnt rubber spatula that we've had since we opened.
Who or what inspires you? I'm a visual learner, so I love looking at photos and walking around farmers' markets, and as hard as it is to find the time to go out to eat, it's extremely inspiring to see other chefs in their element.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: Our eggs come from Cottonwood Creek Farms, in Merino, and they're pretty amazing. The yolks are beautifully golden and delicious, and any dish that highlights them is always outstanding.
One baking ingredient that's way overused: Chocolate. Too often, when desserts are designed and the dish "needs something," some sort of chocolate is arbitrarily added.
One baking ingredient that's underused: Herbs and spices. I love steeping herbs or spices to flavor creams and custards, or adding toasted spices to nut butters and spreads. It's like adding a hidden layer of flavor.
Pastry trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd love to see a greater emphasis on encouraging guests to pair desserts with after-dinner beverages.
Pastry trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Huge portions and overly sweet desserts.
Favorite dessert on your menu right now: We just added a mascarpone mousse with grilled figs, confit lemons and almond sponge to the menu. The fig-and-lemon salad is dressed with local rooftop honey that one of our hostesses graciously provides, and it's awesome. After much deliberation from the kitchen, it turned out be to a really light and well-balanced dessert.
What dessert would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? I love the juices at ACE, especially the one with celery, apple and kale, and every time I get one, I think about putting it on the menu as a sorbet.
Which dessert would you bring back from the grave? Apple dumplings with brown-sugar syrup and vanilla ice cream. There's just something nostalgic and warming about it.
Which dessert would you like to see retire from menus? Chocolate lava cakes; they've had their day in the limelight.
Most noteworthy dessert you've ever eaten: I took a trip to Lyon, France, during college and had a hazelnut feuilletine that wasn't over-the-top creative or innovative, but it seemed perfectly executed. The custard was rich and smooth, it had great texture overall, and the pastry was perfectly cut and spaced. It just made me want to keep getting better at what I do.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants for sweets and/or pastries other than your own: The first apartment I had in Denver was too conveniently located to the former Trompeau Bakery, and I used to eat the croissants constantly. Their laminated doughs are my favorite, but everything I've tried, from their baguettes to the quiche, is pretty spectacular. As far as pastry goes, I haven't sampled nearly enough here in Denver, but I was really fortunate to work under Matt Thompson at the Squeaky Bean for a few months last fall and sampled many of his confections. I remember that the yield for the coffee mousse was about 3.5 quarts, and it was hard for me not to just eat that last pint all by myself. I loved that every component of his dishes had purpose and careful technique and were really well balanced.
Who's the most underrated pastry chef in Denver? Natalia Spampinato of Il Posto. I worked under Natalia at the now-closed Venue when I first moved to Denver, and her desserts are well thought-out, exciting and delicious.
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How does chef Paul Reilly's menu influence your desserts? It's very much a balancing act. When I look at putting a new dessert on the menu, I have to look at it not just as a stand-alone dish, but also as something that will round out a great meal. We would love to highlight all the great produce that each season turns out, but we often run out of time, so we collect what we can't live without and build dishes, both savory and sweet, around them. I love that there's often traditional pastry applications on the savory menu and vice versa. For example, Paul created a black-peppercorn panna cotta as a component to a killer parsnip starter. Paul and the rest of the kitchen staff are constantly tasting new pastry items and sharing insight and feedback. I love getting their feedback, because it often sparks a new idea and heightens my attention to detail. There's so much collaboration in the kitchen. I've been really blessed to work in kitchens where everyone really values and respects one another. I definitely want to stick with pastry and buckle down and really focus on this.