Cafe Society

Nadine Donovan, pastry chef of Old Major: "Bourbon makes everything better"

Nadine Donovan Old Major 3316 Tejon Street 720-420-0622

This is part two of my interview with Nadine Donovan, pastry chef of Old Major; part one of our chat ran yesterday.

What do you enjoy most about your craft? It's rewarding. At the beginning of the day, I step into a calm kitchen, set up my station and start scaling, mixing, stirring, baking, poaching and kneading. It's a whirlwind of creation starting with a few simple ingredients and ending with cakes, pies, breads and ice creams. And it's a great feeling to step back and see all of the things that you've produced. An even better feeling is watching what you made being placed in front of an eagerly awaiting guest.

See also: Nadine Donovan, pastry chef of Old Major: "More power to vegans, but for the sake of humanity, leave the cake to us"

What's your fantasy splurge? It doesn't take much to keep me happy in the kitchen, or in life. I always try to make the best of what I have. But if I could treat myself to one thing at this very moment, it would be a collection of knives from Cut Brooklyn. The passion and dedication that they have for their craft inspires me to be better at mine.

What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? As a chef, most of the gifts that I receive are food-related. They've all been phenomenal, but my very favorite gifts are cookbooks; they're knowledge and inspiration all wrapped up with a bow, and it's almost impossible to beat that. The ones I cherish the most have little sentiments scripted under the jacket -- such a great personal touch.

Why are people so obsessed with chocolate? Lots of reasons. Chocolate has powerful nostalgic properties, and for most people, it triggers memories about the holidays, celebrations or good times in their childhood. Second, chocolate triggers the release of endorphins -- and that makes all of us feel great. Third, it's absolutely delicious. I'm obsessed with chocolate because it's so versatile. We have a dessert on our menu right now that showcases the different elements of chocolate, from its unprocessed state (cocoa nibs) to the extraction of cocoa butter (white chocolate) to perfectly crafted 74 percent coverture. Chocolate is really fascinating stuff.

What's the secret to baking bread? Don't be afraid of it. Bread is relatively simple; just try it. If you combine flour, water, sugar, yeast and salt, you'll wind up with some kind of bread, and after that, it's just about adjusting the measurements to get the desired result.

If you could get a free ticket to, and free dinner at, any restaurant in the world, where would you go? Noma, a stunning restaurant in Copenhagen that's renowned as one of the best restaurants in the world. I believe that they're one of only a few restaurants who have stayed true to the farm-to-table concept. They grow, they forage and they cook. One day, I'll make it there.

What piece of advice would you give to a young pastry chef? Never go at it alone. If you're confused, ask questions; if you're weeded, ask for hands; and if you're creating a new dish, ask for feedback (and listen!). We're not here to be heroes; we're here to make great food.

How does chef Justin Brunson's menu influence your desserts? Justin loves good food, plain and simple, and I find his style and approach to cooking to be extremely grounded. He helps keep my head out of the clouds and puts good, solid flavors on the plate.

Is having a pastry chef separate from the executive chef important in a restaurant? I believe that having a pastry chef is very important. Savory chefs and pastry chefs have very different skill sets. I wouldn't expect an executive chef to be able to execute a perfect piece of pie, or for me to perfectly sear a piece of foie gras. Could we do it? Yes, but would it be the best? Probably not. Having separate departments in our kitchen allows us to really focus on our strengths and in turn create the best products. Having a pastry chef also gives restaurants like Old Major the opportunity to make their own bread in-house. Bread programs take time and dedication that many savory chefs just don't have. At Old Major, we make around 250 pretzel rolls per day.

Favorite dessert on your menu: My dessert menu is always changing, and so are my favorites. It all depends on what I'm in the mood for.

Biggest dessert fail: Tapioca pudding. It didn't sell. At all. The kitchen crew happily devoured it at the end of every night, though, so it wasn't a total fail.

Weirdest customer request: Just the other night, a gentleman asked for a grilled sausage on a pretzel roll for dessert. If I hadn't been too busy at the time, I would have given him a high-five.

Best baking tip for a home cook: Read, read and read some more. Knowledge is the best tool for professional chefs and home cooks alike. The more we know about ingredients and techniques, the greater the chance for success. No one ever said that baking is easy. I've made more mistakes than I can remember and burned myself more times than I can count, but it gets easier with a little self-education and practice. I promise.

What's your biggest pet peeve? Big egos. They get in the way of learning.

What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? Many, many years ago, when I first started working with pastry in a professional kitchen, I thought it was a great idea to put banana cream pie on a dessert menu. Long story short, I undercooked the custard. When service rolled around, the executive chef realized my mistake, and while he screamed and screamed, I cried and cried. But it wasn't until later that I realized that the pies weren't even the biggest disaster -- our behavior was. The takeaway from that disaster was learning to communicate in a constructive manner, learning from past mistakes, tasting everything, and not crying over spilled milk. Just don't spill it again.

Craziest night in the kitchen: Any opening night in a kitchen is crazy. Everything is new, exciting, nerve-racking, and everyone is sleep-deprived. It's a wild time.

If you could train under any pastry chef in the world, who would it be? It wouldn't be a pastry chef; it would be Heston Blumenthal. I'm fascinated by his scientific approach to cooking, and even though he's not a pastry chef, I believe that his vast knowledge of unorthodox techniques and conceptual cooking would help me grow tremendously in my field.

What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring pastry staff? Knowledge of fundamental techniques, a strong work ethic and a good personality. If we're going to spend sixty-plus hours a week together in the kitchen, we might as well have a little fun. I'm thankful every day to work with such a strong, dependable and lighthearted pastry team.

If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I can't give up all my secrets.

Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: One evening at Old Major, toward the end of service, the entire kitchen crew busted out in song, in unison, as loud as possible. Some of the guests joined in. I couldn't help but think to myself, "This is it. I've found my home."

Greatest accomplishment as a pastry chef: My role here at Old Major. To run a pastry department, have creative freedom, and work next to some of the most talented, compassionate chefs I've ever met is an accomplishment and an honor.

What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I have a terrible memory. Borderline amnesia. It's really embarrassing.

Last dessert before you die: A dear friend was telling me the other day that the best meals in life are those prepared specifically for you, by someone who loves you. My mom could make me any dessert, and if that was the very last bite I ever had, I could die a happy woman.

What's always lurking in your pantry? I have a motto when it comes to pastry: "Bourbon makes everything better." We've done a lot with spirits over the past few months, including Amaro gel, Cocchi Americano-poached pears, bourbon-caramel corn and vodka as a textural aid in some of our sorbets [to prevent crystallization], all strictly for cooking -- really! In the future, I hope to experiment with a few desserts inspired by classic cocktails. Maybe an Old-Fashioned upside-down cake?

If you hadn't become a pastry chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd be somewhere wondering why I wasn't. Deep down, this is what I've always wanted to do with my life. I had a brief stint studying to be a dietitian, but it was impossible to keep me out of the kitchen. Here I am now, enjoying every moment, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Get off of Yelp! Instead, talk to the chefs, e-mail the owners, or tell your server how you really feel, good and bad, about your dining experiences. Your honesty means the world to us and will help us make your next dining experience even better.

How many people really do order dessert first? It happens occasionally, but not often. Our maître d' at Old Major, Paul Attardi, always orders dessert first. I think that he's really on to something.

What's in the pipeline? In February, Old Major is celebrating its one-year anniversary. Our roots have been planted, and I'm excited to watch the restaurant blossom. As always, we are working on new, seasonal treats to help keep Denver's dining scene warm this winter. I can't reveal too much at the moment, but the future is very bright for 2014.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson