This is part one of my interview with Nadine Donovan, pastry chef of Old Major; part two of our one-on-one will run tomorrow.
It's 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, four hours before Old Major opens for happy hour. Behind the transparent jars of spices that front the open kitchen, the cooking crew is prepping turkeys for a TV shoot and jamming out to metal. Executive chef Justin Brunson swings open the door to the meat locker, where five, maybe six fleshy, freshly slaughtered pigs dangle from heavy chains. The glass-enclosed, USDA-approved charcuterie den, exposing the glory of curing sausages, stops a curious couple dead in their tracks.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Old Major
Squatting squarely in the middle of the dining room, the sausage ropes are a huge tease; no wonder the passersby are captivated. "I'm so sorry. We're not open for lunch, but please come back for happy hour. We open at three and would love to see you," says Nadine Donovan, Old Major's pastry chef. The man and woman nod in affirmation while slowly making their way toward the entrance, pausing a few more times to admire the rusticated interior.
"Things are going really well here. We're busy, I love the people I work with and our guests, and I want to be here a long time," says Donovan, who was born in London, Ontario, and wound up in Denver after her parents took the scenic route through America on their way to British Columbia. "They packed up all of their stuff and tossed everything, along with two kids, in the car for a cross-country trip through the United States before moving us to Victoria, but when we stopped in Denver, we never left," remembers Donovan, who comes from a long line of pastry chefs.
Her great-grandmother owned a bakery in Wales, her grandfather was a bread baker in Manchester, England, and her mom spent the majority of her career as a professional pastry chef. "It totally runs in my blood," says Donovan, whose first exposure to the restaurant world came at fourteen, when she was hired to scoop ice cream at Parisi, a gig that also allowed her to later experiment with pastries and desserts.
And it was at Parisi that she met Bob Blair, now the chef-owner of Fuel Cafe. "Bob was running the deli counter at Parisi. We had a great relationship, and he taught me a ton about food and everything you'd ever want to know about cured meats," says Donovan, who stayed at Parisi throughout high school, eventually leaving to work at Fuel, the RiNo restaurant that Blair opened in 2007.
Soon after, Donovan enrolled in the pastry program at Johnson & Wales, and as part of her degree program, she did an internship at Great Harvest Bread. "I'm addicted to bread," she admits. And then she sailed off into the sunset, otherwise known as Hawaii, to study nutrition at the University of Hawaii, which grants Colorado students in-state tuition as part of a reciprocal program. "The in-state tuition was definitely a plus, and I wanted to learn about food in a scientific way. That, and Hawaii is exotic and fun and you can swim with the dolphins," she says.
But a summer in Denver summoned her back to the Mile High City, and instead of graduating with a degree in nutrition, she returned to Fuel, which by then had expanded its hours to include dinner -- and a formidable pastry program. "Fuel had really started to take off, and I had the opportunity to do pastry full-time and I loved it, so, yeah, I never went back to Hawaii," says Donovan, who stayed at Fuel until she moved to Portland early last year to "seek adventure and check out the food scene."
She immediately secured a stint baking bread at New Cascadia, a high-production bread facility that supplies its loaves, most of which are gluten-free, to Portland-based Whole Foods stores. "I definitely learned how to maximize production and be efficient, but it grew a little tedious after a while, and I missed working in restaurants," she says. So Donovan secured a pastry stage at Le Pigeon, one of Portland's top restaurants, and while she was never officially hired, she continued to create sugar highs, doing time in that kitchen for several months to elevate her skills -- and résumé. "It was all about the experience and making connections," she says, and her dedication paid off, paving the way for a kitchen position at the Woodsman Tavern, another high-caliber restaurant in Portland.
And then she fell off her bike and was prescribed six weeks of bed rest. Still, just three weeks after her accident, she was back on her feet and meeting face-to-face with Brunson and Jonathan Greschler, Old Major's former general manager and a past employee of Fuel. "Justin and Jonathan were on a Portland inspiration tour, and Justin was searching for a pastry chef, but I couldn't be in the kitchen because of my accident, so we just ate and drank and got to know each other," recalls Donovan. In late 2012, after she had recovered, Brunson beckoned her to Denver to do a tasting. "It went really well, and Justin came up to me afterward, gave me a huge bear hug and said welcome to the family, and that was that," says Donovan, who in the following interview recalls the worst dessert she's ever had, pleads for people to stop Yelping and explains why chocolate is everyone's favorite obsession.
Ten words to describe you: Imaginative, ambitious, optimistic, spontaneous, inquisitive, accepting, dedicated, cheeky and ready to rock.
Five words to describe your desserts: Seasonal, classic, reimagined, rustic and balanced.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I'm obsessed with food in general. Now that fall is here, I'm particularly fond of preserved fruits, locally made cheeses and regional salts.
What kitchen tool would you be completely lost without? It may sound primary, but I'd be lost without a good, sharp knife.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: We always joke in the Old Major kitchen that we'll never be able to work anywhere else because we're so spoiled with the best kitchen equipment. I adore working with our Pacojet, but my very favorite kitchen piece is our combi oven, which allows us to bake with convection and/or steam. There's no water bath required for baking things like crème brûlée or cheesecake. It still blows my mind every day. Yay, technology.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: Every morning, our pastry team makes a maple syrup reduction for our maple-bacon crème caramel. That particular smell warms my heart. It's truly heavenly.
Favorite ingredients to work with: Ever since we put French macarons on the dessert menu, I've become intrigued with nut flours. They have so much depth and can really elevate pastries, even something as simple as pie dough.
One ingredient that you won't touch: Cornstarch. I physically won't touch it. The texture squeaks like nails on a chalkboard to me. I avoid it altogether and prefer to use non-GMO thickeners such as arrowroot instead.
One ingredient in baking that's way overused: I don't like to discriminate. Every chef uses ingredients in their own personal way. I could be really bored with peanut butter one day and then see it used in a unique way and be completely inspired.
Dessert food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd like to see more dessert-focused pop-ups in the coming year. There are so many creative, talented individuals in this profession who don't necessarily have the financial backing to open their own restaurants. Pop-up events are a great way to showcase skills, as well as to test the waters of new trends and techniques.
Dessert food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: S'mores. Yes, I know they're amazing. Let's try something else, already.
Which dessert needs to retire from dessert menus? I believe that it's better to reinvent rather than retire.
Which dessert needs to brought back into vogue? Baked Alaska. Whoever tried that for the first time must have had some huge cojones. Cheers to you, innovator!
Most memorable dessert you've ever had: A piece of vegan wedding cake, which is only memorable because it was so horrible. From that day forward, I vowed to never let anyone eat a dessert as bad as that one. More power to vegans, but for the sake of humanity, leave the cake to us.
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Your five favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants for sweets and/or pastries other than your own: I don't get to spend as much time in the dining room as I would like, but when it comes to recommending great desserts, I look toward Samm Sherman at Root Down and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, who does the desserts at Spuntino and Duo. They're masters of their craft, and never disappoint with their delectable creations. When I do make the time to go out, I find myself at Fuel or Beast + Bottle, places where I always enjoy the desserts. Justin Hofmann at Fuel and Andrea Wight from Beast are both young, passionate pastry chefs bringing a new and fresh perspective to the Denver dessert scene. I also love the Wooden Spoon, because it's simple and delicious.