This is part two of my interview with Kris Padalino, pastry chef at Bittersweet; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? I like to read blogs and cookbooks and surf the web for new trends or old ones that I can reinvent. Some of the cookbooks that I fall back on for inspiration are Alinea, Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook and Thomas Keller's The French Laundry, which is one of my favorites. I also enjoy reading David Lebovitz's personal food blog, along with Eddy Van Damme's blog. All of these chefs bring fresh, simple and creative ideas to pastry and food in general.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: I lived in California for seven years and was spoiled by the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. There were so many local farmers with amazing produce that I was like a kid in a candy store. When I came to Colorado, I was a little heartbroken that the markets here weren't as substantial, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the beautiful produce we can get from our local farms, including peaches from Palisade, which are, by far, the best peaches I've ever eaten or cooked with. Not surprisingly, they've become a big summer dish on my menu this year. Thank you, Colorado.
Your five favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants for sweets and/or pastries other than your own: The afternoon tea at the Brown Palace showcases desserts and pastries that are exquisitely made and arranged, and going there is like a little trip to royalty status. I love D Bar's chocolate cake and shake, of course; the Corner Office has this killer cotton-candy arrangement that I got on my birthday; the in-house pastries at Spruce Confections, in Boulder, are delicious, and so is the coffee; and I love sesame and have made my own desserts with it, but the sesame crème brûlée at Beatrice & Woodsley is just amazing.
Who's the most underrated pastry chef in Denver? Every pastry chef. There are a lot of restaurants and owners who don't have a pastry chef, and there are quite a few pastry chefs who don't challenge themselves as much as they should. My whole reason for coming to Bittersweet was to challenge my creativity and bring new ideas to the table. True, there's nothing wrong with staying in your comfort zone, but if you don't push yourself, Denver foodies will pass you by.
How does chef Olav Peterson's menu influence your desserts? Olav is all about the food, always playing with different profiles and textures, and he's a perfectionist when it comes to good food. He gives me complete creative range to do whatever I want. "It's your name on the menu," he says. I create desserts that will complement what he puts on his menu, and I'm able to bounce ideas off Olav and our sous chef, Will Johnson. We're all perfectionists when it comes to our craft, and we push one another to cook harder and make the next menu more creative and mind-blowing than the last. A lot of our ingredients come from our in-house garden, too, which is one of my favorite things about Bittersweet -- and a major inspiration for my Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil dessert. We plant the garden every season, and we use what's in it to cook in our kitchen. There aren't a lot of chefs today who take as much pride in their food as Olav does. His menus are forever changing and challenging him, and he's able to reinvent food to make it more flavorful and elegant. That's what I try to do with my desserts, as well.
Is having a pastry chef separate from the executive chef important in a restaurant? Most executive chefs and/or restaurant owners haven't quite figured out what an amazing pastry chef can do for their business. Pastry is an art and in a league of its own. Having a pastry chef who's not afraid to take charge allows for a more diverse menu and creative environment. It's important to have two chefs from both sides of the culinary spectrum in one kitchen.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Be open to new dishes and restaurants. There are so many up-and-coming chefs, including myself, who are fresh and want to bring big things to the culinary scene in Denver. And while Denver is slightly behind the times when it comes to what's new, in the year and half that I've lived here, palates have evolved, and with chefs stepping out of their comfort food zone, so, too, will diners.
Weirdest customer request: I've gotten lots of crazy food allergy and vegan requests, but I'm Italian and a pastry chef, so I'm sorry, but I don't know how to cook vegan.
Worst dessert disaster: When I worked for Kevin Taylor as the executive pastry chef, I was in charge of creating desserts for all of his properties, which wasn't a problem except that my kitchen was in the basement area of the Hotel Teatro, and it was hotter than Hades. I had a couple of orders that kept going up in counts and there was always a huge lack of communication between all the kitchens, so to make a long story short -- and to save me the aggravation of recapping that shitstorm of a day -- nothing was going as planned. I had to do chocolate and spun sugar. The chocolate was fine, but the spun sugar disintegrated the moment it went on the sheet pan. I was like, screw this, get it out of my kitchen and move on to the next. That was the only time in my career where I hated what I was doing and I didn't give a damn anymore.
If you could train under any pastry chef in the world, who would it be? I'd love to work with Meadow Ramsey, my first pastry chef. She's definitely the reason why I strive so hard at what I do; she made amazing desserts that were so simple and so delicious.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I love fine dining and simplicity, and if I had the opportunity, I'd love to open a place that uses all local farms, from dairy to produce. There's pride in knowing that your guests are getting the best-quality products and that they come straight from your own back yard. I'd have fresh-baked breads, pastries and simple menu designs based around seasonal products. Most people want to just go out and have a great meal and not be put off by all the frou-frou extras; I just want a place where guests feel comfortable and enjoy the food in front of them.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: A few years ago, an intern of mine, who still holds a special place in my heart, gave me a large whisk with an inscription that said, "To my chef. Let's make each other proud." Even though I was already a successful chef in Santa Monica, I always felt -- and still do feel -- that I have so many more things to learn and earn.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Something personal and meaningful. Don't give a gift that isn't practical for that person. I love gifts, but there are quite a few stashed in my kitchen "catchall" drawer.
What's your fantasy splurge? I'd love to go on a crazy-long vacation, but what I really want is an enormous kitchen with lots of toys. I spend most of my time in a kitchen whether I'm at the restaurant or at home with my family, and I grew up in kitchens -- it's where I most feel like myself. I'd love to have a huge Tuscan-style kitchen in my house with a copper range hood, farm-style sink, a granite island, plenty of natural light, stone mosaics, dark-wood beams, travertine floors and a professional-grade fridge with glass windows -- a place where friends and family wouldn't mind staying a while to eat great food and shoot the shit.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When I came to Bittersweet and created the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil dessert. I haven't been in this industry for long, and it was a huge accomplishment for me -- I haven't been so stoked to make a dessert in a long time, and to have guests personally want to talk to me about it is just an amazing feeling. There's nothing better than hearing someone tell you that you just made them the best dessert they've ever had, or "This is the most beautiful piece of art ever. I almost didn't eat it."
Craziest night in the kitchen: It was Mother's Day brunch at Campanile, in San Francisco, and we were short-staffed and short on patience. We did about 500 covers that day. I never worked another brunch again.
Greatest accomplishment as a pastry chef: Having guests personally come up to me and thank me for the dessert experience. I like that I'm making it into columns and my name is out there in the culinary world, but there's nothing like someone enjoying one of your creations and then wanting to come back for the same one...or waiting for the next big one.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? Even though I've only been in the industry for five years, I still consider myself green. I've just gotten lucky in that I've had the opportunity to work with some amazing chefs in California and Denver. People are also really thrown off when I tell them I have a seven-year-old kid.
What's the secret to baking bread? Patience and lots of practice. I love bread -- bring it on -- but I was never a bread maker. I dabbled here and there, but it wasn't until I came to Bittersweet that I wanted to take it on. My advice is to start with a basic bread recipe and tweak it to your liking, but remember that it's a living thing and needs love and time to grow. Don't rush when making it.
If you hadn't become a pastry chef, what would you be doing right now? I graduated with a degree in biology and an applied-math degree, so I'd probably be working in a hospital or a lab, had I not gone to culinary school. The cool thing is I still use the math and chemistry I learned in college every day when I bake.
How many people really do order dessert first? We've had more and more people come in for nothing but desserts because they've seen them posted online. I've had a few people come in and say that they hadn't heard of our restaurant but saw our pictures on the Internet and decided to give us a try. Now they're regular guests.
What's in the pipeline? Coming up with a dessert that supersedes the Midnight.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? Denver has the potential to become one of the top food cities in the country, right up there with New York and San Francisco. When I moved here, I was surprised to learn that Denver is its own little melting pot of well-educated and sophisticated foodies, and I think that with the right chefs willing to go the extra step, Denver is going to blow up. I think we're also going to see more diversity in farmers' markets and a higher demand for local, seasonal produce. Denverites pride themselves on the way they live and eat. It's why I moved here.