Pastry Chef Dana Cree
Poppy | Seattle
A Seattle native, Dana Cree began her culinary career in 2000 by studying in both the culinary and the baking and pastry programs at The Art Institute of Seattle. Dana worked in the savory side of the kitchen for three years at Seattle's Lampreia before turning to pastry. After stages at both The Fat Duck in Bray, England (on the savory side) and WD-50 in New York City (in pastry), Dana returned to Seattle to hold pastry chef positions at Eva and Veil.
Dana’s desserts at Veil were intricate and complex—everything you’d expect from a forward-thinking, fine dining setting. Now at Poppy, the casual, seasonal, thali plate restaurant from renowned Seattle chef Jerry Traunfield (formerly of The Herbfarm), she has re-worked her concepts, keeping them as exciting and mature as ever, while making them more accessible to casual diners, and feasible for her high-volume kitchen. Dana runs the pastry show, turning out up to one hundred and fifty desserts a night. Her true love is fine dining, she says, but this is an invaluable experience in editing and execution.
Dana was named “Best Pastry Chef On The Rise” in 2008 by Seattle magazine, and has been featured on Anthony Bourdain's “No Reservations” and in Gourmet Magazine. Her own writings on food can be found on her blog tastingmenu.com and have been published in The London Guardian.
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Heather Sperling: How did you get into pastry?
Dana Cree: I did a culinary program first, and then the baking and pastry program—but I didn't graduate from either of them! I was feeling really stifled towards the end of the program; I realized it wasn't the right educational structure. So I got a one-on-one internship with Chef Scott Carsberg at Lampreia in Seattle. I was there for 3 years, and worked my way up to sous chef.
After Lampreia I went to The Fat Duck for a the month stage (in savory). I was the only stage (it was 2005) and I assisted the cooks on the line. That's really where I [became aware of] the ways in which food is perceived by all five senses, and the preconception that the diner brings to the table. My first pastry job was at a very casual restaurant/wine bar in Seattle called Eva.
HS: Who do you consider to be your mentor(s)?
DC: Scott Carsberg from Lamprei was my mentor for three years. He taught me how to set a standard for yourself and reach for and above it every day. And how to let flavors speak for themselves. If you want to make a cherry dish, find out what the particular flavor this month is saying, listen to it, and find a way to heighten it and find other elements that will elevate it. It takes a strong person to be able to restrain their own abilities and not over-manipulate. Figuring out how to serve a cherry the best way doesn't always involve showing off my skills.
HS: How would you describe your pastry philosophy?
DC: I'm battling against a lot by the time the dessert menus hit the table. My job is to make sure that the dessert is not just something sweet for them to finish their meal with, but is actually the culmination of a meal. But there's a lot that I have no control over. Flavor is a construct that's the interpretation of all the pieces of information your body can collect from your five senses—plus food memories, plus mood, plus timing.
I think my desserts work so well in restaurants because I have a great understanding of the progression of a meal, and how to work service. I believe that I am not necessarily a pastry chef, but that I am responsible for the culmination of a dining experience.
HS: How do you develop a dessert?
DC: I treat my desserts as I would build a savory dish. I choose a base, and on top of that build flavors and textures that complement and contrast each other. It is a great way to stay seasonal. Today [there’s] quince, but I'm not going to just stuff it in a tart. I am going to take the flavor and build a structure for it that is appropriate for this month, this city, and this restaurant. This is the first high-volume restaurant I've ever worked at, so plating has become very minimalistic. I feel like I'm creating haikus of the desserts I used to put together.
HS: What is an ingredient that you like to use that is under appreciated or under utilized in pastry?
DC: If it were 2007, I’d say elderflower. When I was in England I fell head-over-heels in love with it. But now, thanks to St. Germain, it’s on every cocktail menu and chefs are really starting to use it. I really like Szechuan peppercorn—it has a floral component. And true bay leaves—bay laurel, rather than California bay, which is part of the eucalyptus family and has menthol in it.
Salt and pepper are others. When I got in pastry there was very little salt and pepper involved, and it didn’t make sense to me! But now we’re seeing it as a trend.
HS: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
DC: Lime, sour cherry, and jasmine. They just really work well together. I like the flavor of flowers. Also passion fruit and lavender. They were in an oyster dish at The Fat Duck and I’ve always remembered the combination. It’s similar to lemon and lavender—it has the floral and acidity that is a familiar pairing, but the tropical flavor takes it to the next level. I've lost my sweet tooth. Sweet on my tongue has become repulsive, and that keeps me honest as a pastry chef.
HS: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
DC: Microplane—I can't live without it. Also a six-inch serrated knife, Silpats, tiny offset spatulas, and a ruler.
HS: Is there a technique that you’re especially excited about right now?
DC: I really like the pudding technique that came from Alinea via an old co-worker. You bring cream to a rolling boil, and then pour it over a baked good and process it while it is scalding hot. It becomes a puree, but maintains a “chew.” I've set it and used it in the filling of truffles. I’ve done it with gingerbread and Krispy Kreme donuts. It creates another textured element in the dish.
HS: What are your favorite cookbooks?
DC: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee is a wealth of information that is not available in other places. It teaches you what is happening to your ingredients and you can use that information to build your cuisine in a better manner. [I love] Pierre Herme dessert books because everything is perfect! They’re classic, amazing, and every recipe works. I found a lot of building blocks in his work. Claudia Fleming's book because of its organization. Restaurant-style desserts are not easy to put in a cookbook, but she has broken down the dishes into individual recipes and shows you how to pair them like building blocks. The Fat Duck cookbook has so much text about the philosophy and his mindset and the different paths he takes to creating a dish; I find that incredibly inspiring.
HS: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would you go?
DC: New York City. It seems to be the hub of everything. It bends and twists and thrives. Every year there is something else to experience.
HS: What is your favorite restaurant off-the-beaten-path?
DC: Voulas Offshore Café under the freeway bridge in the university district. I like the hobo [an egg scramble]. Hands-down the best old school diner in the city.
HS: Where do you like to go to eat pastry in Seattle?
DC: I hate eating pastry! I don't like baked goods, bread, croissants. I love making ice cream, but not eating it. There is a bakery by my house named Hiroki. He trained at the art institute. His desserts are always incredibly balanced.
HS: What are some trends you’re seeing in Seattle’s dining scene?
DC: Casual dining for sure. Chefs seem to be opening restaurants that are much more accessible and approachable and affordable. Small plates restaurants keep coming. Communal tables keep popping up. I'm still waiting for modern cuisine to become a trend in Seattle. Seattle is a tough town for food in general. It's growing and it has its own identity, but many restaurants have tiny budgets. Or those with budgets aren't too innovative. Many restaurants just don't have a pastry chef, which means pastry gets handed to the pantry cook, which is usually the youngest cook in the kitchen with the least amount of experience.
HS: How are you involved in the community?
DC: I teach classes at two different schools and I write a blog. I like to give back. I draw so much from people who have taught me.
HS: What advice do you have for young cooks?
DC: Expose yourself to as much as possible. I encourage young cooks to bounce around every year. Go stage; take unpaid internships. Not being responsible on the line gives you the opportunity to absorb and really learn things. And always read and taste everything. Always continue your own education.
HS: What are your three tips for pastry success?
DC: Taste everything. Understand what your ingredients are doing. Work really organized. I think that pastry chefs should work as a line cook to understand the mindset and be able to deliver the end of the meal.
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