Science and pastry are a natural match, and we’ve known this long before the advent of molecular gastronomy. From the necessary exactitude of measurements—whether they’re in a beaker or a Pyrex measuring cup—to the actual chemistry of things like leavening and protein coagulation, the laboratory and the pastry kitchen have a lot in common. And Angela Pinkerton, executive pastry chef of Eleven Madison Park, is one of them. Before she ever knew she wanted to be a pastry chef, Pinkerton majored in biology at Kent State. And even to this day, with all of her extensive experience, she loves the simple chemistry of baking.
But Pinkerton is also an artist. And at her college job decorating cakes at a local Ohio bakery—and intermittently watching bread bake with fascination—she found the perfect intersection of science and art. So after graduating, she eschewed her white lab coat for the chef whites of a career in pastry. Pinkerton worked for a time before entering L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, where she learned the foundations of her craft and the paramount importance of patience in the pastry kitchen from chef-instructor Mark Ramsdell.
From L’Academie, Pinkerton accepted a position in the pastry kitchen of The Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Virginia before making the move up-country to New York City where she eventually became executive pastry chef at Eleven Madison Park under Daniel Humm. And it’s at this four-star outpost that Pinkerton’s dual talents—imagination and precision—really shine. Patient as ever, and deceptively quiet, Pinkerton is creating desserts that are kaleidoscopes of color and flavor, harnessed by the discipline of her meticulous technique. The results, like the luscious Red Velvet and soft, elegant Milk and Honey, are conceptual distillations wrapped in whimsy—the highly edible intersection of art and science.
Interview with Pastry Chef Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park- New York, New York
Amanda McDougall: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Angela Pinkerton: I went to college for biology, and worked in a bakery at the counter. I loved to watch them bake bread. I started out doing wedding cakes. I love baking because it has the chemistry aspect and I am very artistic too. The mixing of the two drew me to pastry.
AM: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
AP: I love rose and chocolate, orange and chocolate. When I see these combinations, it draws me in.
AM: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would it be and why?
AP: French pastry is what I was trained in, so France for sure. I’d love to visit Spain as well, because their food is so innovative and it would be lovely to see that. There’s nothing like seeing it with your own eyes.
AM: If you could have a chef cook for you, who would it be and why?
AP: Jacques Pépin. I see the reruns of Jacques and Julia on weekends. I think it would be fun to sit and have dinner with him; to hear his stories.
AM: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
AP: I think so. I went later. I worked for a little while. I went to get the foundations secure. I don't think just because you go to culinary school you'll be a wonderful chef one day, but it will give you a good foundation.
AM: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
AP: Chef Mark Ramsdell [L’Academie de Cuisine, Gaithersburg, MD], was my chef in school and he taught me the basics. He has amazing patience which is so important, and really focuses on doing things properly. I’m big on that. And with Chef Daniel [Humm], he has an amazing palate and ideas, and an amazing attitude. It's not just how you cook but how you interact with people in the kitchen. I see that in him and it's very inspiring.
AM: In what kitchens have you staged?
AP: I did a week at The French Laundry with Claire Clark before she left.
AM: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
AP: You have to be determined. If you really want something you can have it. You can get it. You can work toward it. It's about determination and want. And staying true to what you believe, if it's your work ethic or whatever.
AM: What other pastry chefs in New York do you admire?
AP: I really love Chef Michael Laiskonis. I love his style and the way he's so scientific. He's so different compared to a lot of chefs. He's so quiet. His blog is awesome.
AM: Is there any ingredient that you feel is underappreciated?
AP: No one uses sunflower seeds—so many people have nut allergies nowadays. My mom has sunflower seed butter. It would be great to use, especially in the fall when they're in harvest.
AM: What are your most essential tools? Why?
AP: A hand blender. We use Bamix right now. It's very versatile. I like that it incorporates things so well.
AM: What trends to you see emerging?
AP: Caramelized white chocolate. Liquid nitrogen is quite trendy. And getting things from the market, which I hope isn't a trend but sticks.
AM: What is your pastry philosophy?
AP: You have to have a positive attitude. You need to be doing what you are happy with. Do things the proper way. I don't really like shortcuts. I think it's important to connect people with the dessert. I like to have fun with it, and for people to have fun with it. You're not eating dessert to sustain yourself.
AM: What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
AP: The restaurant does work with Share Our Strength, and CIA and ICE externs. We have two in pastry right now from the CIA. I like having externs, it’s fun and challenging. It's nice to see them grow and I stay connected to them. It's great to watch what they do after here, after school, to see where they go. I want to get more involved with giving back to people.
AM: What are the top three tips for pastry success?
AP: Love what you do; stay positive; and be dedicated. It’s true. I feel like working in a kitchen isn't so much a job but a lifestyle. If you’re not into what you do, you'll make yourself miserable and everyone around you miserable. Also, practice good techniques and stay focused.
AM: If you weren’t a pastry chef, what would you be doing?
AP: A wildlife photographer. Traveling around and doing stories on animals.
AM: What’s next? Where will we find you in five years?
AP: Right now I'm going to stay here. I really enjoy working here with Daniel. I would like to do some time overseas—to see what other people are doing. To get out there.