Beef cheeks changed Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac’s life. She was 19 years old, working as a hostess at Michaels Restaurant in New York when her boss asked her to come in for dinner. The experience opened her eyes to the possibilities that food could be more than just nourishment; within a week she was staging in the kitchen on days off.
After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, MacIsaac baked her way through New York, working as a pastry assistant at Union Square Café under pastry chef Deborah Snyder, before ILO and Tuscan Restaurant. She soon landed the position of pastry chef at CRU with Chef Shea Gallante. MacIsaac was most recently the pastry chef at Allen & Delancey, where her desserts complemented her husband Chef Kyle Bailey’s savory dishes.
But MacIsaac and Bailey soon resolved to run their own kitchen and left the Big Apple for the Capital City’s first major beer-centric restaurant, Birch & Barley. MacIsaac’s baking marvels, which run the gamut from pretzel rolls to elegantly re-imagined composed desserts and reworked childhood favorites, even lend themselves to beer pairings—the next frontier of the sommelier.
And she’s making headlines in the food section of notable publications such as The Washington Post, Serious Eats, The Washington Examiner, The Washington Post Express, and Washingtonian. MacIsaac has also been featured on the cover of Food Magazine. And if that isn’t enough, Birch & Barley was named Best New Restaurant of the Year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington in 2010.
Interview with Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac of Birch & Barley – Washington, DC
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Tiffany MacIsaac: Beef cheeks. My first restaurant job was as a hostess at Michaels Restaurant on West 55th street. I was only 19 so I wasn't familiar with the New York dining scene. One night they asked me to come in for dinner and that was the first meal I had that made me realize food could be more than just a way to fill your stomach. The beef cheeks in particular put me over the top. Within a week I was staging in the kitchen on my days off.
AB: What’s your pastry philosophy?
TM: Desserts need to taste even better than they look. There is nothing more disappointing than having a beautiful dessert placed in front of you then taking a bite and being under-whelmed. I sometimes feel like chefs will sacrifice flavor to make a plate look a certain way or showcase a technique. I really try to stay away from that.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment?
TM: Being considered for something like Rising Stars is a really great one.
AB: What’s the biggest challenge for you at Birch & Barley?
TM: Never having enough hours in the day or enough help. I am currently taking over the pastry programs at all the Neighborhood Restaurant Group restaurants. I have already done menus at Vermilion and Columbia Firehouse and we make over 35 flavors of ice cream and sorbet for five other restaurants at Birch & Barley. Working with each chef to make sure the desserts match their style while still showcasing what I feel my strengths are is a new challenge for me. But I'm really enjoying it!
AB: What do you think of the DC food scene? Is it very different from your time in New York?
TM: I absolutely love living in New York, but the food scene in Washington DC is so refreshing. There are so many great new spots opening all the time. It's very special to be a part of it. I miss the late night dining that New York offered; it’s the one thing Washington DC really lacks. We'll get there though.
AB: How involved are you in your local culinary community?
TM: Although I work a lot, I try to do things outside the restaurants like judging market baskets at L'Academie de Cuisine or showing support to the Chefs Move to Schools initiative.
AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and culinary developments?
TM: I do a lot of things. I eat out every chance I get. I keep reading all the food magazines and websites; Art Culinaire, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and StarChefs.com, of course. I ask our farmers and purveyors to keep us in the loop on new products and ingredients. We encourage our cooks to eat out often and we keep an open dialogue in the kitchen discussing everyone's experiences.
AB: If you could cook for any chef, who would it be and why?
TM: That's a tough one but I think I would choose Dan Barber. I respect his opinion and would welcome his feedback.
AB: What is the thing you do over and over again?
TM: Making ice cream. We produce 35 different flavors out of our shop that go to the different restaurants. We keep about 10 here, the other 25 go out to other shops.
AB: What’s your favorite tool?
TM: My very favorite is the stick blender or the immersion blender. I am obsessed with it. It makes everything so creamy and smooth. We use those blenders so much we blow through them pretty quick.
AB: What ingredient do you feel is under-appreciated?
TM: Tea. I love all kinds of tea in savory or sweet preparations. I love cocktails with tea as well. It can get bitter easily so I think people steer away from it. Used in delicate ways, it can bring great dimension to a dish. Jasmine and Assam are two of my favorites to cook with.
AB: If you weren’t a pastry chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
TM: Something creative I'm sure. But I just can't think of any occupation that is as exciting as being a chef. I get bored quickly so working in a kitchen that is constantly busy is perfect for me.
AB: If you had one thing you could do over or do again, what would it be?
TM: I think I would have done more stages when I was younger. That or travel to a foreign country to experience a different food culture. My husband, [Chef] Kyle [Bailey], and I always talk about going to a great food country, but it's so hard to take more than a few days away from the restaurant. It's something we are making a commitment to doing soon.
AB: How would you define success?
TM: Finding an environment to work in that is full of creativity and vision. It’s having somewhere you love going everyday that allows you to constantly evolve and grow. If you don't find this, I don't think you can last long in this business.
AB: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
TM: Be the first in and last out every day. It will make you strong and show your chef that you’re dedicated. Save your money and spend it eating out. You can learn so much by seeing other chefs’ successes and misses. Choose every job you take carefully. Most chefs ask for a year commitment, but try to stay longer. The more loyalty you show the more information they will give you.
AB: Where will we find you in five years?
TM: The Neighborhood Restaurant Group, the owners of Birch & Barley, has so many things planned in the next five years I couldn't even begin to speculate. There are talks of an ice cream shop in the future, which is something I've always wanted, so I'm the most excited about that!