Raised in Columbus, Nebraska, Katy Peetz grew up immersed in Midwestern-American cookery with her mother—a great meat-and-potatoes type cook—feeding Peetz and her twin sister a mean repertoire of casseroles. Peetz’s first food gig was selling Dippin’ Dots to college baseball game crowds to pay for her soccer expenses.
Off to a humble start, Peetz stepped into a restaurant kitchen for the first time with an internship at French bistro La Buvette, while completing a business degree and playing Division 1 soccer at Creighton University in Omaha. A subsequent position at Bistro 121 set the stage for her official entry into the industry. Peetz moved to New York City in 2008 to enroll in a culinary program at the French Culinary Institute, where she interned at Chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill. In the Barber camp, Peetz learned the value of working with seasonal, local ingredients. Peetz then journeyed to Chile for several months, cooking in the rustic setting of Martin Pescador’s Fishing Lodge in Patagonia.
In 2010, Peetz returned to New York and scored a position as line cook at Brooklyn’s famed more-than-a-pizzeria, Roberta’s. When the pastry chef position fell vacant in 2011, Peetz stepped in to tackle the new role with verve. In 2012, the first-time pastry chef also took over the sweet side of sister restaurant Blanca. At the two restaurants Peetz crafts unpretentious, provocative desserts that consistently blur the line between pastry and savory.
Why: Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation is dedicated to ending childhood hunger through reach-out efforts to national food community and raising funds for local charities.
About: Share our Strength aims to end childhood hunger in America by ensuring all children receive the healthy food
Interview with Pastry Chef Katy Peetz of Blanca – New York, NY
Dan Catinella: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Katy Peetz: I began my culinary career my senior year in college where I worked in the kitchen of Bistro 121 under Chef Walter Hecht in Omaha, Nebraska. The following fall I enrolled in The French Culinary Institute. I had always loved to cook, especially with different and new ingredients. When I was 20 years old, the summer after my sophomore year in college, I did a summer abroad program in Ireland and then traveled around Italy for two weeks. The food in Italy changed my life. I remember eating fresh pasta with seafood in Cinque Terre. That was the first time I had ever had fresh pasta and such fresh seafood, and it brought me to tears. It secured my wavering decision whether to attend culinary school or not. I wanted to leave college and go to culinary school, but I was on a soccer scholarship and wanted to finish that out. My parents also encouraged me to finish school.
DC: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
KP: Martin Pescador Fishing Lodge in Patagonia. Roberta’s followed, and now I do pastry from both Roberta’s and Blanca.
DC: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
KP: I think the decision to attend culinary school depends on the person. I had minimal professional experience in cooking and school was a way to get on the fast track of learning technique and immediately find a well-connected community. It isn’t for everyone but I am so glad I did it.
DC: Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
KP: I absolutely hire chefs without a culinary school background. I work for one!
DC: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
KP: Carlo Mirarchi. He took a chance on me since I hadn’t really worked anywhere and gave me so much freedom to be creative. His palate has shaped the way I make food, savory and sweet. He has taught me the importance of simplicity, clean flavors, and good ingredients.
Angelo Romano was awesome to work for because he is constantly inspired and incredibly creative. He puts so much passion into his food. Max Sussman is one of the most well-rounded chefs I have ever worked with. His ability to grasp the bigger picture of creating a restaurant culture was a priceless learning experience—how to manage people, create new dishes out of the ordinary but still fun and appealing to the diner, be aware of costing, and stay sane even when incredibly stressed and exhausted. All three have been so encouraging to me trying to new dishes with new flavors and ingredients.
DC: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential?
KP: I staged at Atelier Crenn for about a week last winter. I have never met someone who is so dedicated to cooking as Juan Contreras. He is a genius, and it was incredibly inspiring to work with him, even though it was such a short time. I also staged with John Paul Cardona and Robert Vallejos (now pastry chef at Spruce) when they were both at Manresa. J.P. is so naturally gifted and patient. Robert taught me so many basic professional pastry techniques that I didn’t know. I also staged a little bit with Belinda Leong of B. Patisserie. That woman has so much energy and gave me such great advice on how to approach a menu, as well as baking techniques.
DC: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
KP: I always ask how they approach making a dessert and what elements and characteristics they find most important to create a completed dish. To make a dish once in one thing, but to figure out the logistics behind it is another. It is so important to be aware of all variables surrounding the final dish: who the diners are, seasonality, texture approach, balance of flavors, plating style, the savory menu eaten before the dessert, and the production of each dessert component.
DC: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
KP: Put yourself out there and trail at whatever you think is the best restaurant at that moment. You most likely won’t get paid, so at least surround yourself with great chefs who can teach you so much .Work fast, clean, and organized, and hard!
DC: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized? Why?
KP: I think vegetables in pastry are underutilized. Sometimes pastry chefs get in a frame of mind that is too focused on sweet confections. Sugar, flour, butter, and chocolate can only taste so interesting for a while. Shake things up with earthly elements like unconventional flours (teff, quinoa, and chickpea), herbs, and produce.
DC: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
KP: I have so many weird ones and my flavor combinations are constantly changing. I recently put a new dessert on the menu using green strawberries and cucumber. The bitterness and acidity of the under-ripe strawberries pair so nicely with the subtle sweetness and dewiness of the cucumber. I like pairing earthy and bitter ingredients with sweet ingredients.
DC: Define “American” cuisine. What does it mean to you?
KP: American Cuisine is going beyond being creative and seasonal with food, but taking risks and creating a culture with your food.
DC: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
KP: Anywhere that isn’t super fancy. I love South and Central America. Even if the food isn’t mind-blowing, the people are absolutely so inspiring and loving. Part of why I love food is because I love people and culture.
DC: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
KP: Since I have been cooking for a living I look forward to eating clean, simple foods. I taste all day, so the last thing I want to eat is something rich and cooked to death. I like foods that are grown in their natural setting during their natural season. Nothing too fancy, a little salt, lemon juice, and olive oil can bring a single ingredient to a new level.
It’s a luxury and a privilege to go out to eat. The food I am paying for doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but made with thought and care. Restaurants that hire creative, happy cooks and treat their employees well almost always have better tasting food. I also think it is important to not get caught up in trends but try new flavors and ingredients that will inspire new ways to think about food.
DC: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve?
KP: I would love to cook for Julia Child when she was supposedly a spy for the secret service. The conversation would be so interesting beyond the food.
DC: Who would you most like to cook for you?
KP: I would have loved to have my great grandma Ann, who came over from Sweden, cook for me. She was supposedly a fabulous cook and the majority of our family recipes belonged to her.
DC: How are you involved in your local culinary community? Nationally/Globally? KP: The previous two years I have volunteered with Carlo for the organization Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry. I have volunteered serving healthy after school snacks at a Brooklyn school for Bill Telepan’s Wellness in the Schools program. This spring I will be teaching a cooking class at Haven’s Kitchen.
DC: What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
KP: All the grass-root charities that helped feed the Hurricane Sandy victims in affected areas. Roberta’s raised over $10,000 for Rockaway victims, and it was awesome seeing current and former Roberta’s employees rally together and do that for them.
DC: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
KP: I come from a family of lawyers, and that is what I originally went to college for. But I cannot imagine sitting still at a desk that long!
DC: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
KP: Success is always growing and pushing yourself to be the best at what you do, while remaining happy, sane, and able to support yourself financially.