Interview with Pastry Chef Elissa Narow of Custom House and Spring – Chicago, IL

May 19

Heather Sperling: When did you start cooking? Where have you worked professionally?
Elissa Narow: After getting a business degree from Washington University in St. Louis, I went to the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. After graduating in 1996 I landed a job with Shawn McClain at Trio. I was pastry chef at Blackbird and Avec andthen returned to work with Shawn in 2005. Now I’m pastry chef of Custom House and Spring.

HS: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
EN: Della Gosset, who I worked under at Trio, taught me about flavor pairings and plate designs. My pastry heroes are Albert Adria and Claudia Fleming.

HS: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
EN: I ask them: Why do you want to be in the business? I want to know about their passion for working with food.

HS: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
EN: Try and gather as much info as you can and try to work in as many places as you can.

HS: What are a few of your favorite flavors and flavor combinations?
EN: At Spring I’m doing a miso butterscotch and green tea cream. I wouldn’t do green tea at Custom House, but I would do other teas. I love using tea in desserts. At Custom House and Spring we’re very seasonal. The flavors at Custom House are more American-inspired with [plays on] classic combinations, like gingerbread cake with pineapple mascarpone and black pepper keeping it warm and homey. We’re doing an apple tarte tatin with homemade puff dough, crème fraiche ice cream and a cider sauce with apple eau de vie.

At Spring I wanted to bring some Asian flavors back into it, but also have desserts that reflect what I do. There aren’t many desserts in Asian cultures, so I take a dessert I make and work the Asian aspect into it.

HS: What are your most essential tools?
EN: My most useful tool is a small square metal spatula. I want one of those confectionary guitars that are super expensive – like $2000 – and then you have to get the extra parts.

HS: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
EN: I really like infusing things, and [using] sous vide works to increase the intensity of flavors.

HS: What are your favorite cookbooks?
EN: I still love going to Fannie Farmer for classics because it’s absolutely beautiful. Oriol Balaguer’s book is visually stunning and I also like the El Bulli books.

HS: Where do like to go for culinary travel? Why?
EN: I’d go to Spain because of all of the new techniques that are coming out of there. Everything that I’ve ever heard about the food there is phenomenal.

HS: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in Chicago? What is your favorite dish there?
EN: Lao Szechuan for hot pots. It’s in the mall in Chinatown.

HS: Where do you like to eat pastry?
EN: I like to go to Hot Chocolate for desserts.

HS: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
EN: A lot of pastry chefs are using new techniques that are coming over from Spain, like caviars and sous vide that use a lot of [gelatins] and emulsifiers. There’s still a lot of savory involved with pastry. And keeping plates super streamlined and clean.

HS: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? To cook for you?
EN: I’d most like to cook for my dad, who died when I was 17. I’d like Claudia Fleming to cook for me.

HS: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
EN:

1. Include your staff in the process, it keeps everyone interested and creative
2. Create for your customers as well as yourself
3. Love what you’re doing

HS: If you weren’t a pastry chef what do you think you’d be doing?
EN: Something in the art world in a museum.

HS: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
EN: Success for me is to always be happy and passionate about what I’m doing. One of the things I really want to do is open a pastry shop that caters to pastry chefs because there’s nowhere to go to get equipment and books; you have to order it online and just wait. When you get an idea and you need something that moment, there’s nowhere in Chicago to get it! I love doing confections and candies, so there would be a confectionary component to it, along with classes and books.