Interview with Pastry Chef Maura Kilpatrick of Sofra and Oleana– Cambridge, MA
Elyse Viner: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Maura Kilpatrick: I think I grew up wanting to bake. I was always baking beyond my capability when I was young, but I didn’t pursue it until later. I worked front of the house and other jobs like a travel agent. When I was living in California I was working front of the house and serving some desserts that I wanted to make myself. I decided to go to California Culinary Academy. But, I always liked to read cookbooks and magazines and bake at home.
EV: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
MK: I worked at High Rise Bread Company. I’ve been at Oleana for eight years—that’s a big chunk of time. I worked at Casablanca with Ana for a while before Oleana. Ana and I worked together a long time ago at a restaurant in Cambridge, 8 Holyoke, which is no longer there.
EV: You said that you went to culinary school. Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
MK: I don’t require it at all. It’s an individual preference. I think I needed it for confidence to walk into a kitchen and feel better about it. But I am definitely willing to hire people and teach them. It helped me, confidence-wise.
EV: Did you feel that you already had the culinary ability, but just wanted to go for the confidence aspect?
MK: I had drive and passion, but I learned a lot in school. I was comfortable but needed more technical expertise. But, I needed to be comfortable and I think that was a really big part of it…to see yourself doing it every day.
EV: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
MK: I have always had these jobs where I worked by myself, since my very first job. I didn’t have the opportunity to work under another pastry chef, and it was kind of difficult. Mentor-wise, it’s not people I worked with, but people I read, except for Ana. From Ana I learned organization which is important and I learned to keep motivating yourself because it’s really up to you. And I learned to do your homework and be original. I guess that’s a big thing. Be original and don’t try to be anyone else. She gave me room to discover who that was professionally and creatively.
EV: Have you staged in a kitchen? Do you take stagiers in your kitchen?
MK: No I haven’t, but we take them all the time. We just had one today actually. Even if they are from other restaurants in the city we take them just to learn how the kitchen works.
EV: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
MK: I ask what was your favorite dessert you had at a restaurant and why. I remember being asked that question and answering instantly without contemplating it. You can see if they are interested in something homey, or something more elaborate, or a memory from a nice dinner they had. If they associate food with memories and occasion, I find that insightful.
EV: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
MK: It’s never done. If you think you have made this cookie dough 100 times you could still mess it up. You are never done learning. If you’re done learning, you are in trouble. Nothing is ever finished, you can learn every day, you can keep evolving even with something as simple as cookie dough.
EV: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
MK: Lately, because I find that they change all the time especially in this cuisine, I’ve been into a lot of the spice blends that we make here—Syrian spice which is black pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon. I’m into spice blends from another supplier in New York too who makes amazing spice blends. We come up with pastry specific ones on our own. We are starting a shortbread collection with spice blends in them. That’s our new challenge. It’s something I get from working with Middle Eastern food.
EV: You said that you love to read cookbooks, what are some of your favorites?
MK: Lately, they change all the time. I am looking at the CIA book of frozen desserts that’s pretty amazing. And I like Dessert Fourplay now, and I like these books by this Australian couple who traveled to the Middle East. They have two books called Saha and Turquoise.
EV: Define “American Cuisine” and what it means to you.
MK: I think it means familiar.
EV: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path—in Boston? What is your favorite dish there?
MK: I have a new one it’s called Tupelo, it’s Southern cuisine. I love the chicken. It’s fried chicken really beautifully done.
EV: Where do you like to eat pastry?
MK: I like Claire Flour, they have great pastries. I like Flour. I’d say both of those. Claire Flour croissants are amazing—they do great bread. And they have the best baguette; it’s very original.
EV: What trends do you see emerging in pastry and in the restaurant industry now?
MK: Ana and I think that the whole spice thing that we have been doing for a long time is emerging. Eric Ripert used za’atar on Top Chef, and we’ve been using it forever. I’ve also been seeing that restaurants are cutting back on pastry programs and pastry chefs and it’s not a good trend. I hear more and more pastry being downscaled and maybe its because of the economy. Chefs are just not giving it the attention it deserves.
EV: What is your pastry philosophy?
MK: Again it’s important to be original and I think that I’ve always worked really hard at being original. I get some ideas and inspiration from other place, but I do not take desserts form somewhere else. It’s subtleties, subtle flavors that you can keep tasting throughout your meal. You want to taste other things as you finish your meal, and that comes from multiple components on the plate, and subtle changes and flavors. We work really hard at that.
EV: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
MK: Be organized. Do your homework because it’s constant learning. And it’s really hard work—don’t be fooled. It’s never as easy as it looks and it takes longer than you think to get comfortable and confident. And be patient. Be willing to put in the work if you want the rewards.
EV: If you weren’t a pastry chef what do you think you’d be doing?
MK: Playing the guitar. I really wish I could play the guitar and play country music. I think “Wow, that would be so cool.” Who knows, maybe for fun one day.
EV: Do you have a blog? Do you contribute to any blogs?
MK: No I don’t. If we get website up and running for bakery, we talk bout it. But I read Michael Laiskonis’ blog from Le Bernadin.
EV: I know that you are a part owner of Sofra. Describe the concept of your restaurant. How did you develop it? What was your role in the process?
MK: I am a part owner of the bakery. Ana, Gary, and myself. We were all hands on. Ana and I conceptualized the bakery for along time, probably for five years and when we sat down and got the building and figured out what we wanted, we were really on the same page. We had the same ideas for the food I wanted and the pastry I wanted. I envisioned Middle Eastern and casual, and envisioned just the highest quality you could get. We all had worked together for seven years before, and it was really helpful.
EV: How did you choose to do Middle Eastern cuisine?
MK: When we started Oleana the desserts were not that Turkish or Middle Eastern, I really didn’t know a lot at that time. So it goes back to doing my homework and learning. The cuisine gives me as a pastry chef so much freedom to play around with and use spices, and introduce new food to people. I think I just ended up getting a job where it was Middle Eastern, and developing our own versions of things. Some people come into the bakery and want something different and to take chances on food, but they can also come in and get a cookie and coffee.
EV: Do you see this as a scalable concept? Do you have specific plans to open other outlets?
MK: I can’t say yet for that, we are less than a year old, but we get inquiries every week. So, no plans, we really are just starting to be able to take days off. It would definitely translate into more than one place. It’s very original and has been very well received, and people are asking us that already.
EV: What are some other restaurant concepts that you admire, or that inspire you?
MK: Like I said, the blog from Michael Laiskonis. I want more to zero in on the food more. I admire plain and honest food, I think that speaks to Oleana and Sofra’s food; really honest and original, and it’s done really with a lot of heart. You can tell honest food when you have it. It’s simple and done perfectly. I take it as the biggest compliment if someone says that about our food.
EV: How is the menu at developed?
MK: It’s seasonal. At Oleana we start with a frozen component, normally ice cream, but also like a frozen soufflé or parfait. I just start with what’s in season and what is able to be produced and plated at night out of our kitchen, but we are limited. I start with keeping 2 or 3 Middle Eastern things on the menu, and the rest is the balance of what’s familiar and something that can still be found at any other place.
EV: Do you come up with most of the concepts?
MK: Yes for dessert. Ana has been really great for leaving desserts alone for the most part. Been one of the things she relies on me most for, so she never worries about dessert. It’s kind of nice.