Interview with Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman of The Bristol – Chicago, IL

January 2011

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to first pursue cooking professionally?
Amanda Rockman: Like every good daughter, I blame my mother; she was an exceptionally good cook. I went to film school in Boston. Instead of going to screenings I would be working for free in restaurants. I went to CIA food camp, and I never really left. As far as pastry versus savory, I always kind of knew. The only thing I ever wanted to eat when I was little was chocolate

AB: What ingredient do you feel is underutilized?
AR: Salt and acid. We use vinegars and want to taste different components.

AB: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
AR: That I stuck it out. It’s been a busy 10 years, and I’m expecting 10 more, especially since our chef here likes a lot of vinegar.

AB: What's your pastry philosophy?
AR: That’s a tricky one, because every time I work for someone I sense that my take on pastries really evolves. But overall, I feel that when one is putting together a dish there needs to be a sense of soul in it. Granted, ingredients and technique are extremely important. Where is a dish without them? Nowhere. A perspective is important because it allows an idea to be translated to your guest, and if you have done your job right, they will sense it and ultimately enjoy it. Also, a sense of humor is necessary. With the stress, catastrophes, and close quarters you have to be able to laugh. When your cook burns those tarts for 500 and the banquet is in 30, minutes you better have your cool. Hypothetically, of course.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
AR: Culinary school is not for everyone. I am so very glad that I went. The Culinary Institute of America gave me the training and foot in the door that allowed me to work for some really amazing people. But, like any kind of schooling, it depends on the person and what they are willing to get out of the experience. I also feel that a good attitude is everything. If an individual comes to me and wants a job, it doesn’t matter to me if they went to school. Granted, it’s a plus. The ultimate factors: do they want to learn and do they love pastries. I will take the time to teach anyone as long as they want it and will to stick it out.

AB: What’s your favorite interview question, and what answer are you looking for from a cook that is looking to work for you?
AR: How do you make pastry cream? It allows me to see how they organize their thoughts, explain the process, and ultimately if they know how to make pastry cream. The ultimate correct answer would be someone who went through the ingredients list of what is necessary. Then they would explain what equipment one would need and the process. I’d give extra points for those who say to set up an ice bath to cool your pastry cream before you start—that means they look ahead. I look for individuals who speak up, have an opinion, and ultimately have a passion for the constant learning that is involved in baking and pastry.

AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
AR: That's a hard one! I have a different favorite every week! I suppose some favorites (sorry, can't pick one) are Greek yogurt, green apple, sorrel, and cucumber. Chocolate, beets, crème fraîche, and balsamic vinegar. White chocolate, lavender, and lemon. Strawberry, basil, buttermilk, and prosecco. Blackberry, sage, caramel, and almond. Oh boy ... the list just goes on and on.

AB: Where do you fit into your local culinary community?
AR: Until recently, I felt as though I was the ultimate assistant. I have worked in a bunch of different outlets and mostly in Chicago. But recently, now that I have taken my own post at The Bristol, I have had the amazing opportunity to be involved in programs that really matter to me. For example, LUNGevity, a program raising money to help find a cure for lung cancer, auctioned a pastry class by me—a pre-Valentines day class called “The Way to Your Mans Heart Is Through His Stomach.” I am also becoming involved in the fight against Crohn’s disease. This is something very close to me— my sister has been fighting this disease for over 10 years. By giving these individuals information on how to make gluten-free and vegan desserts, you give them the power to enjoy food! Becoming a positive influence is important to me, especially giving my time to incredible programs such as these. Secondly, as I proceed in my career and have different assistants, I feel it is important to support a healthy and open environment. A great many cooks have dealt with the screamers and hostile environments that kitchens can become, and I vow to never do that. Respect the individual who has entered this industry with passion and the desire to learn. If they devote their time to me, I will make it worth it for them.

AB: What do you think you’d be doing right now if you weren’t a pastry chef?
AR: If I wasn’t a pastry chef, I would be a writer. My wildest dream would be to work for a magazine and have an editorial page about food, travel, fashion, etc.

AB: What's next for you?
AR: I would love to say that I will have my own patisserie next ... You never know, an opportunity could come my way. I see myself growing with a restaurant group and overseeing all of their pastry departments—setting up menus, R&D new items, training staff, and making tasty, awesome pastries.