Artistry and Dogged Work Ethic in the Pastry Kitchen

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
December 2014

If you’ve been to Washington D.C.’s Rogue 24 in the last three years, you’ve been lucky enough to get a taste of Chef RJ Cooper’s secret weapon. In the pastry kitchen at this very moment (in all likelihood), quietly and persistently slogging away at her never ending prep list, is Pastry Chef Giane Cavaliere. This one-woman wonder is responsible for the conception, development, preparation, and plating of D.C.’s most captivating, innovative desserts. From naturalistic compositions of craggy black sesame sponge to nuanced flavors and surprises, as with the unexpected fizz and pop of cola-bicarbonate, she is blurring the line between art and the edible.

Artistic expression has been her lifelong pursuit. From her ballerina days in her native Sao Paolo, Brazil, to her journey to D.C. to study photography, Cavaliere’s not the type to hold back, throwing herself into every undertaking. It was no different when she made the leap (a jeté, perhaps?) to pastry. “Giving up photography meant giving up a car, an apartment, going back to roommates at 30—going back to zero again,” says Cavaliere.

In actuality, Cavaliere doesn’t know what zero looks like. Growing up in the kitchen alongside her mother and grandmother, she got started early. “[My mother] made soufflés and cakes. I’d look forward to that after school. She would let me lick the bowl. As I grew older, she let me help.” Cavaliere always loved the satisfaction of producing something beautiful (and delicious), so years later, when she found her beloved craft of darkroom photography being supplanted by impersonal digital technology, she turned to baking for solace. At a friend’s suggestion, she took on a position at Posh, her first ever stint as a professional cook, and also landed a gig as a baker at CakeLove.

“I’d never been in a professional kitchen. I put my knife in the dishwasher. I had no idea!” Dreams of culinary school faltered in the face of sky-high tuition, so Cavaliere put her nose to the grindstone, learning from books and absorbing everything she could from chefs around her. “Sometimes I wonder if I should’ve gone to school, but I think [my experiences] make me who I am today, so I don’t regret it.” Cavaliere was headed out of the bakery and into the rush of fine dining and composed desserts.

Following a formative stint at PS 7’s, Cavaliere landed her current gig, where an unexpected step-up in the hierarchy threw her right into the deep end. “I wanted to stage with Chris Ford [at Rogue24]. Before I knew it, I was doing a tasting, my first ever.” With Ford on his way out, Cavaliere found herself in charge of the pastry program in a setting where her creativity was completely unfettered. “I love to experiment with ingredients, with techniques. If I see something that catches my eye, I think, ‘Can I do something with this right now?’”

That means building a dish around her favorite tea, as with her Blossom Dessert: Lavender-Chamomile ice cream, orange sponge and curd, honey crisps, and ginger crumble. Or the inspiration might be more ethereal—“I like clouds,” says Cavaliere, “I wanted to do something in black and white.” This thought translated into storm clouds of candied black sesame and chiffon with coconut ice and yuzu snow.

Overcoming her natural shyness, last fall Cavaliere wowed judges and peers at the 4th Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition. Her pre-competition preparation consisted of a Zen-like withdrawal and focus on her own voice. “Before I went to ICC, RJ was pushing me to look at everyone’s work, at books, but I didn’t do that. I didn’t want to compromise myself. I wanted to go as me,” a creative process reminiscent of a young Charlie Trotter.

Looking to the future, Cavaliere hopes to share her style and vision in a dessert-focused setting, a la Janice Wong’s 2am: dessertbar: “A place just for plated desserts … experimental, artsy, fine dining. I’d love to have my own little lab.” She also dreams of uniting the flavors of her childhood in Brazil with the modern techniques she employs today. If past performance is the best predictor of what’s to come, it’s only a matter of time. 

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