Pastry Chef Patrick Fahy of Blackbird

Pastry Chef Patrick Fahy of Blackbird
April 2011

Patrick Fahy is a professed classicist. Meaning that in the midst of a pastry movement more in tune with organic-driven naturalism and homespun comfort than 1980s era sugar blowing, Fahy and his air pump are blowing the socks off Chicago’s sweet-toothed citizens. In a time of revolution in pastry trends, Fahy says, “I seem to fall back on the classic approach—pristine [pastry]. That trend will never die.”

At 21, Chicago native Fahy put himself through culinary school at the Apicius International School of Hospitality in Florence, Italy. His first mentor, Andrea Bianchini, took Fahy under his wing and instilled in him a passion for pastry. After 14 months in Italy, Fahy returned to the United States, where he spent the next few years building technique through baking cookies and assembling cakes. His next step was Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton, where in two years he progressed from café desserts to banquet production and overnight bakery, all while simultaneously completing a 24-week program at Chicago’s French Pastry School (and presumably living off sugar). The next pivotal stop in Fahy’s career was a 13-month stint at The French Laundry, where he took away an emphasis on precision and the importance of doing everything by hand.

Now pastry chef at Blackbird and avec, Fahy credits Chef Paul Kahan and Chef de Cuisine Mike Sheerin for motivating him and allowing him hours of research and experimentation in the kitchen. His desserts, rooted in classics, still manage to combine precise technique with unconventional flavor combinations (smoked whisky barrel panna cotta, anyone?) and an unflinching eye for the pristine.

Interview with Pastry Chef Patrick Fahy of Blackbird – Chicago, IL

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Patrick Fahy: Originally, what inspired me were the jobs I started working in … I started working in the front of the house, and I saw a lot of food come out of the kitchen that was very inspiring. I was doing catering and there was a melon and a kiwi that they carved into a flower and bird—that was at a catering company called Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin. I was born and raised in Chicago, and I spent my teenage years in Madison, Wisconsin.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
PF: I started out at culinary school in Florence, Italy—that would have been in 2002—from there, I went to Madison, Wisconisn, and worked at La Brioche bakery. All my jobs are roughly for about a year apiece from La Brioche on. Next was a bakery in Chicago, Albert’s Patisserie, then Lutz bakery; I worked there for two years. I went to Bittersweet Bakery, and I worked there under a year because of a job opportunity at the Ritz-Carlton. I worked in the pastry department [at the Ritz], and I also worked at a chocolate shop Canady Le Chocolatier. I enrolled at the French Pastry School while I was working 50-hour weeks, and then I got a job at The French Laundry, where I worked for a little over a year. I got a job at in Chicago, and I've been here almost a year and a half. When I was in Italy I worked quite a bit … the restaurant name was San Vito. It was just outside of Florence, in a town called Montelupo. The farm was called San Vito, and it was a half-hour drive outside of Florence. That's where I made my decision to do pastry—with Andrea Bianchini. He was my first mentor. He was born and raised in Florence. He was part of every Florence club; he has two chocolate shops. This is my first management position at Blackbird, avec, and The Publican.

AB: Who are your mentors and what did you learn from each of them?
PF: I think every job, every person who I worked for is a very strong part of my style today, from Lutz, the Ritz, to The French Laundry’s Claire Clark, everyone shared equal parts. I think everyone has different styles. Andrea [Bianchini] had the biggest style. He did things the best way. The roots of the fundamentals and knowing how to do those without scales or recipes and knowing the secrets and the tricks of making things work. Then my chef at the Ritz was very organized and scheduled and knew how to plan ahead. Courtney and Clark made art that they put on plates, and I also learned from them how to cut some corners and get ahead and stock up your freezers. The bakeries I've been in have really been similar—gorgeous wedding cakes and similar ways of stocking displays to keep them looking tiptop. Every day you work. You do something. And you think, “good thing I was listening when they said that,” and you’re reminded of everyone you used to work with.

AB: Do you recommend culinary school?
PF: If they're serious about it, yeah. If they're just messing around, then no.

AB: What’s your favorite interview question, and what answer are you looking for from a cook that is looking to work for you?
PF: I want to get to the roots of why they’re interested in pastry. That tells a lot about how serious they are about pursuing pastry as a career. Why they went to culinary school, why they chose pastry. Some people don't know. Those are the people I'm careful not to hire. It's a lot of hard work, and you have to want it. If you don't want it enough, you're not going to survive.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs who are just getting started?
PF: I think it’s common sense to work hard, and if you're not learning something somewhere, then you should work somewhere else. I think that goes for all jobs, but I guess it’s different in the kitchen. Strive to be the best and don't settle for less. Always work in an environment where you’re learning.

AB: What are your most essential tools and why?
PF: I think the number-one tool for anyone in the kitchen should be their hands. It depends what you're doing. My favorite tool is one that’s taken care of, that isn’t beaten up. Seems like everybody loves to damage their tools!

AB: What is your favorite pastry resource?
PF: Number one is the area where you live. The farmers, who’s growing what. I think it starts there. I think outside of where you are, the Internet seems to be a common answer. I guess one of my favorites is a local farmer. Other than that you can get anything you want anywhere.

AB: Where do you like to go to eat pastry?
PF: Anywhere and everywhere, especially if it’s my fiancée making it, it’s a lot better. Right now she works at Fox and Oval; she makes croissants. I also love the crème brûlée at Bistro Zinc in Chicago.

AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
PF: I guess everybody now wants everything to look very earthy and organic—like it grew off the plate. I don't mind that type of look, but I seem to fall back on the classic approach. Nice and clean, pristine, elegant—that trend will never die.

AB: What is your pastry philosophy, and how do you adapt it for Blackbird, avec, and The Publican?
PF: I think it's pretty simple. The number-one philosophy for pastry is to make those eating it happy. I have a pastry chef at The Publican. First you have to have an eye for the restaurant style. The Publican serves a lot of meat and beer, and it’s very big on the beer parings, whereas, at avec, there's a lot of communal plates, and they’re very big on wine, sharing, and small plates. Then, at Blackbird, there are more wines, more singular portions. It’s more fine dining. And you have to do the same at any restaurant—manage the style of the chef de cuisine when it comes to the desserts that follow their food. Avec and The Publican are comforting, homey, simple food, nothing with a lot of components. It’s about something very simple but very good quality.

AB: What operation takes up the most time and energy?
PF: At Blackbird, there’s a lot more time and thought that go into the flavors and trying to come up with something more unique. You're paying for an experience—something new that’s different and almost entertainment in itself. Lots of times, experimenting and researching desserts at Blackbird takes up an enormous amount of time. Every now and then, the ones that look like they took hours to come up with took minutes.

AB: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would you go?
PF: It’s hard to choose one. I've always wanted to go to Spain. I wouldn't mind going back to Italy or France.

AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
PF: I love chocolate and salt, then something as recently discovered as cupuaçu, a tropical fruit related to the cocoa bean, with chocolate.

AB: What do you think you’d be doing right now if you weren’t a pastry chef?
PF: That's tough. I'm 31. I’ve been working in pastry since my teens. It's hard to visualize anything else. In my early 20s, I liked to write, and that interested me at one point.

AB: What’s next for you?
PF: I'm actually pretty happy where I am, working for Paul [Kahan], and I have a good part in three different places. They're going to have a butcher’s shop soon where we'll be doing bread. We have a baker named Jason at avec, and the goal would be for him to do bread. We'll do croissants and have a little pastry case. I'm really not thinking about anywhere else right now. It's not going be open for months. They’re just ideas going around. Something new will open. I'm excited to have a part in it. Hopefully before the summer it’ll be here.

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