2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Pastry Chef Ilma lopez of Piccolo

2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Pastry Chef Ilma lopez of Piccolo
April 2014

A native of Venezuela, Ilma Lopez grew up in the kitchen alongside her grandmother. After getting her start at Malabar in Caracas, she was accepted to the pastry program at Stratford University in Virginia. Today, Lopez is the co-owner and pastry chef at Blue Rooster Food Co. and Piccolo in Portland, Maine. Her husband, 2009 New York Rising Star Chef Damian Sansonetti, is the savory chef and co-owner.

Like Sansonetti, Lopez is a veteran of some of the most demanding and rewarding kitchens in the industry, such as DB Bistro, Corton, Tailor, El Bulli, Café Boulud, and Le Bernardin. When the couple was drawn from New York City to the quieter reaches of the Northeast, Lopez found a new terrain she couldn’t resist. Arriving with a mastery of colors, flavors, textures, and spices—and a seasoned ability to work under pressure—Lopez makes classic dishes her own, with attention to micro-detail and thoughtful twists.

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Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Pastry Chef Ilma Lopez of Piccolo – Portland, ME

Rebecca Cohen: Where are you from?
Ilma Lopez: Venezuela. I was 20 when I came here because I was accepted to a pastry school in Virginia—Stratford University. Then I got a job with Daniel in New York.

RC: Did food play an important role in your life growing up?
IL: Yeah, I grew up in the kitchen pretty much. My grandma always cooked, we grew up super simple, nothing fancy. For her to cream butter and sugar, we would hold the pot and she would have this wooden spoon because we didn’t have the machine to do it. Now we have the kitchen aid, but when we were growing up it was nothing.

RC: Did you know you wanted to be a pastry chef?
IL: Yes.

RC: Where was your first job?
IL: I cooked at Malabar, in Caracas. I was doing both pastry and savory cooking. I started savory because when I wanted to do pastries, the kitchen was ruled by guys. Now you’re seeing more females, but it’s still a guy’s world. I started from zero and I learned a lot.

RC: How was your culinary school experience?
IL: I did savory back in Venezuela and I had a base. When I came to the states, I wanted to do just pastry, so I would have a title. It was pretty intense and I was lucky that I could finish it. I worked for the school.

RC: Why did you choose pastry?
IL: It’s more precise, and you have to be patient. If you’re baking a cake, you never know if you’ll be fine. Bake 45 minutes, rest 15, it’s not like you know right away.

RC: What are some of the formative places you’ve worked?
IL: DB Bistro, I worked one and a half years for Michael Brook, then Megan Maloney. I got there and Michael was on his way out, great guy. To renew my visa I went to Spain for a year and I worked at El Bulli and El Casino de Madrid. I went back to DB Bistro with Josh Grouper, stayed 1 year and transferred to Café Boulud under Raphael for 6 months. Then I went to work for a cruise line—Silver Sea—for 6 months, Greece to New Zealand to India, as pastry sous chef, it was pretty incredible! A lot of work and I couldn’t get paid, but had to work for 1 year to get my green card. That year was awesome because I got to work with Sam Mason at Tailor, stage with Johnny Iuzzini, work with Michael Laiskonis, Alex Stupak. It was awesome, every three months I changed to a new restaurant.

I got a working visa and now I’m American resident.

RC: What is your culinary style or philosophy?
IL: I want them to think wow this is beautiful or wow it’s impressive. I try to go for super basics. Flavor wise I always try to work with a bunch of different flavors and things we haven’t worked with or mixed before. A couple of weeks ago we had a menu item that was blood orange and smoked caviar. But the blood orange had an almost crisp and bitter flavor that went perfect with the caviar, the bit of salt. I try to use something different with something familiar. I had a wasabi dessert on the menu, which was awesome. It came with chocolate cream. You can open people’s minds to try new things by always giving them something familiar. I don’t have a style, I keep on changing.

RC: How do you apply the skills you learned in fine dining settings to this more casual menu in a regional market?
IL: We don’t change too much. I probably do a fine dining approach to something more simple. I don’t think we change the way we cook, our cooking doesn’t try to be pretentious, but it’s not fries and meat on a plate. We just set up differently. We don’t really believe that you need a ton of money to eat well. We wanted to make it more accessible. We’ve tried to cut in other areas to make the main focus on food. That’s how we’re able to get away from it. Keeping the restaurant simpler so your cost is lower.

RC: If you could cook in any kitchen, for any chef in the world, where would you go?
IL: I would go—even for an afternoon—to Paco Torreblanca. If you tell me, fly tomorrow, for only two hours, for him I will drop everything and I will go. He’s the best in the world, and he was the first one to seem really down to earth. His pastries are refined, but classic.

I would love to go stage with Heston Blumenthal. I haven’t been in England yet, and I think every country has a lot to offer food-wise. I would like to see what’s the situation with his food. Singapore has awesome cuisine, Australia.

RC: Where will you be in five years? Ten years?
IL: We want to open another restaurant. I have different ideas for desserts. I want to make things on the spot. I like to challenge myself and I want to push myself every day. So I want to open a place where, say we have different bases—chocolate and vanilla cake—and different creams, so we have a bunch of different options and you choose what you want and make it your own. Eventually we’ll work on doing something else. 

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