Interview with New Orleans Rising Star Pastry Chef Blake Abene of Square Root

by Caroline Hatchett
February 2016

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start within the industry?
Blake Abene:
I was originally an insurance salesman during Katrina. It was my family business. We were on the North Shore, which didn’t get destroyed, and I handled the claims of people whose houses had flooded but didn’t have flood insurance. I had to tell person after person, "I’ll give you $3,000 for your roof even if your house is destroyed." We office people were sitting around, commiserating, thinking "this is so horrible." I asked my office manager, if you could do anything what would you do? He said he would open own bakery. Until that point, I hadn’t thought of cooking as a viable career option. I always cooked. All my jobs were in restaurants. My first job ever was in a doughnut shop. At that moment, I thought I can do that, I can make cupcakes, and it’s not going to make little old ladies cry. 

I stayed on at the insurance company for a year, worked at a local bakery, and went to CIA. I loved it there—it’s like Hogwarts for cooking. I did my internship at Jean Georges and worked for free for four to five months. Johnny [Iuzzini] tried to convince me not to go back to school. Two days after I graduated, I began working for Johnny. I stayed at the restaurant for three years and met my wife there. When I was done, I wanted to try my hand at something other than fine dining and went to work for Jim Lahey [at Sullivan Street Bakery]. After my back told me I shouldn’t do bread anymore, I saw opening at Corton and went there as a chef de partie. Shawne Gawle was pastry chef there for three years as I worked my way up to sous chef. When Shawne left, he made me pastry chef. I moved here three months before Corton closed. 

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
BA:
I’m just getting into it. We were all recently at Boucherie, an event put together by the nonprofit Runaway Dish. Chefs from New Orleans, Lafayette, and in between were cooking, drinking, having a good time. I’m a bit of a homebody since I got married, and mostly hang out with my dog and my wife. 

CH: What's your five year plan? 
BA:
 To open a small bakery with my wife with good bakery stuff and good coffee. It’s more cost effective to do that and have a family here. It would be crazy expensive to do either of those things in New York.

CH: What is your favorite dish you have ever made? 
BA:
I don’t have a favorite dish, but I do have a favorite flavor combination that I’ve worked with throughout the years: pecan, sour cherry, maple, smoke, and toast. I did a sundae with these flavors at Jean-Georges, a custard/crémeux dish with toasted sourdough ice cream at Corton, a tart at Stella, and a sticky toffee pudding at Root. Our current takeaway at Square Root is a smoked pecan and bourbon sour cherry muffin. If pressed though, I’d say my favorite dish was the first one I got on the menu at Jean Georges when I was an extern. It was a fried chocolate gnocchi dipped in hazelnut with a grapefruit gelée. When Johnny agreed to put it on the menu, I knew that I could do this.

CH: Where do you most want to go for culinary travel? 
BA:
I actually just got back from the most amazing honeymoon! My wife and I were fortunate enough to eat at Noma, Osteria Francescana, El Celler de Can Roca, Relæ, Disfrutar, and Hoja Santa among other great places, and it made me fall in love with Europe. I’d love to go eat our way through the rest of it!