The New Face(s) of Pastry, an East Coast-West Coast Primer

by Rebecca Cohen with Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno
June 2013

It's been an incredible year in pastry—in particular in the West Coast and East Coast sweet hubs of San Francisco and New York (with a dip down to Philly), where tasted with a crop of inspiring, ground-breaking pastry chefs. We met pastry chefs who are redefining their roles in the kitchen and breathing new life into traditional desserts. We ate old-school classics in farmhouse-rustic dining rooms and high-concept, avant-garde creations in white tablecloth settings. Plating styles have evolved on both coasts, as quenelles, swooshes, and dots are cast off in favor of more naturalistic, amorphous compositions—as has mise-en-place, where vegetables are now commonplace.

We've singled out some of the most promising young pastry chefs in the country. They were selected not just for their virtuosity and taste, but also for their vision and style. Most importantly, this group has an unrelenting appetite for shaping the future of their craft.

East Coast

Ashley Brauze

Ashley Brauze of db Bistro Moderne – New York, NY

A veteran of top kitchens from New York to Spain, Ashley Brauze's pedigree shows that this soft spoken pâtissier can hold her own among pastry's big guns. She's spurred on by the successes of her peers, the public's insatiable appetite for pastry, increased food-related media coverage, and ever-improving products. "It's a great time to be a pastry chef."

"My approach is two parts American to one part French with a heavy splash of Spanish ingenuity," she says. Her show-stopping compositions may look more like art than your typical slice of pie, but for Brauze, flavor always comes first. "Sometimes I think more time is being spent trying to be interesting then it is trying to be good." This is never the case with her menu. "I may introduce modern technique to an element or two of a dish, but for the most part, I make classic desserts. In the end I want a dessert that tastes good and can be remembered for what it is."

Melody Lee

Melody Lee of ABC Kitchen – New York, NY

By paying tribute to the beloved desserts of her childhood, Melody Lee has one goal: "I want to make food that people want to sink their teeth into over and over again. Basically, I want to bring out the fat kid in all of us." At ABC Kitchen her inner fat kid is triumphing, manipulating classic flavors and preparations that have more than earned their places among American sweets. Towering slices of layer cake (gingerbread with lemon filling or chocolate with toasted marshmallow icing), an indulgent salted caramel-peanut-popcorn sundae, and apple pie round out her cannon of confections.

Lee's distinctly modern approach celebrates the rich history of pastry without getting mired in nostalgia. "I think there has to be a balance between classic and avant-garde techniques incorporated into pastry kitchens and menus. We can't refuse or deny innovation if the end result is a better product." So while she's not employing any molecular techniques herself, she fully appreciates the creative license today's pastry chefs are claiming. "It allows a lot of room for creativity. Ultimately, as long as it tastes good, why not? [But] I don't think people will ever stop reaching for a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie."

Malcolm Livingston II

Malcolm Livingston of wd~50 – New York, NY

Throughout his career Malcolm Livingston has always valued quality more than quantity. "I only worked at Le Cirque and Per Se. To come from just those places to [wd~50]—it's amazing," he says. Despite jumping in the deep-end, treading through thick hype, and swimming alongside big egos, Livingston's powerful, creative, and technically adept desserts manage to remain humble and earnest.

Working with Chef Wiley Dufresne at wd~50, Livingston is no stranger to molecular gastronomy, but as pastry chef of a restaurant known largely for its off-the-wall concepts, he presents dishes that are surprisingly grounded. Using a list of volatile compounds, Livingston matches seemingly disparate flavors to create unexpected harmonies, as in his Milk Chocolate Cremeux, Soy Meringue, Black Bean Purée, Aerated Plaintain, and Peanut. And while his modernist methodology may be based in the realm of science, his platings are purely artistic, partly in thanks to his open and thoughtful style.

Katy Peetz

Katy Peetz of Monkey Tongues Three Dinner Series – Brooklyn, NY

For Katy Peetz, exuberant pastry maven previously of Brooklyn's Blanca and Roberta's, distinctions between savory and pastry ingredients are arbitrary and serve only to limit our opportunities for delicious experiences. On her menu at Blanca, you were just as likely to find rutabaga as rhubarb, and more likely to find her characteristically curled "snails" of ice cream rather than a smooth quenelle. Forgoing rigid methodology, her desserts are driven by flavor, not technique. "Classic techniques are still the foundation of every dessert. However, fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients taste so much better than anything that can be created on top of a stove or in an oven. People want real food, real flavors."

Peetz sees this relaxation of orthodoxy as a healthy and natural progression of the craft. "Part of it is that pastry cooks are more comfortable in their own skin and expressing their style. We come from all different backgrounds now, savory as well as pastry, and have different ideas." Her own savory background (she worked the line for the first four years of her career) has undoubtedly contributed to this boundary-blurring approach. "My style has naturally developed into one that is less structured but still balanced with clean lines. I don't take myself too seriously and like desserts to be approachable as well as beautiful."

Peter Scarola

Peter Scarola of R2L – Philadelphia, PA

As a top pastry chef in the City of Brotherly Love, Peter Scarola knows that the way to his brethren's hearts is through their sweet tooth. He set out to seduce diners with his mix of comforting flavors and fanciful presentations, ending meals at R2L in confectionary crescendo. Scarola dabbles in modernist technique, and his platings are distinct and contemporary, but he's a firm believer in the foundations of pastry. "My style is a natural progression from the classics," he says. "I'm still trying to perfect [them] and constantly develop and improve on the basics."

In an industry obsessed with what's new and what's next, Scarola commends the varied and eclectic styles of his contemporaries, while never losing sight of his own. "I really enjoy seeing the new trends in pastry. There are so many creative chefs and pastry chefs out there. But it's important to stay grounded and stay true to your own style and not get caught up in what everyone else is doing." For Scarola that means serving fine dining compositions like his molded Manjari Chocolate Sorbet with Compressed Blackout Cake and Finger and Hibiscus Gels, as well as the inviting familiarity of Pumpkin French Toast Sticks with Oatmeal Ice Cream and Maple-Root Beer Foam.

West Coast

Juan Contreras

Juan Contreras of Atelier Crenn – San Francisco, CA

Equal parts pastry chef and artist, with a dash of storyteller and pinch of mad scientist, Juan Contreras's approach to pastry ensures an unforgettable experience for his guests. Crafting desserts in the cozy kitchen of San Francisco's Atelier Crenn, Contreras works with an eye to terroir. "I can't replicate this in any other venue," he says. "It's an extension of our dialogue [at Atelier Crenn], our story, and the way it supports the dining experience." His food captures the story of a place, a season, an ingredient, and presents it to diners with his visually arresting aesthetic.

Contreras even makes his own compelling serving pieces from lava rocks, logs, metal grates, or glass. Each piece is conceived in conjunction with a new dish and developed to fully flesh out the narrative suggested by his food. A honey-themed dessert is presented with age-blackened pieces of honeycomb; wine, grapes, and hazelnuts come together in a composition artfully arranged inside a cut wine bottle that rests in a wooden wine box. Contreras's intensity in applied technique and presentation is thrilling and unprecedented.

Stephanie Prida

Stephanie Prida of Manresa – Los Gatos, CA

California native Stephanie Prida is doing her home state proud. At Manresa she wraps up meals in high style with refined, provocative desserts that offer just the right amount of complexity and California roots. If you think mustard and tomatoes only belong on the savory menu, let Prida change your mind with her free-styling dishes. While she's not afraid to innovate, Prida's aiming for meaning, not shock value. "I love it when I can take someone back in time to a flavor memory they had when they were a kid. That's a lot of what pastry is about to me."

Prida aims to give diners a cohesive experience, seamlessly melding her desserts with fellow 2013 Rising Star Chef de Cuisine Jessica Largey's savory menu. "I really try to work with my peers on making the dish taste and look amazing, whether that be by using classic French or modern molecular techniques. Our goal is always to make a well balanced end to the meal."

Courtney Schmidig

Courtney Schmidig of Benu – San Francisco, CA

"I prefer desserts that are simple yet elegant. Less is more," says Courtney Schmidig of San Francisco's Benu. Creating nuanced, beautifully executed desserts to accompany Chef Corey Lee's elegant dinners, Schmidig has a restraint and subtlety that makes for a seamless segue from his savory courses.

Schmidig relies more on balance and the interplay of flavors than on shocking pairings. "I love to recreate desserts that bring me back to childhood," she says. "I'll take something that is so simple and familiar and refine it without losing touch with where it actually came from." Her velvety Chocolate Sphere, Praline Mousse, Cognac Caramel, and Bananas is a grown up rendering of a universally appealing flavor combination. Schmidig's dishes make a sublime, genteel ending to a highly polished meal.

Matt Tinder

Matt Tinder of Coi – San Francisco, CA

Matt Tinder brings his Hawaiin sensibility to the table when creating desserts at Daniel Patterson's Coi. Influenced in equal parts by his upbringing in a household that valued fresh, unprocessed foods, and his experiences at fine dining restaurants throughout the Bay Area, Tinder forges his own path in pastry by letting his background fuel his explorations, discarding rules and formulas by the wayside. Focusing on flawless execution and limiting the number of components on his plates. Tinder employs subtlety and finely honed technique to allow charismatic flavors and natural characteristics to come through.

In addition to his tight, minimalistic plating style, and renunciation of the habitual pastry crutch of ice cream, Tinder has further set himself apart through his negation of traditional kitchen boundaries. According to his philosophy, a good pastry chef isn't content with a handful of plated desserts and a few mignardise—rather they seek to contribute to every aspect of their restaurant's success. At Coi he demonstrates this through the production of breads, butters, crème frâiche, and even soy milk and tofu. He doesn't hesitate to break down produce or proteins, considering all kitchen tasks fair game.

William Werner

William Werner of Craftsman & Wolves – San Francisco, CA

A progressive pastry chef with his feet firmly grounded in the craft's history, William Werner strives to drive the industry forward without losing sight of its origins. "We're constantly reinventing ourselves," says Werner, "looking for inspiration in the old as well as the new." From a background in the traditional brigade-style kitchens of the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company and the sleek fine-dining atmosphere of San Francisco's Quince to his own undertaking, Craftsman and Wolves, Werner has always distinguished himself through his cerebral yet approachable blending of old and new. "There is nothing wrong with being respectful toward simplicity and the roots of gastronomy."

At Craftsman he's set out to reinvigorate the old pâtisserie format, shaking the cobwebs from such standbys as scones and muffins through challenging flavor combinations and unexpected additions (there's a whole soft-yolked farm egg inside his savory muffin, the playfully named "Rebel Within"). Add his modernist cakes and pastries and you've got Werner's distinctive style displayed on a stone countertop. "I feel we will continue to see a movement toward the boutique and the artisan, with chefs applying an individual and more creative approach to everyday baking."