On reality cooking shows like Top Chef and Chopped, chefs complain mightily when they're required to prepare a dessert. Oh the indignity of having to weigh each ingredient carefully and be mindful of ratios, they complain.
And yet, most people like a little something sweet to finish off their meal, but it clearly comes with its own challenges. Setting a restaurant’s desserts apart from the inevitable creme brulees and lemon tarts to deliver dishes that are consistent with the savory menu can be tricky. All chefs want to be creative, but the pastry has to balance that creativity with an appreciation for flavors and preparations that people will order.
Our six finalists for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Pastry Chef of the Year understand how to balance between art, science, creativity, and commerce. That’s why our panelists selected them.
Victoria Dearmond, One Fifth/Underbelly
The woman Underbelly chef-owner Chris Shepherd once referred to as his “23-year old grandmother” added the title of Pastry Director to her resume in 2016. With the opening of One Fifth, Dearmond now oversees the dessert options at both restaurants, developing recipes for the white hot steakhouse that include a wood-fired, one-and-a-half pound apple pie. Just don’t pigeonhole her as sweets only; Dearmond can be found expediting on the line at One Fifth on chef de cuisine Nick Fine’s day off.
Although her time as the pastry chef for Agricole Hospitality (Revival Market, Coltivare, Eight Row Flint) came to an end in November 2016, our panelists recognized Dole for the outstanding work she did during her two-year stint. Coltivare’s commitment to seasonality kept the chef on her toes. Diners reaped the reward in the form of the constantly evolving crostata, olive oil cake, and other creations. Surely whatever restaurant is lucky enough to hire her next will become a top destination for anyone with a sweet tooth.
Julia Doran, Bernadine’s/Hunky Dory
The pastry offerings at Bernadine’s take their inspiration from Southern classics, but Doran isn’t afraid to mess with a classic. For example, her creme brulee gives diners more of the best part — the crispy sugar on the top — by serving it in a wide, shallow bowl instead of a deep narrow ramekin, and her purple sweet potato hand pie tastes like a Thanksgiving Pop Tart (in a good way). No wonder she earned an invitation to participate in the prestigious Indie Chefs Week pop-up.
Samantha Mendoza, Killen's Restaurants
Ronnie Killen’s busy year — during a 12-month span, he relocated his steakhouse and opened two new restaurants — kept pastry chef Mendoza busy, too. She used the steakhouse’s expansive kitchen to begin making delicate chocolates, created a full range of milkshakes for Killen’s Burgers, and developed smoke desserts for Killen’s STQ. Even if she hadn’t done all of those things, she would still deserve this nomination for STQ’s decadent bacon tres leches bread pudding.
Jody Stevens, Jodycakes
Making cakes without essential ingredients like eggs, butter, or traditional flour would challenge any baker, but Stevens has become one of Houston’s go-to supplies for cakes that are vegan, gluten-free, or both. Her skills are so adept that even the most seasoned tasters would be hard-pressed to differentiate her creations from their traditional versions. Whether a child with a gluten allergy needs two dozen cupcakes for a birthday party or an Indian wedding needs a vegan cake for 500, Stevens always delivers.
Johnny Wesley, F.E.E.D. TX
Sometimes it seems like Wesley has worked at just about every restaurant in Houston. His resume includes Killen’s Steakhouse, Mr. Peeples, Benjy’s, and The Union Kitchen. Now he can be found at Liberty Kitchen’s Treehouse location. Wherever he lands, Wesley’s flair for dramatic presentations and big flavors ensure his creations stand out. If all that isn't keeping him busy enough, his new side project, an ice cream truck that will utilize liquid nitrogen, promises to be similarly intriguing.