In a world where chefs are frequently associated with quick decisions and impulsive creations, pastry chefs are a breed apart. Creating the right combination of flavors is certainly an art, but creating pastries, for example, whether a cake rises or chocolate tempers, is definitely science.
The finalists for the 2016 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Pastry Chef of the Year understand that balance between art and science. Whether at their own business or working with others, they're able to serve utterly delectable desserts that are expertly crafted. For those working at restaurants, their creations have to be consistent with that establishment's broader aesthetic.
Jillian Bartolome, Common Bond
That Common Bond has been thriving recently since its acquisition by legendary Houston restaurateur Johnny Carrabba should come as no surprise. Beyond customer-friendly measures like adding parking and selling pastries half-off starting at 4 pm, Carrabba has kept the bakery’s key chefs in the fold. None are more important than Bartolome, who was hand-picked by founding chef Roy Shvartzapel to be his right hand and brings a Michelin-starred resume that includes stints at Cyrus and working for celebrity chef Thomas Keller’s casual outpost Bouchon.
Under Bartolome’s direction, the signature croissants remain remarkably tall and light, the chocolate chip cookies still have just the right pinch of salt, and the macarons are as delightfully crunchy as ever. All the talk about “the best bakery in America” may have faded, but recent additions to the menu demonstrate that Common Bond is still operating at a very high level, and Bartolome is a big reason why.
Victoria Dearmond, Underbelly
Underbelly chef/owner Chris Shepherd once referred to Dearmond as his “23-year old grandmother” for the way she keeps everything on track at the restaurant. She recently turned 25, but "pastry chef" still doesn’t begin to describe the range of her responsibilities.
In addition to overseeing the production of Underbelly signatures like vinegar pie and the seasonal fried pie, Dearmond leads Underbelly’s stand at the weekly Urban Harvest Farmers Market. Being friendly and cordial to market customers at 8 am has to be challenging for a chef who likely didn’t leave service until midnight or later, but she handles it with aplomb. That pleasant demeanor also makes her a frequent presence at off-site events, where she ensures the food meets Shepherd’s standards while he’s greeting patrons.
Alyssa Dole, Coltivare
Prior to joining Coltivare, diners might have known Dole as the paleo-eating pastry chef at paleo-friendly restaurant Corner Table. In 2014, she made the jump to Coltivare and quickly assumed oversight of all pastries at Revival Market, too. While these days she’s more likely to use regular flour than the coconut version, both restaurants’ emphasis on seasonal ingredients keeps her on her toes. Best then to enjoy treats like her wood-roasted strawberry crostata or meyer lemon panna cotta while you can — soon enough, they’ll be swapped out for something else.
Karen Man, Oxheart
As noted by Oxheart chef/owner Justin Yu in an interview with CultureMap, Man has stepped away from day to day production at the acclaimed downtown restaurant. Still, she maintains a watchful eye on the restaurant’s signature breads and desserts, and they remain some of the most delightful parts of meals there. Recently, she’s stepped out for pop-ups with both Fluff Bake Bar’s Rebecca Masson and former J.W. Marriott executive chef Erin Smith. That both attracted serious crowds serves as a testament to the number of people who have enjoyed Man’s cooking, and the potential market that exists if she ever steps out on her own.
Rebecca Masson, Fluff Bake Bar
In the last year, Masson finally opened her Midtown brick and mortar, which gives her customers more consistent access to her nostalgia-inspired cookies and cakes. The shop’s tidy beer and wine list also makes it a perfect after-dinner spot for a composed dessert or a place to pre-game for the sugar obsessed.
Even better, she’s used the shop as a venue to host visiting chefs — everyone from Chris Shepherd and barbecue legend Wayne Mueller to seriously talented folks from San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas — for both savory and sweet pop-ups. Houston diners may not have known they needed a freshly baked croissant with a piece of freshly sliced brisket tucked inside until Masson’s collaborations made such temptations available, but they’ve been lining up to get a taste.
Samantha Mendoza, Killen’s Steakhouse
Ronnie Killen may have vowed to “put the Killen back in Killen’s Steakhouse” when he relocated the restaurant to a vast, 12,000 square foot space last year, but he also upgraded the talent surrounding him, too. When it came to pastry, Killen sought out former Trinti pastry chef Samantha Mendoza. Signature items like carrot cake and croissant bread pudding remain on the menu, but she’s also incorporating new items that showcase Triniti’s concerns for seasonal ingredients and intricate plating.
Best of all, she’s been able to indulge her fascination for chocolate in flavors like blood orange and Grand Marnier dreamsicle (as noted in a recent Chronicle profile). Still only 27, Mendoza seems poised to blossom into a culinary force for years to come.
Ruben Ortega, Caracol/Hugo’s
Shouldn’t dessert be fun? Ortega earned a place in Houston pastry lore when he introduced “El Coco” at Caracol. Diners use a wooden mallet to break into a chocolate shell and scoop out the coconut cream and coconut ganache inside.
Beyond any individual dessert, the epic spread that ends every Sunday brunch at both Hugo’s and Caracol — churros, hot chocolate, flan, tres leches, and much more — means that the diners who pack both restaurants every Sunday are always saving room for dessert.