Complete with witty anecdotes ranging from an accidental and somewhat awkward run in with Jon Stewart to endless tales of life as Table 310’s head Pastry Chef, Stella Park’s blog, BraveTart, oozes with charm, humor, and an ever-growing recipe arsenal of delectable desserts. Her motto, “I make dessert. Someone takes a picture. You get the recipe,” is strikingly simple, yet her attention to dessert detail is anything but that. Stella’s admirable creations recently earned her the title of Best New Pastry Chef from Food & Wine Magazine, and I had the chance to ask her a few questions about the blog, her restaurant, and her upcoming book!
As a Culinary Institute of America trained baker who has decided to spend her life “playing with chocolate,” how did your time spent in Tokyo influence your culinary eye and the beautifully creative desserts you come up with for Table 310?
Culinary school glorifies French dessert and technique, which to a certain extent corrupted my appreciation for American desserts at the beginning of my career. In Japan, French desserts are virtually worshiped. I remember seeing these classic French desserts interpreted through a Japanese lens, and while they tasted amazing and showed tremendous creativity, I always felt disappointed that I was in Japan eating French desserts rather than Japanese desserts. And then I realized I was guilty of the same thing. An American pastry chef shunning American desserts.
Suddenly, American desserts became conspicuous in their absence. The Japanese bakeries had gorgeous breakfast pastries, but not muffins. They had amazing truffles and chocolate tortes, but no brownies. There were spectacular French biscuits, but no buttermilk biscuits. Fluffy sponge cakes, but no angel food. Fabulous macarons, but no chocolate chip cookies. For the first time, I understood the sorts of unique desserts America has to contribute to the pastry world, and I felt inspired to turn my attention to them rather than the desserts of another culture. My dessert menus at Table 310 strongly reflect that philosophy.
You’ve been creating desserts at Table 310 since they opened in November 2010, and you focus on making everything from scratch. What components make up the perfect plated dessert, in your opinion?
I think the thing that takes a great dessert into the realm of perfection lies in contrast. The nature of our (tiny) kitchen means I can’t usually offer contrasting temperatures, so I focus instead on contrasting textures and flavors and colors. That doesn’t always means opposites; custards and marshmallows are both soft, but one is silky and the other chewy, so they work together nicely in the end. I think the perfect dessert needs to be satisfying, so I try to make desserts that give people something to sink their teeth into.
Earlier this year, Food & Wine Magazine editors scouted America in search of five pasty gods and goddesses. How did it feel to represent your town and restaurant when you were deemed a Best New Pastry Chef?
It came as a total shock. F&W has done “Best New Chefs” for 25 years, and a Kentucky based restaurant has never been in the running before, much less won. So when I heard that they would launch a pastry offshoot, it didn’t even occur to me that I’d be considered. That’s the sort of thing that happens to chefs in Chicago and Portland, not Lexington. When I got the call, my first reaction was just confusion. How is this even happening? So many talented chefs have labored in Kentucky without any credit or media attention. I’m proud to have brought some attention to the wonderful things happening in my home state. So many talented chefs here deserve to get noticed too.
What’s the story behind the name BraveTart?
Back when my friend Rosco and I decided to start a blog together, we knew we wanted a name that let people know we did not take ourselves too seriously. We got stuck on the word Tart, just because so many figures of speech use Heart and we knew it would make a good pun. We’d thought about “Total Eclipse of the Tart”, “Owner of a Lonely Tart”, “Achy Breaky Tart”, and “The Tell Tale Tart” but none seemed snappy enough. My brother, who knew about our project, just called me up one night and said he’d come up with the perfect name. He was right! We were so shocked that bravetart.com was available!
Your upcoming cookbook, Sweet Truth: The Secret History of Iconic American Desserts, will be published in 2014– congratulations! How is the book-writing process coming along, and what can we expect to see in it?
Wrangling so many thoughts and ideas together is an insane challenge. There are so many moving parts to keep track of! Each dessert has a story behind it, as well as a recipe and tips and techniques and variations for different flavors or dietary restrictions (gluten free or vegan, for example). I’ve finally figured out a good system to keep all of this information organized, which has helped me move forward with more confidence.
The majority of the book will cover new desserts that I haven’t blogged about before and stories about their history. Not Wikipedia-entry type facts, but stories explaining their role in pop culture and how it is that they’ve become classics. Updated versions of BraveTart’s “greatest hits” will make up a smaller portion of the book. The recipes on BraveTart are just snapshots of a moment in time in the restaurant kitchen. The recipes don’t stop evolving simply because I post them; they’re with me in the kitchen every day, evolving toward something better. So all of my “classic” recipes will be updated too.
I’ve noticed that you’ve created a lot of gluten free desserts or have suggested simple modifications for the recipes that can be made so. What was your most raved about gluten free creation?
Probably the Fauxreos because the substitution is so simple (rice flour), and the result so perfect. They’re dead ringers for Oreos because of the crispness rice flour gives to the cookie, and they offer a familiar taste that people miss on a GF diet. Someone without a GF restriction would never be able to tell the difference between the two versions.
Photography courtesy of: Sarah Jane Sanders
Keep up with Stella and BraveTart