Chocolate cremelle with Ras El Hnout ice cream, olive crumble and candied orange by Coquette's Zak Miller. (©Sara Essex Bradley)
New Orleans has a particular fondness for pastry. Locals are sweets-lovers by nature—Louisiana produces 1.4 million tons of sugar annually, after all—and every restaurant has some form of dessert on its menu. There’s a reason palaces devoted to pastry exist, and diners hit them all. The city’s pastry chefs are a special lot, recognized more for their product than their personality. But, to know the cook is to know the creation. It’s time to give pastry some sugar, and to learn what’s cooking with three chefs who not only love their craft, they craft with love.
Erin Swanson, executive pastry chef at Restaurant R'evolution
Swanson didn’t start out wanting to be a pastry chef; she wanted to cook on the line. A stint in Aspen kick-started her affair with the sweeter side of the craft. Later she honed her passion under the tutelage of Chicago’s Gale Gand, before scoring the gig with Rick Tramonto and John Folse at Restaurant R’evolution. Swanson has big love for citrus flavors; her Lemon Sponge Pudding has been a part of the restaurant’s menu since she started, though in varying guises. Weaving some laid back feel into more formal dining, she adds Southern flavor and style into a family-style platter of red velvet beignets with Creole cream cheese anglaise. Sweet.
Favorite kitchen tool: The “Wheel of Death"—aka, a pastry cutter
Favorite food movie: “Big Night”
Favorite book: “Gale Gand’s books, duh.” Also, Sherry Yard’s “Secret of Baking.”
If not a pastry chef: “I’d be a make-up artist. I love making up names for colors.”
On the menu now: Molten chocolate soufflé with "Black & Gold"—onyx cocoa, hazelnut paste and gold-dusted croquants
Zak Miller, pastry chef at Coquette
Miller is a quietly elegant sort with a serious pedigree, having worked at several big-name restaurants in New York and Washington D.C., before planting roots in New Orleans. His style is all about classics done well; he thrives on repetition. At Coquette, Miller likes to play with textures and temperatures, best demonstrated in his crème brûlée, which tends to be topped with a quenelle of sorbet—“It’s that creamy-cold thing,” he muses. His desserts often have some “cheek,” and that’s because the one thing he knows for sure is “food should be fun.” He’s currently working on a desert tentatively titled “If the Choux Fits...”—a trio of choux pastry items.
Favorite ingredient: Vanilla—bean, powder, oil...
Favorite kitchen tool: Leatherman Multi-Tool for fixing anything and everything
Favorite book: It’s a tie: chef Jacquy Pfeifer’s "The Art of French Pastry" and chef Oriol Balaguer’s “Dessert Cuisine”
Memorable dessert: Frozen grits parfait with geranium and dewberry at McCrady’s in Charleston
On the menu now: Apple fritter with smoke, caramel and gingerbread
Kelly Fields, Besh Restaurant Group corporate pastry chef
Fields is responsible for menu/recipe development at all the Besh restaurants, including newcomer Johnny Sánchez. Fields is a no-nonsense chef, who during an interview will ask a prospective pastry chef when they last had their knives sharpened. The answer is key to joining her team. She also a soft side best witnessed in her Instagram feed (@kellyfields), which is peppered with images of mouthwatering desserts and sweet words about her nephew. Fields is a fan of ingredient-forward desserts that center on a product or flavor.
Favorite dessert: A big slice of chocolate cake in a bowl of milk
Favorite book: "The Last Course," by Claudia Fleming
If not a pastry chef: “I’d be a pilot, in the military or a doctor.”
Dream dessert date: “Julia Child. I’d do something really simple like fruit and cream.”
On the menu now: “We just finished creating the desserts for Johnny Sánchez, and this one reflects the entire restaurant concept [Mexico meets the Mississippi] on a plate: Steamed masa cake with satsuma, sweet corn, candied hominy and buttermilk.”