Pastry in Milwaukee: Bacchus' Allie Howard
While restaurants across the nation seem to be cutting spending by eliminating pastry chef positions, forcing savory chefs to bear the brunt of dessert preparation, Bartolotta's Executive Chef Adam Siegel has a different perspective.
"Desserts are the last culinary experience that many guests have in a restaurant, so giving them the best impression possible is very important," he says. "There are other areas that can be looked at for cutting costs. I look at having a pastry chef as potentially capturing more sales and giving the guest a better experience."
Enter pastry chef Allie Howard, Whitefish Bay native and graduate of Chicago's French Pastry School.
Howard was recently hired to take on the role of pastry chef at Milwaukee's acclaimed Bacchus restaurant, following the departure of pastry chef Annie Ghobrial.
"I love pastry," Siegel says of his decision to hire Howard, "And when I was able to spend more time with it I did not need that much help with it, but as our company grows it is important that we have the right talent in the right areas. Allie will help Bacchus grow its pastry program, and eventually I hope that she can grow into a bigger role, but first her main focus is Bacchus. I think that she will bring in a level of talent and instruction that not only benefits Bartolotta's, but also the customer."
I had the opportunity to connect with Howard last week for a chat, and our conversation only served to reinforce the expectations that Siegel's endorsement seeded.
Howard's pastry experience alone is impressive; after all, she graduated from the best pastry school in the U.S. and broke her teeth working among some of Milwaukee's finest. But, her drive and passion for her work was what I found most inspiring. Here's what she told me when we talked.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did your career begin?
Allie Howard: After French Pastry School I was selected to stay on for a six month internship. And I got to work with all the great chefs, including Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne. When I was finishing up, Jacquy told me that I should come to Milwaukee and work with Kurt Fogle.
And when a really great pastry chef tells you that you're going to do something, you don't question it. So, I started working with Fogle when he worked at The Pfister. I followed him over to SURG a few months after. I worked as his right hand girl. When they opened Graffito, I was somewhat put in charge of the pastry operations there. I created specials. Then I worked for a brief time in Florida before taking some personal time off.
When I came back, I took the job at Bartolotta's. I worked at Lake Park for 2-3 months and then moved over to Bacchus.
OMC: Why pastry?
AH: Gosh, I don't know. That's a hard one. It's funny because it's always been my stress reliever. When I was in high school and I was upset I would always bake things. Eventually my parents told me I had to stop because they couldn't eat all of it.
I also grew up baking with my mom on a weekly basis. So, it's one of those things that always interested me. I mean, the Food Network came out when I was in middle school and I'd watch the Chef Torres chocolate show. And I loved it.
OMC: Tell me about your role at Bacchus?
AH: At the moment I'm in charge of all of the paper work that no one likes. But, I'm also in charge of specials. For some upcoming dinners, I'm creating special desserts. And in April, we'll be switching to more of a spring menu, and at that point I'll be writing an entirely new dessert menu.
OMC: What kinds of things are on the menu?
AH: There's a "chocoholic" one that has a flourless chocolate sponge cake with vanilla cremeaux, dark chocolate mousse, white chocolate ice cream and raspberry gelee with chocolate crumble.
And one that's more southern inspired with roasted and grilled peaches, vanilla panna cotta and vanilla corn cake and streusel.
OMC: How do the menu items reflect your style?
My style is really classic French, but it's really influenced by the people I've learned from. So, those fun elements that Kurt does are definitely there. But, I've reached the point where a lot of things I do are influenced by things I've liked or want.
OMC: What kinds of influences?
AH: I like taking classics like pineapple upsidedown cake – brown sugar, butter, pineapple, cherry and reconstructing it. I'm doing that for one of the other desserts on the spring menu.
There are also really personal influences. For instance, my dad used to make me peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches. And I created a dessert based on that memory. It has peanut butter and banana mousse on chocolate cake, with royaltine made from gluten-free Rice Krispies. Then there is chocolate ice cream, caramelized bananas and Italian meringue, which has a similar consistency to marshmallows.
I like taking everyday things that people sometimes forget about and get really creative, and kind of surprising them at the same time. I love doing things like a take on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and making something that's nothing like a PB&J. I find a challenge in that.
OMC: Where would you place yourself on the continuum of classic to innovative?
AH: I think it kind of depends on the dessert and how far I want to go with it. I'm probably a 7, maybe. I love using innovative techniques, but where I get really innovative is with plating. I appreciated the classic refined techniques – in part because they're hard.
But, at the same time, all the avant-garde skills people use are all based in the foundation of basics, so you need to be really good to actually get there.
OMC: Who are your biggest influences?
AH: Obviously Jacquey Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne are huge. Their discipline… they have this really great way of teaching you to really make yourself better. And that's hard because you're doing the same thing over and over and over. So, they taught me to always push – always work to make yourself do more and be better. You can pipe pate choux hundreds and thousands of times, and you're never perfect at it. You need to keep pushing.
Locally, I'm really influenced by Kurt Fogle – I suppose that's pretty obvious. I've learned so much from him. He really taught me how to organize myself. I thought I was a pretty decent organizer, but he really pushed me. There were times when he was really tough – and he was a hard mentor – but I'm so grateful for that. He really made me realize that I could always do better. He gave me confidence. And really enhanced my technique. It was like working with a "Little Jacquey" all over again – pushing and helping me to learn how to make a really well conceptualized dessert. And I thrive off of that. And he's helpful to me to this day.
Also Matt Haase from Rocket Baby. When I was working with Matt, he was at Distil. He's like a walking dictionary. He's a really great to go-to … one of those people who's so good at teaching. And he has a completely different style he uses to push you. He really pushed me to do more research, to look at new chefs and really pay attention to the styles that are out there in New York or California. He also helped me with how to come up with dishes. The two of them have different styles in how they create dishes – so
I really love Pierre Hermé. I like his style, and he's one of those people where if I could really pick his brain, I would.
As a creative and a cook, I really try to take influence from everywhere, learn from everything. One week it's one thing, and the next it's another.
OMC: What's one of your favorite things you're working on right now?
AH: I am excited for the dessert that we're doing for the vegetarian dinner.
It incorporates strawberry and rhubarb, which is one of my favorite combinations. Pistachio chabilis with rhubarb mousse, strawberry gelee with candied citrus zest and probably pistachio crumble.
OMC: Do you have an all-time favorite dessert?
AH: That is hard. It's a toss-up between pie – I'm a sucker for pie – and macaroons. Those are my two favorite things ever. I could eat them until I'm sick.
I have a huge sweet tooth. Sugar and coffee are my two sins. But, I don't like eating what I make … I want to eat things that other people make. I taste things for quality control, but I won't order dessert at Bacchus.
OMC: Do you have a word of advice for an aspiring pastry chef?
AH: I don't think I can stress enough how important technique is. It's the foundation for everything – and the reason why I keep pushing myself.
The one thing about being a pastry chef is that perfectionism we have. Sometimes people are like "oh my God, let it, go." But I can't.
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