Jennifer Carlson, executive pastry chef for Marcus Restaurants, hails from Brooklyn, where she began her career working in fashion design. The creativity of the industry appealed to her, but she didn’t enjoy the transition between the excitement of New York fashion week, and the hum-drum of every day work. So, she decided to rethink her career.
She attended the New York Institute of Technology for culinary arts. After an externship in an upscale kosher catering hall, where she got experience making wedding cakes, specialty cakes and high-end plated desserts, she turned her attention toward the pastry end of things.
Carlson lived and worked in Orlando, Fla., for over eight years after graduation, working for a variety of hotels, including the Ritz Carlton, where she learned the art of sugar. At the tender age of 24, she took an executive pastry chef position at the Westin Grand Bohemian.
In 2010, she moved to Milwaukee with her husband and took a position as pastry chef for Mason Street Grill before transitioning into her current position overseeing all pastry work for The Pfister Hotel and Mason Street Grill.
I sat down to talk with Carlson about her work at the restaurants, her biggest influences, and her experiences with the infamous Pfister hotel ghosts.
OnMilwaukee.com: After getting your degree more broadly in culinary arts, why did you choose pastry?
Jennifer Carlson: I feel like I can showcase my artistic side more effectively. Plus, I’m really a bit OCD, I’m meticulous. With baking you need to be precise, and I like to be a bit more restrained. It’s very regimented. I love balancing the creativity with the restraint. The key is balance for me.
OnMilwaukee: There's been resurgence in appreciation for pastry and pastry techniques – here in Milwaukee, as well as across the nation. What do you see coming back?
JC: We don’t necessarily do it here, but more of the artisanal breads and homemade pastries are back. People in the past, everyone was rushing and making things simple and easy. I think people now are getting more in tune with themselves, trying things at home. People are taking more time with some of those things.
To me, I hope that what I see coming around is people really getting back to the old ways… taking the time, using quality products. That’s what I want, not something out of a factory. I, personally would like to see more of the sugar arts – candy making, taffy pulls, caramels. I’m making these bacon caramels that we’re going to sell here. We’re really excited about them.
OMC: How does the creative process work for you?
JC: Well, right now we’re in the midst of changing our banquet menu. It’s a given that certain things never change – like the carrot cake at Mason Street Grill. It’s so beloved.
But, the process is pretty simple. All of the chefs sit down together. We look at trends, what’s available seasonally. And we go from there. I really like to take a classic dessert and put a spin to it.
For instance, we threw a hotel anniversary party with an 1893-themed menu. I decided to do a classic dessert, the Charlotte Rousse – ladyfingers soaked and filled with custard. But, I changed the mold and deconstructed it a bit. It was a more modern twist. A bananas foster version.
OMC: What classic techniques are you working to master?
JC: Well, it’s been a while since I did chocolate and sugar sculptures. But, I’m going to be taking some classes in Chicago so that I can shine up my techniques and use them more here at the hotel. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of things, and I’m always willing to learn and stay one step ahead of everyone else.
OMC: Are there things you would love to do here, that you just can’t right now?
JC: Yes. Gosh, I would die to have a chocolate room here.
OMC: Are there any classic techniques that you use, but that really drive you nuts?
JC: I hate working with pastiage. It’s an edible decorative technique – kind of like plaster for pastry. It comes out white, you can roll it out and cut it into shapes. It dries really quickly, so you have to work fast. I’ve had experiences where it cracked and I wanted to cry.
When I worked for the Ritz, we used to make our own pastiage display shelves and airbrush them. They would crack and it was frustrating since you had to make so many, and there was only so much time in the day.
OMC: Where would you place yourself on the continuum of classic to innovative?
JC: I’m solidly in the middle. I appreciate both and like to dabble in both, but I’m always willing to learn new things. It gets boring if you don’t.
OMC: Who are your biggest influences?
JC: I would say that a lot of the chefs I’ve worked with – some from France and Germany – I’ve learned so much from them. Everyone I work with, I take a little bit from. And it means a lot to me. That’s how I take them with me. For instance, I first learned how to blow sugar from Philippe at the JW Ritz. It was really cool.
OMC: What’s one of your favorite things you’re working on right now?
JC: It would have to be the banquet menu right now. I’m really excited about it, but I’m not really allowed to say much yet.
OMC: In your work, what ingredient is currently over-used?
JC: Honestly, anything with chocolate. Honestly. People think it has to be chocolate to be considered pastry. I lean more towards the spices and herbs, more of the savory side. I like to do spice cakes. We have a dessert that’s white chocolate mousse with lavender. We have a honey cake with honeycomb.
That and crème brulee … I can’t stand it. People act like it’s something special. I have to make it every day because people want it. I tolerate it by doing new flavors. One I’ve done is a chocolate orange version that reminds me of those chocolate oranges that you crack on the table.
OMC: Well, there is something to be said for the caramelized sugar on top of the crème brulee. The texture of it.
JC: Yes, yes there is. I remember when I went to France when I was in high school, and I looked around at the pastries and thought everything looked burnt. But it was caramelization – and that’s flavor. The darker the better sometimes.
OMC: What ingredient or flavor combination should be used more often?
JC: I think working here at The Pfister, I have the ability to use and order what I like. I’m more of a savory person, so I like autumn spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom … people need to use more cardamom. Right now we have a pumpkin cranberry bread with cardamom in it.
I also love herbs. I like to use lavender, dried rose petals … fold them into a mousse or a cake. I use a lot of different essences – elderflower, rootbeer.
OMC: What are some things that home cooks should keep in mind? Any techniques that would change their lives in the kitchen?
I think people should have certain staples in their kitchen that can be used in multiple applications – simple things … sugar butter, eggs, cream, and vanilla beans – beans, not extract, I hate extract … it just adds alcohol flavor. You can do so many things with those ingredients – from making crepes and pancakes to pastry cream. It’s a great way for people to start learning the easy things.
Also, a big one people forget about is tempering. People don’t realize that they need to introduce hot liquid slowly into the eggs. People say "I did this at home, but my eggs scrambled." You’re slowly heating up your eggs so that they don’t cook. It brings the temperature up and closer to the product.
OMC: And now, I have to ask you about the history of ghosts in The Pfister. Have you seen any?
JC: Yes, there are definitely ghosts here. They’re all friendly, though. One who hangs around in the baking kitchen is a little girl. She plays tricks on us all the time.
OMC: What kind of tricks?
JC: Like turning off the timers while we’re baking things. Apparently she has a different idea of when things are done than we do.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.