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A person pours a pitcher into an elegantly arranged bowl of dessert
Kelly Nam finishes a mugwort maple tiramisu with mugwort tea at New York City’s Joomak Banjum.
Lanna Apisukh

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The Pastry Chefs Defining Restaurant Dessert Right Now

These five chefs are pushing pastry forward, making it an especially thrilling time to order dessert

Martha Cheng is an interim senior editor at Eater.

Pastry chefs are back. During the pandemic, they were often the first to be cut as restaurants slimmed down operations. This meant that many of the country’s most skilled dessert makers could be found running their own pop-ups and micro-bakeries from home.

But now that diners are increasingly comfortable leaving their homes for baked goods, there’s a pastry renaissance of sorts. Restaurants are once again employing pastry chefs — even legendary pastry chef Claudia Fleming is once more heading up a pastry program — and dessert at many restaurants is the best part of the meal. Meanwhile, the notion that pastry chefs can very much stand on their own endures at places like Lysée, a gallery-like “boutique” wholly dedicated to French Korean pastries and cakes in New York City; fellow New York City spot Lady Wong, which showcases Southeast Asian patisserie and kuih; and San Francisco’s Grand Opening, a weekend bake sale of tarts and cakes attached to Mr. Jiu’s, among others.

And as pastry chefs return to restaurant kitchens, many are bringing the creative and scrappy energy of their pandemic projects to the plate, pushing the boundaries of what belongs in sweets and reinventing nostalgic favorites. More than any other course, we’d argue, dessert embodies joy.

These five pastry chefs from across the country exemplify how today’s pastry chefs are redefining the last course. Whether it’s a seasonal chiffon sheet cake or ice cream infused with hoja santa or black garlic, it’s never been a more joyful and exciting time to order dessert.

The chef applying lessons from pastry to the whole menu

A man poses for a portrait against a wall covered in colorful artwork.
Tavel Bristol-Joseph.
Cat Cardenas

Tavel Bristol-Joseph
Pastry chef and co-owner at Emmer & Rye Hospitality Group, Austin, Texas

Baking was once punishment for Tavel Bristol-Joseph, penance for coming home late after school. Now he oversees the dessert programs for seven restaurants, including the hearth-centered Hestia, the Basque-themed Kalimotxo, and the modern Caribbean Canje, where he showcases the cuisine of his native Guyana and the surrounding region as executive chef. So to ask if he has a signature dessert is a fruitless question, one he responds to with answers as lyrical as his desserts, which include the kakigori at Hestia, a mountain of finely shaved ice that hides a heart of burnt honey ice cream, and the tres leches at Canje, monochrome minimalism in the form of salted cream draped over white cake.

“I think creativity is something that you give away, that you don’t keep and carry to the next location,” Bristol-Joseph says. “Every restaurant has its thing that speaks to that audience.”

Bristol-Joseph approaches his desserts with few set ideas, but instead follows a flavor and sees where it leads him. He takes a similar approach to service in his role as Emmer & Rye’s director of hospitality.

“The process of creating fulfills me more than the dish in front of me,” he says. “That’s why, although I’m looking over all desserts and all sweets for our organization, I’m also the service director, where I focus on the hospitality aspect and how do we make people feel good and welcome and seen and valued.”

Eater: What’s a dessert you’ve been excited about recently?

Tavel Bristol-Joseph: The sourdough ice cream that we have at Hestia. We take leftover housemade bread from the night before, we toast it a little bit harder, and then we infuse that in milk. I add a little bit of buttermilk to that base, and then I make ice cream from it. I serve it in a bowl and top it with a sweet tomato jam — I cook down fresh tomatoes with some sugar, a little bit of orange zest to bring up the fruity flavor of the tomatoes — and top it with a miso caramel that brings this umami, salty flavor profile. Then I dust the entire thing in activated charcoal and fermented tomato powder. So in this bowl, it just looks like dark black balls, and then you cut into it and it’s sourdough ice cream and tomato. It came from looking at a savory dish, pan con tomate, and being excited by it.

At Canje we have the tres leches. It’s a white cream cake with salted cream and fruit puree and grated roasted white chocolate over it. At Emmer & Rye, I have sorbet with salted cream over the top and a little bit of dehydrated hibiscus powder. It sounds really simple. But the combination of a satsuma sorbet, just that freshness and then the salted cream on top of that, transforms that dish. Those dishes are signatures for those restaurants. Every restaurant has its thing that speaks to its audience.

A close up shot of a cake toped with pillowy white cream and grated white chocolate.
Canje’s tres leches.
Cat Cardenas
A tres leches cake in a white bowl on a wood table. Cat Cardenas

Does your palate run savory or sweet?

Right now, I’m in this space where I feel like integrating savory into the sweet: I want to embrace flavors a little bit more. What I mean by that is if something is acidic, how do we embrace acid, and how can we find the sugars within that? What are the nuances in say, a lemon from Italy or a lemon that comes from Texas, and how can I extract different flavors and floral notes and put them together and let them sing?

I’m literally on the cusp of that — of taking flavors and truly embracing them. Instead of thinking about dishes, like thinking about making a cheesecake that goes with a sorbet that goes with a powder, I’m thinking about, What if I toast this cake hard? What flavors are going to come from there that I can now match with another flavor?

Are there any particular ingredients, flavors, or textures you like to work with?

I try my best to create something that gives me a feeling of indulgence. I think that comes from always wanting to be a kid and never losing that childish part of me. When I’m creating, I always try to tap into that child inside.

A person pours a small pitcher over three scoops of ice cream vertically stacked in a bowl. Cat Cardenas

What drew you to pastry in the first place?

I used to play basketball in high school, and my aunt, [whom] I was living with at the time, she’d bake cookies and cakes for Sunday school. After school [I’d] play basketball and get home late, and my punishment was to help her bake in the kitchen every Saturday. It was one of those things where I got punished so much that every Saturday, I was baking.

In Guyana, in your last two years of high school, you pick whatever field you’re gonna go into because there’s only two colleges: You have to be rich to go to those colleges, and I was far from it. The government created a system where you learn a trade in high school so you can get right into the workforce. I chose home economics because I was already in the kitchen doing stuff. Also, all the girls were in home economics. And loving sugar the way I love sugar, it was an easy thing for me to gravitate towards the sweet side.

When I came to the U.S. at 17 years old after graduating high school, I had the opportunity to go to culinary school. I am not your typical pastry chef who knew that he wanted to be a pastry chef and was inspired by different chefs. That is not my story. My story is completely different: It was a means to an end. What was more powerful is that I knew I wanted to be in hospitality. My passion is people. My passion is freedom to express.

The pastry chef infusing Southwestern ingredients into buzzworthy desserts

A woman with two sleeve tattoos sits in a restaurant and poses for the camera.
Crystal Kass.
Evie Carpenter

Crystal Kass
Pastry chef at Valentine in Phoenix

In Crystal Kass’s first lead pastry chef role, she has created an all-day pastry and evening dessert program that’s restrained yet fully embraces the modern Southwestern ethos at Valentine. It takes form in a churro Paris-Brest filled with a pepita mousse and served with a side of warm pouring chocolate, sweet corn ice cream topped with grated mimolette cheese and a blue corn pizzelle, a chocolate mesquite cake with candied kumquats and cafe de olla buttercream. They are sweets that straddle comforting home bakes and refined restaurant desserts — which makes sense, given that Kass is the rare pastry chef who continues to bake cakes and spin ice cream at home.

She grew up baking with her mom, “and it’s something I always came back to if I was stressed or even just for fun,” she says. Initially, she tried to ignore its pull, studying kinesiology in college before she gave in, dropped out, and enrolled at the French Pastry School in Chicago. In the decade since, she worked her way up in pastry kitchens before joining Valentine in 2021, where she now delights in picking mulberries to make jam and infusing hoja santa into ice cream for her desserts, evocative of childhood memories and the Southwest desert.

Eater: Do you have a signature dessert?

Crystal Kass: Around this time last year, it was an hoja santa ice cream sundae. Hoja santa is a leaf that is native to Mexico, with a flavor reminiscent of root beer or sassafras. So the inspiration for my dessert was a riff on mint chip ice cream, but using this leaf instead. It’s taking something unfamiliar but using an ingredient that is really known to most people to make it more approachable.

A plated dessert topped with a scoop of ice cream
Kass’s alfalfa hay cremeux.
Evie Carpenter

I love making ice cream — any chance I get, I’ll try to incorporate [hoja santa] into an ice cream, so I steeped the hoja santa and added some mint to it. [The sundae featured] a black cardamom caramel; the flavor of the black cardamom really enhanced the hoja santa. Then a chocolate soil, like an Oreo cookie crumb, and then some dehydrated mousse chips. Essentially, I made a chocolate mousse, threw it in the dehydrator, and let it become crispy.

That took me a little bit out of my comfort zone, using something that I was unfamiliar with. It was probably one of my favorite desserts.

Are there any particular ingredients, flavors, or textures you like to work with?

I love to play with hot and cold concepts. Like a mousse against something like a granita; the texture of something very creamy against the cold, icy granita works very well together. And again, I always go back to this — I just love ice cream so much.

Do you have a mentor?

I didn’t. Every person I came across, whether it was another pastry chef I worked under or even a teammate, I feel like I’ve had a lot of influences from. Currently, I’d say chef Donnie (Donald Hawk) at Valentine has been a great mentor. We talk about dishes, and if I have a question about flavor combinations, he’s always there to answer.

There are also quite a few pastry chefs I look up to, though I don’t know them personally. Kriss Harvey, a chocolatier who works in LA, is a really big inspiration. Also Anna Posey, a pastry chef in Chicago who works [at] and owns Elske. Her desserts are beautiful, and I’m always inspired by her flavor combinations.

Do you like to make desserts at home?

I absolutely love to bake for others or for myself. Sometimes I use it as a way to test something out. And I like to do a lot of things that remind me of my childhood. I definitely love to make banana bread and cheesecake at home — it’s one of my favorite things to eat. I also love to make my mom’s carrot cake. It’s my favorite cake; it’s so comforting. I make it true to the recipe. I had asked her a while ago for it — it’s very old, like what you would find in those Rolodex[es] for recipes. Usually, I make it like a snacking cake, so I don’t add any frosting. But I have used it before as a layer cake.

An ice cream sundae in a bowl
Kass’s hoja santa sundae.
Evie Carpenter

Any dessert you wish you could make at the restaurant but can’t?

There are some limitations to our kitchen — we don’t have a station just for pastries — but I would love at some point to put a doughnut on the dessert menu. Frying something to order would overwhelm the kitchen a bit, but I would love to do a warm doughnut or a cruller. Especially with the winter months coming up, something hot would just be so nice.

Does your palate lean savory or sweet?

I’m definitely more towards the sweet for sure. I have a really big sweet tooth. And I wouldn’t say it’s because of my profession. But I’m trying to use a little bit of both, trying to utilize a bit more savory in my desserts. Right now, I have a sweet corn ice cream on the menu, and we grate some mimolette cheese on top. So it’s like the savoriness and saltiness from that against the sweet ice cream.

The South-America-meets-American-South pastry chef with a pop-up on the side

Claudia Martinez poses for a camera
Claudia Martinez.
Ryan Fleisher

Claudia Martinez
Executive pastry chef at Miller Union, Atlanta

“It’s South meets South,” says Claudia Martinez, delighted with the unexpected pairing of tamarind and apple, a melding of produce from South America and the American South.

She could also be describing her own style — her Venezuelan and Georgian roots commingling in desserts that play local fruit like muscadine grapes against tropical passionfruit, or a chocolate mousse dome that conceals a gooey center of arequipe, or Venezuelan dulce de leche.

Martinez got her start as a savory chef at Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene before discovering she could push sweets into the savory realm, and that baking could be as playful as cooking. The result is the meticulous yet whimsically plated desserts, artful in shapes and textures, that became her signature at Tiny Lou’s before she landed her role as executive pastry chef at Miller Union. But she isn’t confined to the restaurant plate. When Miller Union is closed on Sundays, Martinez works on her pop-up Café Claudia, which began during the pandemic and lately gives her a sandbox to pair desserts, like a churro ice cream sandwich or strawberry lemon tart with cheesecake mousse, with cocktails. She also frequently collaborates with Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) chefs and social justice organizations: A recent pop-up with Patria Cocina included an apple-and-tamarind pastelito with salted caramel, and event proceeds benefited El Refugio, which provides support to immigrants at the Stewart Detention Center. You’d hardly know any of this from just talking to the 2019 Eater Young Gun, though — she is understated in describing her work, letting her desserts deliver an impact in the restaurant and beyond.

A dessert with a chocolate dome.
In Martinez’s desserts, chocolate mousse domes conceal gooey centers fo arequipe or dulce de leche.
Ryan Fleisher

Eater: Do you have a pastry mentor?

Claudia Martinez: Aaron Russell from Poor Hendrix. He used to be the pastry chef at Restaurant Eugene. Aaron’s style of pastries weren’t very sweet or heavy or overwhelming. He played with savory components like celery or spices, or different cheeses. And I liked the way he worked as a pastry chef. He wasn’t ever too strict — pastry chefs kind of have that stereotype of being mean and strict, whereas he’s a little bit more laid-back.

I also learned a lot of fancy techniques from David Vidal, a chef in Sweden. He’s a savory chef [who] trained himself in pastry. I reached out on social media to intern for a month unpaid — I was intrigued by his style and technique. He taught me a lot within that month about not taking things too seriously and being able to make mistakes.

Are there any particular ingredients, flavors, or textures you like to work with?

We use a lot of local produce, so it’s whatever’s coming in. And then mostly tropical fruits, and I use a lot of different chocolates. I’m working on a dessert now with apple and tamarind, and I’m very excited about that pairing — I grew up with tamarind juice, and the pairing’s something I wish I had done a while ago because they complement each other really well.

Do you have a white whale of desserts?

I went to Tokyo and had a maritozzi, a Roman dessert. So I came back and made it a few times. I was trying to figure out a way to make it different and make it more of a plated dessert. With my style of desserts, it’s hard for me to make something that only has three components on the plate. So I’m trying to figure out a way to highlight the dessert without taking away from it, if that makes sense. But I like how simple it is and not too sweet, and something you can eat at any time of the day.

A plated dessert
Martinez pairs local fruit like muscadine grapes against tropical passionfruit.
Ryan Fleisher

Along those lines, are there any desserts you wish you could make at the restaurant but can’t for whatever limitations?

I’d like to do more technical plating. It’s just hard with the setup here. And I wish I could do more traditional Latin-based desserts, but they’re not as popular with our clientele.

Do you like to make desserts at home?

I do not. But I like to cook at home. I started as a savory chef, and then I switched over to pastry when I met Aaron and started at Eugene. I like cooking for others as a small group because it’s more intimate and fun. Whereas cooking for a restaurant, doing the same thing over and over in large amounts, took away my love for it.

Is that what drew you to pastry?

I looked at it as a challenge. It was something I wasn’t good at in culinary school. Then I met really good mentors throughout my career [who taught me] that it could be something different. It doesn’t have to be just cake or a slice of pie or candy. It can be all these components that you don’t think would work, and then they end up working. Like, right now we have local muscadines in, and they actually complement really well with passionfruit.

Does your palate tend toward the savory or sweet?

My palate is more savory. People tend to say that my desserts aren’t heavy. They’re more fruit-based desserts. I try to make my dessert surrounded by whatever local fruit we have. And I try to make it as less sweet as possible. I’ll snack on fries all day in the kitchen, but you’ll never see me snack on, like, a cookie.

A dessert of balls of choux topped with a scoop of ice cream. Ryan Fleisher

The pastry chef seeing how far she can push people’s palates

A woman, Kelly Nam, seated at a restaurant booth looks at the camera.
Kelly Nam.
Lanna Apisukh

Kelly Nam
Executive pastry chef and partner at Joomak Banjum, New York

Kelly Nam sees herself as the one in the kitchen at fine dining Korean Chinese restaurant Joomak Banjum “trying to keep it more grounded.” Meanwhile, her desserts are freewheeling, like one that combines plum, yuzu, tomatoes, Ritz crackers, and green Sichuan peppercorns, or the “Moon Rock” at Electric Lemon, where she was previously the pastry chef, creating desserts that melded “French pastry and American junk food.”

What Nam means is that she is grounded in her management style as what she calls the “realistic bad cop,” not necessarily in her desserts, where she has been blurring the line between sweet and savory since she first started as a pastry chef five years ago. At Joomak Banjum, she’s pushing boundaries to new extremes, incorporating huitlacoche into meringue or black garlic into ice cream, surprising herself at how receptive diners at the restaurant are to her ideas. It’s likely because underlying all of her craft, whether she’s making chocolate bonbons, breads, or plated desserts, she applies a technical precision — a grounding, if you will — to her thrilling creativity.

Eater: Do you have a signature dessert?

Kelly Nam: Not necessarily. I have a signature style of dessert, but I try to keep everything pretty fluid, and I don’t like keeping the same dessert on the menu all the time. I try to keep some sort of meringue on the tasting menu — I love meringue. Currently, I have a plum meringue with yubu chantilly, candied tomatoes, and a Ritz cracker ice cream, with green Sichuan peppercorn sablé.

An outstretched hand used tweezers to put the finishing touches on a dessert.
Nam’s deviled egg dessert, made with coriander meringue, carrot mousse, apple cider caramel, candied egg yolk and buttermilk thyme sorbet.
Lanna Apisukh
A hand holds a turquoise plate holding a fancily plated dessert. Lanna Apisukh

What do you like about meringue?

The texture. When it’s dry, it’s kind of crunchy and also airy. Sometimes, when people do desserts, you always have a crumble, which is more on the crunchier side. The meringue will give it a crunch, but it’s like a soft crunch. So when you have a mousse-type dessert, the meringue bridges the crunchy part of the crumble or whatever your crispy part is, and then there’s a meringue that will melt in your mouth sooner than later but with a mini-crunch in between.

What’s your most photo-worthy dessert?

It depends on the season. For now, the Jeju is most photogenic. It’s a scoop of black garlic ice cream on top of an elderflower mousse, which is supposed to look like the island of Jeju. The tuile is in a traditional window design. So from above, it looks like you’re looking out the window at Jeju scenery.

Are there any other particular ingredients, flavors, or textures you really like to work with?

I like using peppercorn, whether it’s Sichuan peppercorn or black peppercorn. Right now, I’m using green peppercorn from Strega. I just recently got some cinnamon berry that I’m super excited to use for the fall. So I really like spices. And produce-wise, I really like citrus. A lot of times, I do a citrusy dessert with pop rocks. It became my signature dessert at Electric Lemon. They asked me to create a lemon dessert, so I basically added everything that would be “electric” — pop rocks, and also I made this fizzy with a little bit of sugar and malic acid and baking soda, so it’s kinda a fake fizz. The baking soda will give you the fizzy, and then the acidic part will give you the zing, and that coated with pop rocks was pretty electric. Ever since, I keep using pop rocks. Like if I’m doing my root beer float, to give the root beer a little bit of a zing, I add pop rocks in there.

Nam’s Jeju-inspired dessert.

Does your palate tend toward the savory or sweet?

My palate definitely tends to go savory rather than sweet. I was looking back at my first desserts. My first dessert was a strawberry shortcake with basil ice cream, and my first pre-dessert was a celery sorbet with rehydrated golden raisins, jasmine tea, and pine nut. So it turns out my palate was always geared towards savory. I can’t tell why, because I had a big sweet tooth growing up. But once I started actually working in the kitchen, I pivoted towards savory flavors, maybe just to subconsciously balance the two out. But also I find it more interesting.

It’s a lot of fun — I’ve tried to push it as far as I can here. Right now, I have a black garlic ice cream, and I was like, okay, this is either going to sell or not sell, and it’s been one of our hottest sellers. I also have a foie gras banoffee on the menu right now. It’s been blowing my mind a little bit, how far I can push people’s palate[s] here. I don’t think I could have done this anywhere else. I think the people who come to our restaurant know they’re going to get something pretty unique, and they’re willing to try it.

A dessert plated in a brass sphere.
A foie gras banoffee.
Lanna Apisukh

What drew you to pastry in the first place?

I originally wanted to be an art student, until I figured out I wasn’t good enough. I did bake every fall or summer for bake sales at my church because I enjoyed baking. It was one of those things that I could do and take my mind off of whatever a 16- or 17-year-old girl has troubles with. It was an out for me. My cousin went to [the University of Nevada, Las Vegas], where they’re strong in hospitality, and said, “We have a culinary arts program, why don’t you try it out?” So I applied because they didn’t require an essay, to be honest. When I got in, I thought, Maybe this will be a good fit. I fell in love with it and never really looked back.

The pastry chef reimagining the humble sheet cake

Hannah Ziskin stands behind the bar wearing a stripped apron and gazes up to the side.
Hannah Ziskin.
Ashley Randall Photography

Hannah Ziskin
Co-owner and pastry chef at Quarter Sheets, Los Angeles

Hannah Ziskin has transformed the sheet cake. She takes her 13 years of experience creating restaurant desserts and pours it into what she calls “slabs” at pizza and cake spot Quarter Sheets. The nickname is appropriate for the size of the slices but belies their surprising lightness, each stack balancing equal parts fluffy cake and fillings in the form of custards or curds — more like a tiramisu, say, than a traditional layer cake. The weekly changing flavors have included a Sicilian olive oil chiffon with sweet corn custard and strawberry-geranium preserves, and poppyseed almond chiffon with lime curd and roasted peaches.

Ziskin turned to cakes during the pandemic, when she and her partner Aaron Lindell, both laid off from their restaurant jobs, began a business baking from their apartment. She cast about for a dessert that would transport well and landed on “giant, exciting pieces of cake” that were still light enough to eat after Lindell’s pizza.

“With all my desserts, whether they’re plated or slices of cake, I just want people to be able to finish them,” she says.

Given that she’s now sized up from using their business’s namesake quarter sheets to using larger pans to try to meet the crowd that gathers outside their restaurant, that hardly seems to be a problem.

A person pipes cream onto a sheet cake.
Ziskin makes one of her famous sheet cakes.
Ashley Randall Photography

Eater: What is your signature dessert?

Hannah Ziskin: Some people come every week for the new flavor of slab cake — they’re fancy sheet cakes, and the flavor changes with whatever is seasonal and feels inspiring. But the dessert we have on the menu every day is the princess cake. It’s the most unexpected pairing with pizzas, to have this little, delicate princess cake after.

I grew up eating this cake, strangely — we are not of Swedish heritage — but it was part of family celebrations my whole life. When I started making cakes, I realized I could make my own princess cake with little tweaks. I tend to push things into more savory realms, so for the chiffon layers of the cake, we use olive oil, a really delicious, grassy olive oil. We make our own raspberry jam and make sure it’s really bright and fresh and tangy. There’s a layer of salted vanilla bean custard (salt is my favorite pastry ingredient) and a layer of mascarpone chantilly. In the classic cake, it’s plain whipped cream, but I really like the slightly savory, fresh, cheesy notes from the mascarpone. That goes over the top, and then over that we make marzipan in house, which also is well seasoned. It really is just a perfect cake. So I’m honored to represent it.

Do you have a mentor? If so, who?

I didn’t go to culinary school. I was taught by people who were willing to teach me, and I grew up in restaurants in the Bay Area. So my style now is an amalgamation of the market sensibilities of Chez Panisse, which is where I did my cooking internship for five months, and then this outside-of-the-box “What is dessert? What can dessert be?” mentality that I picked up at Bar Tartine.

And some of my cookbook mentors, whose books you can learn so much from and you just feel a kinship to them, and some that I even talk to now, which is very cool. Brooks Headley, who owns Superiority Burger in New York; I love his cookbook. I’m obsessed with it. The Tartine cookbook, obviously, by Liz Pruiett. And The Last Course by Claudia Fleming, [whom] I wish I could talk to but I haven’t. Those are the greats.

A rectangular slice of a sheet on a green plate placed at the edge of a table Ashley Randall Photography

Are there any particular ingredients, flavors, or textures you like to work with?

I think my style of approaching cake is a little bit different because historically, I was not a cake baker. I’m a restaurant-trained pastry chef, which means plated desserts. So the way I think about cake is building a plated dessert in a slice of cake — how in one bite, you get the dynamic experience of eating a dessert with lots of different components.

I really like pairing two different flavors. In a three-layer cake, maybe one layer of filling is a bay leaf custard and the other is a fresh passionfruit curd. (And I just have to say that one of the great travesties in this world is using passionfruit puree instead of the actual fruit, because the seeds are such an important part of that experience and taste.) So when you slice through the cake, you get this savory, mysterious note from the bay leaf, and then you’re crunching on these passionfruit seeds and it’s tart from passionfruit juice. It’s sweet, tart, [and] crunchy, and that’s how I want to eat a plated dessert.

I often like to pair things that have this seasonal cross, so in the spring you might have the beginning of strawberry season and the end of blood orange season, and they’re only growing together for like a moment in time. But when you put them together, they’re perfect. Or like raspberries and Pink Lady apples in the fall. I look for those little unions. Figs and raspberries. Plum and strawberry.

A fondant-covered slice of sheet cake on a plate with a fork stuck in it. Ashley Randall Photography
Rows of sheet cake slices in to-go containers. Ashley Randall Photography

Do you have a white whale of desserts?

I have a really bad relationship with pumpkin pie. I feel like a witch must have cursed me — I have a mental block. It’s such a simple thing. I’ve made custard my whole life! But I think pumpkin pie and I are enemies. Something always goes wrong. Like, I’ll be baking pies, it’s fine, and I go to put in my pumpkin pie and the oven stops working. So I don’t make pumpkin pies anymore.

What drew you to pastry in the first place?

I grew up as a hobbyist baker. When I was 13, I was making little mini-cheesecakes and giving them as Christmas presents or baking cookies to bring to school, like always, always. I didn’t really consider it a career option, but then a friend of my sister’s ended up working for Daniel Boulud as his assistant, and she really encouraged me to lean into it as a possible profession. So after I graduated from UC Berkeley, around the corner from Chez Panisse, I wrote [the restaurant] a nice letter: “Can I come work for you for free for a day, just to see what it’s like?” That became an internship, and I never did anything else.

Baking felt like something that I had a natural affinity for. There was something very scientific about the process that maybe doesn’t feel intuitive to some but did to me. Also it’s just much more pleasant in a pastry kitchen. The temperature is more to my liking than working in front of the pizza oven when it’s, like, 600 degrees. So it’s like half intuition and half vanity. And the hours just felt like something that was more sustainable.

A hand holds aloft a slice of sheet cake on a plate through a porthole in a door. Ashley Randall Photography

Lanna Apisukh is a portrait, food and documentary photographer based in New York City. Cat Cardenas is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin. Evie Carpenter is a visual storyteller based in Phoenix. Ryan Fleisher is a photographer based in Atlanta. Ashley Randall is a photographer based in Los Angeles.

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