Chef Kierin Baldwin Sweetens up The Dutch

Is it weird to think that some people just look like they made really delicious food? Because upon first seeing pastry chef Kierin Baldwin at The Dutch, my brain immediately went to that conclusion. I’m not quite sure why, as there’s no Betty Crocker or Julia Child aspect to her or anything, but rather a slightly punk-rock, I-get-shit-done-because-I’m-capable-folks! energy there instead.

Maybe it was the this-is-slightly-too-early-to-be-doing-this vibe we shared (pastry chefs and freelance writers are not often their most chipper at 9:30am). Maybe it was the warmth of The Dutch in combo with Baldwin’s sharp mind and very formidable skills. Maybe it’s just because we were talking about pie, and I’m over-thinking things, as I’m often wont to do.

I’m gonna go out on a line and pin it all on her badass red boots.

Chef Kierin Baldwin Sweetens Up The Dutch

You’ve worked with some phenomenal chefs at well-respected restaurants – Café Boulud, Locanda Verde, A Voce – what did you learn primarily from each of them that stuck with you?

At Café Boulud I was working primarily with Ghaya Oliveira but also Eric Bortoia, the corporate pastry chef. Technique was the most important thing I picked up there. I had an art background – I went to art school and studied photography and printmaking – and I didn’t know if I was going to go into something visually oriented like cake decoration or just food. I realized at Café Boulud that actual food that people were going to eat was what I wanted to make. And it was a great place to learn the nuts and bolts, and about pushing yourself, and about needing to be very thoughtful about making things and developing technical ability. Ghaya was wonderful for teaching that, because she does not let you go on anything – she knows exactly what she wants, expresses it well, and is able to teach you what you’re looking for. I was there for a bout a year and a half, and that job taught me exactly how to do that.

And at A Voce?

Josh Gripper, who had been a sous chef at Café Boulud before, had just started there and just needed a person who really “got it”, so I was like, “I’ll help you out for a little while.” And I just got sucked in. I would say there I learned to loosen up a little bit. I think the sensibility of both of the restaurants was very similar, though visually it was more relaxed at A Voce, which is the style I feel I work in now. Then out of nowhere Josh left and the management offered me the pastry position; I was only out of school for two years and definitely wasn’t ready, but said I could do it for a little while, and stayed for five months as the interim pastry chef.

What was particularly challenging about that time?

It was a small enough program that I was able to not lose myself in learning how to manage people – that came at later jobs – but I was able to be very creative and learn how to experiment with and edit myself. I definitely jived very much right off the back with the relaxed, “rustic”, style, which is the way I approach food now and definitely what Karen Demasco at Locanda Verde taught me; flavor first. When I’m composing a plate, the first thing I’m thinking about is not what it’s going to look like, or having a tuille balanced here, but if the flavors are playing off of each other and highlighting each other and snowballing in a way. After that, I can rely on my visual sensibility to make all the things on that plate look good together. So those five months that I was kind of leaderless suddenly gave me a chance to figure it out on my own, figuring out what did and didn’t work.

And then Karen helped you broaden?

She and I got along right off the bat – I love her to death and consider her my greatest mentor. Being her sous chef was wonderful, because she’s really gracious about letting you be a part of the creative process, so shooting ideas back and forth with her was definitely a way I figured out how to compose a plate to make it a whole dessert. Also, I feel like maybe I had been too visually oriented up until then. Karen definitely, nuts and bolts, was “this tastes good with this”, or “this needs more salt”, or “this needs more acid.” She really solidified that that was the primary concern.

How did all of those experiences help you when planning the upcoming The Dutch’s now much-beloved, pie-focused menu?

It was kind of figuring out where something as homey and satisfying as pie fits into a fine dining kind of setting. I’ve been making pie for a very long time now – I taught myself how to make it out of a cookbook in college and kind of fell in love with it that way. A lot of people think it’s supposed to be simple – easy as pie – but when you really let it be a composed dessert, it’s kind of awesome, and it’s endlessly variable; you have a shell, but it can be any sort of shell, and you have a filling, and it can be any sort of filling. And once you’re able to start playing with that it can go on forever. My ideas usually start with a specific ingredient, and I try to not throw too much in there; too many things on the plate end up muddying the whole thing. If I’m going to do a strawberry rhubarb pie, that’s probably as complicated as I’m going to make it, so that you really taste the strawberry, you really taste the rhubarb, and the things on the plate are all going to play up those flavors or compliment them, but they’re not going to compete with them.

I didn’t know what my pie crust was going to be. I’d had one pie recipe I’d used for ages, and it was good, but I wasn’t sure what else was out there that would make it better. My old pie dough was from Baking With Julia – a little bit of Crisco, a lot of butter, and water, very simple. So I was like, what else can I do with this that will make it workable, that it will keep well, that it will still be super flaky and will just work and be easy in a restaurant setting, since we make giant batches of it? So I played around with vinegar, with some with egg yolks, and came up with mine that has a little vinegar to give it a kick with a tiny bit of acidity, and a little egg yolk in addition to the water, so that it’s reasonably workable. Because we make it in such huge batches mixing it by hand isn’t realistic, so figuring out how to get it to stay flaky in such a big batch was a challenge, so I experimented with a technique I learned at school – fraisage – where once you mix your dough you grab pieces of it and kind of smash it against the table. So I tried it to see if it would help with leaving the butter in big enough pieces so it wasn’t mush when it came out of the freezer, but also getting those amazing flakes; so we leave the butter a little bit bigger, fraisage it, and it works perfectly. It was just about experimentation and knowing something was working right, which takes time and patience.

How do you counter other plated desserts so that they match the feel of The Dutch’s savory menu and compliment the several pie offerings you have constantly changing?

I come up with a flavor I want to work with first, often something that evokes a memory, something I feel is really recognizable or familiar in some way, and then come up with just a few elements that are going to make that flavor shine and compliment it. It’s very much about taste, I guess.

Is there a lot of food nostalgia in your family?

When I do interviews like this my mother will always read them and get mad at me, because when I was a kid I didn’t get a lot of sugar. My mom raised me on sugar free candies and such, if anything, so I always really wanted it, and would go to friend’s houses and eat their cookies. What little we did have was what we’d make ourselves, like chocolate chip cookies out of Joy of Cooking (I still have and cherish my mother’s old copy). My mom was not a sugar Nazi, but she gave me a real appreciation for making things yourself in that way, and for kind of enjoying simple food, or food that’s got great ingredients that you bring together on your own. We didn’t do a lot of eating at fast food restaurants or anything; my mom had a big backyard garden. That gave me an appreciation now for keeping it pretty simple and also for a kind of familiarity.

I try not to be hokey about it, and definitely feel like familiarity is what I rely on to bring people in, because at The Dutch people come here to eat, not to dine. This is a place where people come for food so dessert is optional, and if I’m going to have people buy my desserts they have to be appealing in a way that’s not just about the fun of trying. So I’ve found the desserts that people cherish the most appeals to them, and then I can slip in some stuff that’s more novel.

I feel there was a struggle for me in the art world, because I was like, “Why does it matter that I’m doing this?” It felt sort of frivolous at times. And then that carried over when I started making food, thinking what the point of me doing it was. And it struck me over a long time that enjoyment is really important; you can call it frivolous but that’s kind of what makes life worth living, and it’s because it’s such an important part of just living a well-rounded life, there’s something beautiful and valuable about that. So my dessert are just supposed to be enjoyable; not complicated, I don’t want you to have to sit down and think about how I got something to stay or something to balance on something else. I want something you can dig into and eat with the people that you’re with and really experience it.

Can you define what feels hokey versus nostalgic?

I think it’s more about forcing ideas; when you let something taste great and be itself without banging you over the head, or you make something more about the idea of what something is versus what it actually is. My worst ideas are the ones where I think, “Oh, this is so cool”, and I put things together that don’t work. So letting things figure themselves out is important.

Moving forward, is there a technique or way you’re growing? Two years from now, what growth do you want to achieve?

I feel like it took me a good long time going from being a pastry sous chef to a pastry chef in a much bigger transition than I expected, because I worked very closely with Karen and I couldn’t see the other side of basically learning to be a manager; that whole side of this job they don’t even mention to you in school; that has been the biggest thing I’ve learned in addition to finding my stride creatively. So in terms of my desserts, I just want to kind of keep refining it. Cooking is endless; there are so many things you can do and so many ingredients you can work with. So I think, oh, it’s apple season again and there’s that apple cake I ran last year that was great, so I should bring that back. But, no! I should do something new with apples! It’s endlessly riffing on the same things in really lovely ways. I want to find new ingredients and flavors to play with, and keep on refining things that just taste awesome!

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