I find Daniel Boulud’s Dinex restaurants so comforting. Yes, they’re extremely upscale, and were I not to have the job I do I most likely would have rarely seen the inside of one of them, if ever. And that would be incredibly sad, because they’re some of the warmest restaurants executing the most beautiful food I could ever imagine. I’ve been fortunate to dine in many of New York’s other great restaurants the past few years, but there’s just something so genuine and human about Daniel’s team.
Evidently Chef Ashley Brauze had the same reaction when she visited ten years ago, as Chef Daniel’s energy and joy won her over, encouraging a move a month later to join his kitchen. Stints at El Bulli and Per Se followed, before she returned to work at DB Bistro and then take the top pastry spot at Café Boulud.
Recently we shared the calm of the empty restaurant, the space silencing the growing buzz from the St. Patrick’s Day parade about to wind its way uptown on 5th Avenue nearby. I was once again warmed by the visual draw of the space, Brauze’s smart and subtle thoughts, and the elegance of the plates we chatted about as Brent shot. It takes so much patience, discipline and passion to execute desserts such as Brauze’s for a very expecting clientele, and once again I saw firsthand how those come together at Boulud’s restaurants. I feel lucky to continue talking about them.
Chef Ashley Brauze: Class All the Way
Taken March, 2014
You’ve credited your love of fine dining pastry from an epic meal you had at Daniel in 2004. What was so significant about it?
I was working at the Inn at Little Washington. I’m not from a small town, but it’s the tiniest town, like 300 people. So to go to the grocery store or do laundry you’d spend 30 minutes in a car, and one night I was driving home and I almost hit a cow just standing in the middle of the highway going 60 minutes an hour. And I was like, “That’s it, I’m done!” I had to get out of there!
I didn’t have many friends that lived in New York, but I had a lot of friends out in San Francisco so went out there to visit, and it was nice, but I didn’t really feel it; it didn’t have a lot of energy. So I came here for vacation and ate at Daniel. And I remember walking into the dining room, and Daniel was walking up the stairs, and he just had so much energy, and I remember being like, whoa. And he wanted to sit and talk with you, he’s so friendly. And I was like, I’ve never met anybody like that before. Everything was clean and simple, and I loved the service at the atmosphere. Just as a diner, everyone was so nice. I was super impressed. So I came up two weeks later and did a trail, and then moved up a month later. I was sold.
What most excites you about the desserts you get to make now?
When I make a pastry, I feel like it needs to be a little bit simple and homey, but something interesting with a little pop. Sometimes things just come together. You get an idea, and play around with it, and come back to it again.
I tend to go at things geometrically, so I try really hard to go against that. I’m a big fan of symmetry and square and round, but at the same time that’s kind of boring, so I have to add something that’s a little feminine; one or two curly or out there components. I keep things clean, so that it looks simple but is more complicated than you’d think.
How do you feel you’ve sort progressed the dessert menu? What are you adding that wasn’t here before?
My background is really varied. I started at Daniel in 2005, then was lucky enough to go with my husband to El Bulli, then to Per Se, then back to Daniel, and I think for me I love using the very modern techniques, but keeping them classic. So nothing really crazy, just extra little touches and knowing more modern pastry techniques that help making the desserts look modern without being way out there.
Like chocolate and peanut butter, but looking like that…
Yeah, it’s still a classic, and it looks complicated but as far as plating up, we still have to be able to plate rather quickly so we’re not losing time.
I imagine it’s a puzzle, if you have eight full desserts on the menu that look like that!
We have a good balance; there are some that are more complicated than others. And when we do specials we do one that’s really simple, like rhubarb cobbler. And that sells really well. So I really like that I can do beautiful dessert that lean towards fine dining, but I can still do a cobbler or a soufflé and the clientele love it.
I loved the part of your bio that points out that your desserts have a lot of color and pop. Can you walk us through one dessert that feels personal?
The Napoleon. It started with receiving this really great nougat paste. February and March are sort of a struggle for everyone in the kitchen because you’re just sort of tired of looking at apples and pears and brown and white. And so I was like, okay, what can I do that’s going to have some color, and not be, like, raspberries? So my husband is from Michigan, and he loves the dried Michigan sour cherries, and nougat and sour cherries are kind of a natural combination. And then as far as the look goes, you kind of get in a rut doing the same thing over and over again, but you don’t need to necessarily reinvent yourself, so you look to see what you have in the kitchen already to make a different shape or do a different style that’s not too far away from what you’re doing already. We use a lot of tubes – which is very common in pastry – so I was trying to think of something different, and the wave design came out from putting the tubes together and pressing the chocolate between them. So I like it because it’s still classic, but has that feminine curve to the top of it. I like thinking outside of the box with what I have in the kitchen.
You worked at DB Bistro before here. How was that different?
DB was a good challenge for me because I had always done fine dining. So to be in that fast-paced environment with a much smaller kitchen – a much smaller kitchen – was at first a bit of a shock. But it sort of forces you to think outside the box, and do a lot more with a lot less. And after working at DB everything kind of seams easier, and the challenges are different. I have a much bigger staff here, so I have time to do chocolate bonbons without working seven days a week. Having the extra hands is cool.
Anything you miss about that environment?
I miss the people.
You worked with Dominique Ansel at Daniel, and I love how, in a recent piece, her said that you’re “constantly curious”. How do you think your sense of curiosity has served you best?
When I started at Daniel, everything was so classic, and I was always asking a lot of questions. Then at El Bulli it was the same thing; I would always ask ‘how does this work?’ ‘How does this chemically balance?’ And Albert would be like, “If you’re curious come in and play around.” You have to make a thousand mistakes before you figure out something that works, and that can be really frustrating, but you’re always learning something from it.
That was one of the things that I learned from Dominque and Albert; there are a thousand ways to do one thing. And constantly reading up and going out to restaurants and figuring out how other people are doing things helps. And having a good network of pastry chef friends who like to talk about things and new techniques is always fun.
Is anything you learned at El Bulli particularly applicable to your menu now?
It’s funny, when I was at El Bulli I appreciated everything I was doing there, but at the same time I missed making tarts and classical stuff. I think that’s when you realize how much you’ve learned from working in another kitchen; when you move onto something. In no way did I dislike anything I did there, but I was antsy to get back and do stuff that was a little more structured. I was excited to be back in the kitchen not making just meringues. There it was a lot of different textures of meringues and foams, and everything was very natural, and working with Albert was amazing; when he creates, the space that he goes to do a dessert is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. He’s sort of in his own world, doing that stuff, so to see that was really cool.
Now the door is wide open for pastry; everything is quite modern, and everyone is used to it. I use a lot of the espuma guns, but people don’t think of it as a espuma anymore; I have foams, but I don’t put foams on everything, it’s very selective. I think you have to be very selective about what modern things you use.
Yeah, it’s funny how foams are a controversial thing in this “dark age”.
Hahaha! Yeah, the dark age of pastry! I don’t know how “dark age” I feel. There are so many more restaurants than there were even ten years ago when I moved here. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of variety.
You’ve pretty much only worked with incredible people at a high level of fine dining. For chefs figuring out their place in the pastry world, what would you tell them they would learn in a Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller restaurant?
Coming out of school each person has their own comfort zone and their own idea of where they want to go in the pastry world, since it’s so open. For me it’s about finding a chef you really admire that has a lot of energy, and then sticking with it and being patient. Find a restaurant where you can see yourself moving up; you should be a little bit intimidated, a little bit nervous. Be patient, work hard, and try to stay in one place for a little bit before you get frustrated and give up; I can show you how to make a mousse, but that doesn’t mean you own every mousse ever made. There’s a lot to be learned, and you need patience to figure it out.
Is there a chef you’ve worked with that’s taught you something profound?
Before I worked with Dominique, there was a lot of screaming and aggressiveness in the kitchen. And he was the most patient person I’ve ever worked with. My husband as well; I would get really angry and he’d be, “Ashley, it’s okay.” I think that’s something that I constantly think about. Yelling in a kitchen doesn’t make anyone learn any faster, and he was always very patient. He’d explain, “This is not ok, and this is why it’s not okay.” But at the same time if you had an idea, he was always very interested to learn from other people. When I got back from Spain he was like, “Okay, come show me what you learned.” He was very interested in that. And he’s very humble. I think that’s something that’s very necessary.