Empire State South, Atlanta
“My parents wanted me to have a 401K kind of job,” recalls Cynthia Wong.
Lucky for us, her passion for desserts trumped her family’s wishes. At Cakes & Ale, where she had her first job as a pastry chef, Wong created delicious iterations of simple classics. Her steroidal whoopie pie, Phatty Cake, became Atlanta’s most crave-worthy cookie.
Since transferring to Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South last summer, Wong has stretched her repertoire to include more modern touches. Her Meyer lemon custard cake (click here to see the recipe) has the heart of a lemon-meringue pie: Serve the cake with whipped cream for a simple dessert, or garnish with black sesame crunch and yuzu for a special occasion.
Cynthia Wong’s Meyer lemon custard cake with black sesame crunch
Barley Swine, Austin
At Barley Swine in Austin, Texas, seasonal Southern cooking is turned on its head, and the restaurant’s dessert program leads the charge.
Kyle McKinney came on as pastry chef last March, but with 15 years of experience as a savory chef (including a brief stint in sushi), McKinney doesn’t merely stick to sugar. He works the line in addition to running pastry, which explains the origin of plates like butternut-squash ice cream paired with a savory sage funnel cake and finished with duck fat and grilled foie gras.
Hyper-local ingredient sourcing inspires much of the Barley Swine menu, from pumpkin cheesecake to a beet cake topped with raw goat’s-milk ice cream (click here to see the recipe). Keeping diners paying close attention, McKinney flavors the ice cream with tarragon and tops the cake with honeyed tapioca pearls.
Kyle McKinney’s beet cake with goat's-milk ice cream
Chris Ford, Wit & Wisdom, Baltimore
Chris Ford, the pastry mastermind behind Wit & Wisdom at the Baltimore Four Seasons hotel, wants to take you back to your roots.
Ford’s desserts embody playful nostalgia, giving childhood favorites an upscale, modern twist. To wit: A textbook apple crisp is updated with fiery cinnamon ice cream. It’s a Red Hot in frozen form.
A perfectionist when it comes to technique, Ford insists that reinventing the simple and traditional demands a careful approach. He spent months perfecting the classic pâte à choux recipe for his take on a Fluffernutter sandwich (click here to see the recipe). Coconut pearls, chocolate and hazelnuts sit on a banana cream puff base, creating a dessert that’s far sexier than any sandwich we used to pack in our lunch box.
Chris Ford’s banana cream puff
Photo: Heather Sperling
Meg Galus, NoMI Kitchen, Chicago
Since NoMI reopened last summer, the goal has been to offer the same high-end dining experience that the restaurant has always been known for--but with an added level of accessibility.
For Meg Galus, that means tarts. She considers them the perfect balance of refinement and ease. The pastry chef, who did stints at TRU and the Sofitel before coming to NoMI, offers three tarts every day, in iterations such as pistachio with cardamom and orange, or vanilla malt topped with Amarena cherries (click here to see the recipe).
But tarts are hardly the full extent of her talents: The most popular dish in her artillery is the beignet, with mascarpone vanilla cream, passion-fruit caramel and roasted banana sorbet. “You don’t eat dessert because you have to; you eat dessert because you want to,” she says. We concur.
Meg Galus’ vanilla malt tart with Amarena cherries
Samm Sherman, Linger, Denver
Street food is the focus of Denver’s Linger, and as its pastry chef, Sherman tweaks iconic open-air sweets with rare inspiration. She soaks künefe phyllo strands in cava syrup, gilds Mississippi mud pie with miso and butterscotch, and matches Italian zeppole with lemon espuma.
Then there is her inspired peanut-butter-and-jelly cup: A sucker for candy, Sherman whirs together peanut butter, silken tofu and agave, then mounts it in a chocolate base. She flanks the cup with Cabernet Sauvignon-caramel coulis, candied peanuts and brûléed bananas (click here to see the recipe).
Many of Sherman’s desserts are free of either gluten, nuts or dairy. But there is no sanctimony at Linger: Instead, Sherman uses uncommon ingredients in familiar guises, cracking open a universe of delicious possibility.
Samm Sherman’s peanut butter cup
Heidi Woodman, Heidi’s Place, Minneapolis
“My approach isn’t as a pastry chef, it’s as a cook,” says Heidi Woodman of Heidi’s Place in Minneapolis.
Woodman is known for her playful combinations: caramelized pineapple and banana with basil ice cream; liquid-nitrogen-frozen chocolate mousse with dehydrated peanut butter and liquefied marshmallow. She’s known for constant innovation, too: After a fire ruined her restaurant in 2010, she spent a year revamping her pastry approach.
Her recipe, sponge cake with citrus salad and Madeira sabayon (click here to see), is a dish from the restaurant’s previous incarnation. The version of the dish currently on the restaurant’s menu is infinitely more complex, with candied mint, candied ginger, coconut-chocolate sauce, Madeira caramel and citrus, all layered as a parfait.
Heidi Woodman’s Madeira parfait with citrus and coconut
Ghaya F. Oliveira, Boulud Sud, New York
Not only is Ghaya F. Oliveira making some of the best dishes in their class at Bar Boulud, but she has also forged new sweet worlds at the Mediterranean-inspired Boulud Sud.
Oliveira’s desserts call equally on her 10 years in Daniel Boulud’s kitchens and on her native Tunisia. Her taste for fruit and a childhood redolent with nuts, dates and citrus inspired her Greek yogurt parfait, loaded with whole-wheat couscous, dried apricots, toasted pistachios and pomegranate seeds (click here to see the recipe).
Her signature grapefruit givré combines spun strands of sesame halvah, soft Turkish delight and grapefruit sorbet, capped with a caramel-orange tuile. The hollowed-out fruit, lording over a bowl of crushed ice, stops traffic in the dining room. We wouldn’t expect anything less from Oliveira.
Ghaya F. Oliveira’s grapefruit givré
Lauren Fortgang, Little Bird, Portland, OR
French desserts are the starting point for most pastry chefs. But for Lauren Fortgang, pastry chef of Little Bird and Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon, they’re the finish line.
Her résumé is full of lauded restaurants, such as New York City’s Hearth and Craft, where she built her repertoire on rustic, Italian-influenced desserts. So for the Francophone challenge, Fortgang turned to the queen: “I read a lot of Julia Child,” she says.
And if her tarte Tatin (click here to see the recipe) is any indication, that studying has more than paid off. At the restaurant, Fortgang uses an heirloom variety of apple called Caldille, thought to be the type originally used in the dessert. We made it with a different variety, and it still resulted in the best tarte Tatin we’ve ever tasted.
Lauren Fortgang’s tarte Tatin with crème fraîche
Devin McDavid, Quince and Cotogna, San Francisco
Last October, Devin McDavid assumed the role of executive pastry chef for Michael Tusk’s celebrated Quince and Cotogna restaurants in San Francisco. There, the 31-year-old native of Trinidad both showcases what he has learned from his mentors (such as Thomas Keller) and passes on his skills to fledgling pastry cooks.
The unique challenge of creating desserts for both the fine-dining ethos at Quince and the rustic Italian bent at Cotogna appeals to McDavid. “I look at the ingredients,” he says, citing a recent fascination with a Valrhona single-origin chocolate from the Dominican Republic, “and I imagine how I can best use it to accentuate a meal at either restaurant.” Our favorite proof: McDavid’s two-chocolate tart with praline ice cream at Quince (click here to see the recipe).
Devin McDavid’s chocolate tart with praline ice cream
Neil Robertson, Crumble and Flake, Seattle
It’s hard to imagine what territory might be left for Neil Robertson to cover. But after having led the pastry departments of some of Seattle’s best restaurants, he’s renewed his career once again with his first solo venture, a bakery called Crumble & Flake that will open in April. The focus here is classic French pastry, executed with precision and a bit of whimsy. Expect cream puffs filled to order with pastry creams in flavors such as chocolate, goat's milk and bourbon, as well as that current darling of the pastry menu, kouign-amann.
For a taste of this elegant simplicity at home, try Robertson’s lemon marshmallows (click here to see the recipe). Delicate, with a delightful tang, they make lovely gifts, and even better snacks to keep for yourself.
Neil Robertson’s lemon marshmallows