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With a growing contingent of talented sweets makers on the scene, Sacramento is finally getting its just desserts.
In Sacramento, 2018 may go down as the Year of the Pastry Chef. Savory chefs have had a good run here for more than a decade. They spearheaded the farm-to-fork movement and opened dozens of exciting new restaurants. But now, pastry chefs are ascendant, finally getting the attention and respect they deserve. Like their savory brethren and sistren, they embrace local ingredients, modern techniques and unexpected flavor combinations. Some of them might even be gunning for Michelin star recognition, an honor that has so far eluded Sacramento’s most ambitious restaurant chefs. So who are Sacramento’s leading lights on the sweet side? Read on.
When Sacramento finally wins a Michelin star, it may be thanks to Beast + Bounty pastry chef Edward Martinez. The 32-year-old has already made his bones with the Michelin crowd: He’s worked at a number of starred restaurants, including Bistro Jeanty in Yountville and Lazy Bear in San Francisco.
Martinez has a rather unconventional back story for a pastry chef: Raised in Fresno, he joined a gang at 13, and by 20 he was looking at eight years in prison when a judge offered him probation if he enrolled in culinary school. He excelled, externing at Meadowood and finishing at the top of his class.
After school, he worked at Hawks in Granite Bay and Enotria on Del Paso Boulevard, then moved to the Bay Area, where he worked for celebrity chefs Tyler Florence, Michael Mina, Joey Elenterio and David Barzelay. In 2016 he won a StarChefs Rising Star award.
Last year, Martinez was lured back to Sac to create the dessert program at Beast + Bounty, Michael Hargis’ hearth-based restaurant in the ICE Blocks complex, set to open any minute. There, he’ll be making next-level rustic desserts using refined techniques: smoking chocolate for a whiff of the campfire, or curing pumpkin in calcium hydroxide, then roasting it over coals for a crunchy exterior and puddinglike interior.
Martinez has a savory sensibility. He’d rather eat steak and short ribs than cake, and he disdains overly sweet desserts. (“Sugar bombs,” he calls them.) He likes to contrast flavors and textures—sweet and sour, crunchy and soft—to keep diners coming back for another bite.
At ICE Blocks, Martinez will also oversee a doughnut and ice cream shop called Milk Money. He spent months on R&D, workshopping the doughnuts, experimenting with flavors and getting feedback from the public at pop-ups and events like Sausage Fest and the Tower Bridge dinner. Milk Money’s signature doughnut, the Glory Hole, is a brioche doughnut filled with milk chocolate crema, glazed with bittersweet chocolate and topped with cocoa nibs. Then there’s the Ghostface Killah (black-pepper brioche, Strawberry Quik, powdered sugar) and the O.J. (Tang, vanilla, yuzu). Every day, the shop will make only 400 doughnuts in one flavor that’s blasted out at 6 a.m. on social media; once it sells out, that’s it.
THE ACCIDENTAL PASTRY CHEF
Courtney McDonald was working as a chef at an East Coast restaurant when the dessert maker walked off the job. Her boss pointed at her and said, “Girl, you do pastry.”
She wasn’t thrilled. “I tolerated it,” says McDonald.
Growing up in Auburn, McDonald had always wanted to be a chef. At 16, she left high school to attend the culinary program at American River College. After that, she enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. There, she met her life partner, Eric Alexander, and the pair eventually moved to California.
They were doing odd jobs in Auburn when a wine bar and wine shop called Carpe Vino opened. One day, McDonald told the owner he should serve food with the wine. He ended up hiring her, promising that if she were successful, he’d bring Alexander on as co-chef.
Within a couple of years, the couple was working together, turning out exquisite food in Carpe Vino’s kitchen, and in 2008 The Sacramento Bee gave the restaurant a rave review and four stars. But McDonald was starting to burn out from the long, stressful days. In 2009, she took a break from the restaurant and did an internship with a local farmer. She also had a baby. In 2010, as a new mom, she returned to Carpe Vino as the pastry chef.
McDonald’s butterscotch semifreddo with poached quince, Meyer lemon confit and brown butter crumble
McDonald, 37, is known for a sharply edited dessert menu that depends heavily on seasonal produce, much of it sourced from a nearby five-and-a-half-acre farm that she and Alexander own. She’ll make panna cotta using cream infused with blue spice basil, or pistachio almond pound cake with crème fraîche sorbet. In summer, she serves peach profiteroles filled with late-harvest viognier ice cream and dolloped with peach caramel.
To this day, she thinks more like a cook than a pastry chef. “I throw stuff together,” she explains. “If I worked for a trained pastry chef, I’d get fired.”
TWO RESTAURANTS, ONE PASTRY CHEF
Five days a week, Lisa DeBernardi wakes up at 4 a.m., and by 4:45 she’s hard at work, making classical desserts for The Waterboy in midtown. Then, at around 10, she heads to East Sac and puts in a few more hours at OneSpeed, Waterboy’s sister restaurant.
Early risings go with the territory when you’re a pastry chef. Morning is when the kitchen is at its quietest, and there’s plenty of room to work.
DeBernardi’s profiteroles with mint chip ice cream, fudge sauce and almond brittle
DeBernardi doesn’t seem to mind the early hours. A graduate of ARC’s culinary program, she worked her way up at OneSpeed from pizza maker to sous chef. When the pizzeria’s dessert person left, she begged owner Rick Mahan to let her add pastry to her responsibilities. Later, when Waterboy’s longtime pastry chef retired, DeBernardi ended up as pastry chef for both restaurants.“I’m learning a lot,” says the 29-year-old, whose first job was preparing hot dogs at an indoor soccer arena. At the beginning, Mahan kept her on a short leash, insisting she make desserts that the restaurant’s regulars had come to expect. “But as time went on, he started trusting me, and I started trying new things.”
DeBernardi’s Meyer lemon tart with toasted meringue and candied lemon
At The Waterboy, her desserts tend to be traditional and European—things like tarte Tatin and chocolate soufflé. But DeBernardi manages to sneak in modern flavors: gingerbread cake with roasted quince, say, or chai latte crème brûlée. At OneSpeed, she takes a more casual approach, serving sundaes, crisps and soda floats. She tops chocolate silk pie with toasted meringue, and she makes a mean banana bread with peanut butter mousse, caramelized bananas and candied peanuts.
FINDING THE FUN IN DESSERTS
Six years ago, Jane Anderson was working at Taylor’s Kitchen in Land Park, doing a little bit of everything: line cook, prepping dishes for Taylor’s Market next door, making desserts. Then, Ella’s executive chef approached her about joining his crew and asked her what she wanted to do. “I kinda like pastries,” she replied.
Today, Anderson is regarded as one of the city’s top pastry chefs, creating elegant desserts with a touch of whimsy. Take, for instance, Ella’s Sunday Morning Sundae: an old-fashioned doughnut perched on cinnamon-toast ice cream topped with rainbow sprinkles, resting on a bed of caramelized cornflakes and served with a pitcher of chocolate-cereal milk. It’s a kid’s dream breakfast, elevated for the white-tablecloth set.
“Desserts should be fun,” says the 31-year-old Anderson. She gets lots of practice: Ella’s menu changes seasonally, and she’s also in charge of inventing desserts for the restaurant’s monthly promos. For Cheese Month, she served a lemon bar with a Mimolette crisp and Mt. Tam Cheez Whiz.
Jane Anderson’s Sunday Morning Sundae: cinnamon toast ice cream, caramelized cornflakes, an old-fashioned doughnut and a drizzle of chocolate-cereal milk
Born and raised in Sacramento, Anderson attended ARC and worked as a line cook for Paragary’s and Mason’s, then did a stint at Merriman’s in Maui. She’s often the only female in the kitchen, and she believes her savory background gives her a leg up as a pastry chef. “I know how to do what the other chefs are doing,” she says. “I feel well respected in this town.”
Anderson likes to turn savory ingredients into something sweet and surprising. At the holidays, for instance, she makes roasted turkey ice cream with caramel and candied pecans. “People are apprehensive but pleasantly surprised,” she says.
Anderson’s pear pie with frangipane and pine chantilly cream
She finds inspiration everywhere: cookbooks (Christina Tosi’s “Momofuku Milk Bar” is a favorite), TV shows (she loves “The Great British Baking Show”), even the supermarket. Once, while shopping for groceries, she saw a box of Ritz crackers and her imagination went wild. The result: Cypress Grove goat cheese ice cream with pieces of Ritz cracker and a raspberry jam swirl. “It’s like your grandmom’s cheese and crackers,” she says. “It takes you back to when you were a kid.”
LEARNING BY DOING
For Misty Greene, it was a long and winding path to pastry chefdom.
Raised in Georgia, she studied psychology and political science in college. She planned to get a Ph.D. and become an academic. But she didn’t love grad school, so she dropped out, married a Navy doctor and had a couple of kids. The family moved every year, and Greene taught cooking classes to other Navy wives and did a little catering while raising her kids. Seven years ago, the family ended up in Sacramento, and Greene decided to work full time. “I wanted to become a pastry chef instead of a ‘normal job,’” she explains. “I decided to do something completely unstable that I loved.”
To learn the business, she was determined to train with the best pastry chef around. “I heard that Edward Martinez was the best,” she says, “so I asked if I could work for him.” He said yes. After sopping up knowledge working with Martinez at Enotria, she got hired at The Kitchen, then later went to work for Plates, a cafe that offers employment training for unemployed women.
Greene reunited with Martinez at Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco and took over as pastry chef when he left the restaurant. It was a grueling job: 14- to 16-hour days, banging out 1,000 popovers a day, a long commute to boot. After only a year, she was exhausted. Then, Molly Hawks and Michael Fagnoni came calling.
As the pastry chef at upscale Hawks in Granite Bay, the 38-year-old Greene oversees the dessert menus for lunch and dinner, along with a separate tasting menu, the weekly Sunday Supper and multiple private events. About a year ago, she added newly opened Hawks Public House in midtown to her duties. Her style is adventurous—sometimes more adventurous than she can get away with in Granite Bay. “I like things a little deconstructed, but out here you can’t do anything too weird,” she says. She’s learned that an unfamiliar word on the menu—like cremeux or namelake—can turn diners off . “Everybody loves my apple tart with fried sage. But when I called it a croustade on the menu, it didn’t sell.”
She doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth. “I don’t really like sweets,” Greene says. “I try to balance flavors so it doesn’t make my teeth hurt.”
Misty Greene plates her panna cotta