PastryChristina Lee’s diverse résumé covers many parts of the dining spectrum.
Whether cutting her teeth at New York’s Per Se — the chicest of the chic — or teaming with chef Jesse Schenker to serve private dinners in an East Harlem bakery space, the French Culinary Institute graduate uses her finely tuned technique to create unique spins on classic French and American favorites.
In 2010, Lee joined Schenker to open Recette in New York’s West Village, where she serves an ever-changing array of dynamic desserts that incorporate bold colors and savory flavors to accompany Schenker’s progressive menu.
Lee recently discussed savory flavors, the challenge of chocolate and the inspiration of modern art with Nation’s Restaurant News.
What is going on now with the dessert menu at Recette?
I always like to make small changes to the menu in order to keep it exciting and seasonally appropriate. Right now we have a great pumpkin semifreddo, but as we approach winter I’m thinking about changing that, possibly including a new item with pears and different spices. The only dessert that I’ve kept on the menu since day one has been the s’mores. It’s such a classic flavor profile that everyone loves, but I try to keep it interesting with the spicy chocolate and graham cracker ice cream.
Why did you choose to become a pastry chef?
I was first drawn to pastry as an attempt to stay off the heat in the kitchen, but soon realized this wasn’t the case. I have always loved the small, detail-oriented work that comes with being a pastry chef. Unlike in savory, it’s all about measuring, precision and consistency for me.
Where do you find inspiration when creating new dishes?
When creating new dishes, I look at the plate as a blank canvas and draw from inspiration in modern art. A lot of my desserts are comparable to abstract art in that I am always considering contrasting colors and shades from what I have seen in different art pieces.
As we move into the colder months, what kinds of seasonal flavors will you incorporate into the menu?
Utilizing seasonal flavors is key. Right now, pomegranates are one of my favorites, not only for flavor, but also for color. Red is one of my favorite colors to work with, as it always seems to add that sort of pop I am looking for. Also, as we transition from fall to winter, I plan on incorporating something new with pears and different spices to the menu.
What are some of the items that you find resonate most with your customers?
While all of my customers are different, I think that the s’mores dessert probably resonates most with them. This item has always been a hit on the menu because it’s very nostalgic. Also, we offer everybody a little petit four, which is a bite-size piece of my signature chocolate cake with cayenne pepper. It’s tiny, but a nice way of showing appreciation and sending them off with something sweet.
Mastering chocolate and technique
What are some ingredients that you enjoy working with?
I love working with savory ingredients. I think adding savory elements to desserts really enhances the flavor and keeps them interesting. Recently, I made oatmeal bacon cran-raisin cookies for the staff and everyone loved them.
And some that you find most challenging?
I would probably say chocolate. Chocolate is one of my favorite ingredients, but it can be extremely challenging to work with. I am constantly learning new techniques.
What are some current trends you are noticing from your peers?
People are drawn to items that are familiar to them. I think pastry chefs are beginning to focus more on reinventing the classics and adding new twists on American childhood favorites. Also, with the growing number of people eating gluten-free, I think there will be an increase in gluten-free options.
Are you influenced by any specific trends?
My philosophy has always been to use the best available ingredients and to think seasonally. At Recette, we focus on the classics, but always add our own unique spin on it. Thinking creatively allows us to reinvent and rework traditional items.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
I think the most challenging aspect of my job is probably technique. Mastering technique is very difficult, and always producing consistent dishes can be very difficult. Other than that, I would say that the physical aspect of being a pastry chef is most challenging. We are on our feet 15 hours a day, six to seven days a week, and that’s definitely exhausting in itself.
And the most rewarding?
The most rewarding part of being a pastry chef is satisfying my customers. It’s great to see that your hard work has paid off when your customers enjoy the desserts you’ve created and have them coming back for more.
Contact Charlie Duerr at email@example.com.