A Pastry Chef’s Creative Obligation

by Caroline Hatchett
Antoinette Bruno
June 2015


Team Work and the Birth of a Blackbird Dessert

Mud Pie: Black Bottom Mesquite Flour Brownie, Milk Chocolate-Scotch Pudding, Candy Cap Mushroom Ice Cream, Toasted Marshmallow, Burnt Peanut Plaque, Whipped Cream, and Porcini Sprinkles

1. Think about desserts we want to eat. Mud pie.

2. Look at pictures of actual Mississippi mud. (It’s beautiful.)

3. What does mud taste like? Earth, which can be translated through mushrooms and peaty Scotch.

4. Mud pie has regional variables: brownies, pudding, marshmallows, and peanut butter may be included.

5. Everyone agrees on whipped cream and sprinkles. (Obviously.)

6. After piping, dotting, and smearing meringue, a paint brush creates a desired burlap effect.

7. Build plating from there to resemble textile patterns.

Obligation is one of the last words that comes to mind when we think about dessert, but it’s the driving force behind Dana Cree’s pastry program at Chicago’s Blackbird. The concept of creative obligation first occurred to Cree while staging at Noma in Copenhagen, a restaurant whose cooks have to come up with a new dish each Saturday, on top of a 120-hour work week. “A cook’s job is always 20 percent more than what you can get done in a day. They say, ‘I have so much else to do. I’ll work on it tomorrow,’” says Cree. To combat the stagnation that comes with a heads-down, slog-through-the-work-week mentality, Cree implemented a structure to teach her staff how to exercise creativity and then demanded nothing less than full creative engagement. “They have no choice.”

The two most junior cooks on Cree’s team start out with a creative obligation for daily mignardise. Cree gives them a book full of textural constructs—caramel, toffee, truffles, marshmallow, and financiers. It’s their job to put together flavors and learn how to insert them into the textures. From mignardise, they graduate to lunch and a daily coupe with preset textures of whipped cream, crunch, and ice cream.

More freedom, and greater creative obligation, follows. “Once cooks have mastered flavor exchange, they can start to build textural constructs,” says Cree. “Most people think flavor exchange is creativity. When you have rhubarb, you think, ‘What am I going to put it in—a tart, ice cream, sorbet.’ You shuffle through a playbook of textures. We create create a flavor profile, then build a textural construct to house it.”

A dessert of burnt honey, sesame, and Mandarin orange might come in an abstract form at Blackbird, for example, or something paired down for avec, maybe a sesame semifreddo, sugar cookie crumble, orange, and honey. “You can strip [the dessert], transfer it, and rebuild it in any kitchen,” says Cree.

That lesson learned, a cook takes over the second lunch special made from found pantry items, often leftover bread. After lunch, a cook shifts to making a monthly pre-dessert that moves through a full developmental process—from first draft and team tasting to documentation and costing. “In six months, they’re secure and ready to put out plated desserts,” says Cree, who estimates that it takes two years to move from mignardise to pastry badass. “Even if people move on, they leave having had to exercise that part of their brain.”

Brains are part of a collective at Blackbird. Under Cree’s leadership, group think prevails. Pastry cooks, savory cooks, and Paul Kahan all join in. “I’m not creating Dana Cree desserts. I am creating Blackbird desserts. That’s my job. It’s the voice of many.” Before Blackbird, Cree most often worked alone in kitchens, throwing away pastry before anyone could see her mistakes and thinking through problems solo. But once Cree let go of creative control, the flood gates opened. Now ideas ferment within the kitchen, and outside of it. Her team’s plating, for example, took a radical turn when Cree instructed her cooks (and herself) to stop looking at other pastry chefs’ desserts and just start looking at beautiful things. Now, textiles, Japanese gardens, and star nurseries (Google it) inspire plating. Her team constantly shares pictures of the world around them. And then they make beautiful, interesting, delicious pastry—as is their creative obligation. 

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