Sweet-talking pastry chefs
Wed, Feb 9, 2011 (5:12 p.m.)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Las Vegas may have the greatest concentration of top pastry talent anywhere in America. So many tourists and so many hot restaurants have created a cream-filled environment where Megan Romano (Aureole/Charlie Palmer Steak), Vita Shanley (Scarpetta/D.O.C.G.) and Dyan Ng (Restaurant Guy Savoy) can perform their magic on a nightly basis, turning sugar, flour, butter, cream, fruits and chocolate into combinations that leave us swooning. Romano has long been considered the grande dame of Vegas’ pastry chefs, while newbies Shanley and Ng create nouvelle wonders that put your grandmother’s crème brûlée to shame. In a profession once dominated by men (and a certain by-the-numbers, drill-sergeant mentality), their impact upon creative desserts in Vegas, and the sweet, feminine way those sweets are created, is undeniable. Rising to the top of their profession is all the more remarkable when you consider only one of them (Romano) is over 40 (barely, and she looks 10 years younger), while the other two could pass for teenagers.
“There are lots of unconventional ways people get into this profession,” Romano tells me as the four of us taste spoonfuls of baked apple tart at Le Cirque. At 22, fresh off a communications degree at Northwestern—and never having worked in a restaurant kitchen—she literally walked in the back door of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and “dared to stage” (see: worked for free) on weekends. From there, her passion and talent must have been evident, because within two years, she landed a job with another Charlie (Palmer), at Aureole in New York, before doing a two-year stint with Gray Kunz at the four-star Lespinasse when it was considered one of the top restaurants in the city. “I never wanted to do pastry, because it was expected ... [because] I was female.” But five years at the stoves doing everything from poissonier (fish cook) to saucier (sauce cook) taught her the discipline she still applies today when she crafts treats like her legendary chocolates and definitive blueberry-linzer tart.
Shanley, 29, followed a slightly more conventional path. After discovering her love of food and restaurants while babysitting for a catering chef as a teenager in Oceanside, Long Island, she completed a two-year course at the Culinary Institute of America that helped her land an externship with Michael Mina at Aqua in San Francisco. “I started out doing anything but baking and pastries,” she, like Romano, proudly explains, “but I got so grossed out from butchering meat I became a vegetarian for four years.” Meat’s loss was our gain, as she soon fell in love with all things pastry. Aqua was her baptism by fire (“I’ve never seen so many guys cry”), and soon thereafter she was heading up pastry kitchens in New York and Las Vegas, most notably at SW Steakhouse at Wynn Las Vegas, before über-Italian chef Scott Conant recruited her to create sweets and breads for his Cosmopolitan opening (her signature dish: salted caramel pudding). When I ask if pastry chefs deserve their reputations as the temperamental prima donnas of the kitchen, she agrees with me ... sort of. “The job lends itself to those who are the most precise and exact,” she says, flashing her Irish/Italian smile, “and you can tell right away who isn’t organized, and who won’t be able to handle the pressure.”
“Exacting” and “pressure-filled” might be exact descriptions of what it means to work for three of the top toques in the business. Born in the Philippines, Ng, 26, was raised in Arcadia, California, and was considering Le Cordon Bleu before a chef talked her out of it. Instead, he introduced her to Eric Klein, then making a name for himself at Maple Drive in Los Angeles. Like Romano and Shanley, she wanted to work on the savory side of the kitchen, but, “[I] was put in pastries and immediately fell in love.” From there her meteoric rise brought her to Vegas, where she was taken under the wing of pastry chef extraordinaire Gregory Gorreau—first at Mix, then Payard Bistro and Patisserie—before impressing Guy Savoy with her blood orange supreme with layers of cream, lime curd and lime gelee. She can still relate her nervousness during her tasting audition for the 3-star Michelin giant, but, “I knew he didn’t like things that are overly sweet or heavy, and neither do I. So I think that really helped in landing the job.” Which is a little like saying, “I ripped through a Mozart violin solo and the New York Philharmonic hired me.”
Some would say a great meal is like a symphony, building to a crescendo at the end, and one false note can ruin everything. In that sense, pastry chefs have the most pressure. Theirs is the last thing you remember of the meal, a fact not lost on any of these three. Romano sums it up best: “You give up a lot to be in this profession—weekends and holidays—but desserts represent one of the greatest pleasures in the food world. They are the culmination of a great performance, the grand finale, and that’s why we love to make them.”