This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Erin Steidley, an artist turned pastry chef.
When imagining a new pastry I consider several components: color, shape, texture and ingredients.
Notice what I didn’t immediately list? Taste. I’ve been a pastry chef for 10 years and I’ve made over 4,000 desserts and eaten exactly zero of them. That’s because I’m not a baker. I don’t wear a big, white, puffy hat. I’m an artist who has turned a love for color into a career in the kitchen.
Color was everywhere in my life growing up—in my bedroom decor, in my choice of school pencils, in the way that I emote, and even the way that I think. Color is how I relate to the world, and in some ways my therapy. Even as an adult, one of my favorite things to do is sit down with my adult coloring book (yes I have several) and color.
This fascination with color continued into college. I enrolled at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2001 and dove into studies of traditional illustration, color theory, anatomy, and perspective.
I loved it. But I didn’t feel complete. I wanted my art to be more; to do more. I wanted it to transcend the visual.
Between memorizing art epochs and theoretical color formulas, I baked. I baked all kinds of creations for my friends. I applied color and perspective principles to scones, breads, cupcakes, and treats. I loved the way cranberries looked in a light grainy scone, or the effect of creamy white drizzle on top of a rounded shape. I felt joy surrounded by the aromas, the mess, and color that popped everywhere in the kitchen.
I’m an artist who has turned a love for color into a career in the kitchen.
At some point, it clicked. The canvas, the print, the clay, or other traditional media of art couldn’t cut it. Food must become my medium.
I left art school and enrolled at Western Culinary Institute in 2007, earning my associates degree in patisserie and baking.
Food is the only place where gustation, vision, and somatosensation come together in such a dynamic way. With food, color is perceived visually, then tasted, and sometimes even felt. Progressive cuisine, as an art form, manipulates form, texture, taste, plating, construction, and deconstruction of food when considering new recipes.
Melissa made each day at work feel like art class. Her cooking was abstract expressionism. She’d splatter paint across a canvas but instead of using acrylic and cotton, she’d use sauce and ceramic.
Fortunately, I took a few important jobs early on in my career that were turning points for me. One of those was working under the celebrated patisserie, Melissa Chou. Melissa made each day at work feel like art class. Her cooking was abstract expressionism. She’d splatter paint across a canvas but instead of using acrylic and cotton, she’d use sauce and ceramic. She’d take sponge cake and rip it to make it look like a coral reef. Her desserts looked like nature and art made love. It was so fun.
And there was another pastry chef I idolized in Monterrey, Calif. His desserts were so cool. He would take dessert and turn it into a board game, like chocolate dice that you’d have to roll.
These experiences introduced new realms of possibility I hadn’t even imagined before. It solidified my passion for patisserie, and launched me into the dedicated career that I have today.
I don’t consider that career to be in restaurants. I am an artist, not a restaurant professional. Dessert is my medium; pastry chef is my title.
I don’t bake things to bake things. If people just wanted to eat a really yummy thing, they’d bake a block of brown brownies, or 100 of them. I don’t do that.
I don’t even start my work from the kitchen. I work in my head.
I am an artist, not a restaurant professional. Dessert is my medium; pastry chef is my title.
First, I build a vision. I think about the nature of the desert. I try to incorporate something local and seasonal into everything I do. Maybe it’s winter and I want to feature purple, so I think I’m going to highlight huckleberries. I visualize it. What color is it? What texture is it? I have a picture of it in my head, and in my mind it’s already plated. I like my plates to look like they were scattered by nature. Like the wind blew it a little bit. I consider the five or six key elements in the piece, I think about their vibrancy and the seasonality of the dish. The piece starts taking form in my mind, much like a painting in a painter’s mind. I can see the forms coming out, the colors popping, the textures needed to tell the story.
The ingredients—the taste—sort of falls out of that process. Yogurt panna cotta with coconut dacquoise, huckleberry compote, pink grapefruit granita, candied grapefruit zest, and a pink peppercorn shortbread might sound delicious, but it’s a dessert that was born out of color, structure, composition. The flavor is almost a happy accident.
A passion for cuisine might be what pulls many chefs into culinary school and ultimately into the back of the restaurant. But, for me, it was art. My canvas is your dessert and my studio is the kitchen.