I recently had the amazing opportunity to interview my mom’s friend, who is a professional pastry chef. I am happy to be able to post my interview with her today. Her name is Heather Roth, and she is the Director of Career Services and Alumni Affairs at L’Academie de Cuisine, which provides professional education programs in the culinary and pastry arts. Heather spent a lot of time with me, and I want to thank her for her generosity. I learned a lot from talking with her. She is very inspirational. If you are interested in learning about L’Academie de Cuisine, their web site is: http://www.lacademie.com.
When did you get interested in baking?
I was always interested in baking, but I had never thought of it as a career. I worked at a bakery in high school. After college I really liked to bake pies and different things. But when I was working on Capitol Hill, I thought more and more about food and found out about an organization called Share Our Strength. Their mission is to end childhood hunger. I ended up getting a job there, and worked there for three years. I was working with many chefs and the more I talked to them, and learned more about good food, the more I was interested in pursuing something related to food as a career.
How did you get started?
I was working for Share Our Strength, and I went to an event called Women Chefs and Restauranteurs (WCR) and met many pastry chefs. After that, I decided I wanted to become a pastry chef. So I decided to contact the pastry chef of Olives who was at the event. I asked her if I could work for free, one day a week, in order to see if this was really what I wanted to do. I worked on Wednesdays from 6:00 am to 10:00 in the morning, and then would go to work at Share Our Strength. It was fun for me. I then started working at Equinox with Todd Gray in 2001. That is how I got started.
What was the most challenging part of trying to make a name for yourself?
In this industry you need to put a lot of time in, and if you’re in it to be rich and famous then those are the wrong reasons to become a pastry chef. There is a very small percentage of people who actually do get rich and famous. It has to really be something you are passionate about. What ever you’re doing in life, you should do something you really love. There is a lot of hard work, a lot of countless hours, and at first as a young pastry cook, you aren’t the pastry chef, you haven’t graduated from pastry school. I was at Equinox for four years before I got my first job as the head pastry chef and even that was pretty quick. There are benefits to taking longer to becoming a pastry chef because there is so much to learn, it’s good to take that time. Once you are chef, you are the one teaching. There are lots of good cooks, but a good chef is also a good teacher. Teaching and being a chef walk hand in hand. But it’s really about working hard and doing your best and making it your own.
What tool do you use most when baking?
When I bake, I use a scale the most. As you get more involved, you’ll see that some recipes use cups and teaspoons, but a scale can make it easier and give you more accurate measurements. I like using a scale just to make sure that I’m being very precise.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
One of the pastry chefs that I admire the most and one of my biggest inspirations is Claudia Fleming. Her book is my favorite cookbook of all time, it’s called The Last Course. It was the first time I really thought about dessert not having to be sweet, and it really influenced my style. She used pine nuts, and I had never seen pine nuts in dessert before, and just different things you would not have thought about in desserts. It made me start thinking about combinations of flavors outside the box. Another inspirational person for me is Michel Richard. I had read about, and then seen, how he would go to the hardware store and to Asian markets to find a tool to use in a different way or an ingredient that could be thought about in a different way. He was a huge influence for me. There are so many things you can find in a hardware store, like pipes for molds, for example. It’s a pastry chef’s second favorite store. First would be a pastry-specific store.
What do you consider your strengths?
I think that some of my greatest strengths are my creativity, my palate, and flavor combinations. Just really learning to develop that, and learning to get a sense of balance, whether it was sweet and salty, savory and sweet, whether its the crunch, and hot and cold, and making something that’s perfectly in balance.
What do you think you need to improve on?
I definitely think that I take things too personally. But that could also be a strength because you put all your effort into whatever it is you’re working on. However, it can be your greatest downfall too, and I think it’s something I need to improve on–letting go of things. At this point with the Internet, everyone has the capacity to be an online food critic. It’s hard to not take these things personally sometimes. It’s different if you are working in a restaurant and someone says something about your cake to you in person, for example.
What was your experience like on Top Chef: Just Desserts?
The best thing that came out of being on Top Chef: Just Desserts was the friendships that I made with the other cheftestants. That was probably the highlight of it. Also, while TV and different reality shows have helped to show more about the industry, it is important to remember that reality television is not reality.
How is it different working in front of cameras than on your own?
It is completely different working in front of cameras. First of all, in a regular kitchen, you have your recipes in front of you. During our season of Top Chef, we couldn’t have the recipe in front of us while cooking. In reality, you are not really expected to know recipes off the top of your head. The other thing is, you’re in a completely different kitchen. The ovens aren’t the ovens you are used to, for example. If you bake something at your house and then go to someone else’s house and bake it, it will be different because the kitchen is different, the oven is different, maybe they don’t have the right tools. There are different challenges. It’s a new environment and so it takes time to adjust. And there are new people, so there are a lot of new things to deal with. With reality television, you have to remember that it’s meant for entertainment.
Do you have a favorite thing to bake? Do you spend time perfecting recipes?
At this point I think my favorite thing to bake is cakes. Just because I love the design of it. I enjoy exploring different kinds of flowers and decorative things. Cakes can be prepared for different occasions, whether it’s a wedding, or birthday, or any celebration. I also really love pies. I love apple pie. It’s my favorite dessert just because it’s really simple. Sometimes people over complicate things, and that’s where they go wrong. If you do something really simple but really well, it’s an approach that I appreciate more. I always try to perfect recipes. I think striving to improve is part of the motivation that chefs have.
Did you expect to win the Pastry Chef of the Year award in 2008?
I hoped for it, but I don’t know if I excepted to win. I had been nominated the previous two years, and did I expect to win? No. Was I hoping to win? Yes. I did feel like the first time I was nominated that it wasn’t my time. When I did win, I felt like stars were aligning and things were going right. I had been getting a lot of positive feedback from guests and from the press so I felt like that was the year. To be given an award for something you love is great. It’s also something given by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and voted on by people, leading stars in the community. It’s an honor to be recognized by people who you respect.
What was your biggest success?
My biggest success was when I was just opening Hook. I had a dessert that I had been working on, and I loved it and was confident in it, and I was going to put it on the menu but I wanted someone’s opinion, and someone’s opinion that I trusted. Phyllis Richman was at that time the food critic of the Washington Post, and she had never reviewed anything of mine, but she and I happened to meet, and developed a rapport. She happened to be coming in, and she tried the dessert. She loved it. She said it was one of the best desserts she had ever had. When people think of me, I think they think of that dessert. It’s lingonberry linzer torte with taleggio cheese ice cream and port wine reduction. It was written up in Washingtonian Magazine, and it became synonymous with me. It’s nice to have people know you for a specific thing that you make.
What is it like to work at L’Academie de Cuisine?
Working at L’Academie de Cuisine is very gratifying. I really enjoy the role I have here. Teaching is something I would be interested in doing at the school, but my current job is the director of career services and alumni affairs. This allows me to play an influential role with both pastry students and culinary students. I help them think about what they want to move on to or who the want to be. What their strengths are and what they want to think about pursuing. Everyone here is very supportive, it’s a great teaching staff, the students that come are passionate and have determined that they want to pursue this as a career.
What is the typical age of students at L’Academie de Cuisine?
You have to be 18 to start the professional program. I think mid twenties is the average age, but I think the oldest student was 63.
What words of advice do you have for a young person to get involved in baking?
There are many words of advice that I would give to a young person trying to get involved in baking. But I’ll try to keep this brief. Work hard, know what you’re getting into, always try to improve, learn to multitask, learn how to let things go, always try to further your education, taste everything, I could keep going but I think that’s a good starting point.
Thank you for letting me interview you!
You’re very welcome.
Here are some pictures,