Saturday, August 7, 2010

in the kitchen :: with Karen DeMasco of Locanda Verde

A few months back I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen DeMasco, the James Beard award-winning pastry chef at Locanda Verde.  It's not a huge surprise that Karen happens to be one of my favorite pastry chefs (her lemon tart is to die for) and Locanda Verde is one of my favorite restaurants in NYC. The two make quite a pairing.  Read on for the interview and Karen's insights into the world of pastries, sweets, baked goods and more.  And if you're looking for a new cookbook, her book The Craft of Baking is one that should be a well-used staple in your kitchen.
ML: Had you always envisioned going into food?  What inspired you to become a pastry chef?

      KD: I didn’t always think about having a career in food.  But I guess I’ve always loved being in a restaurant-great energy and the people you work with become a family to you and it’s always exciting. I hadn’t done anything in the kitchen until I graduated from college so I definitely came to this later in life. When I was working in publishing, my roommate at the time, she worked for a theater, and her job was hiring the catering company to do the party after.  She hired us and we managed to put it together and come up with a system. It was about 200 people. Looking back on it, it was really scary. It was really fun and that kind of inspired me to go to cooking school.
           ML: Tell us a little about your journey into baking and the restaurants you’ve worked for.                          How’d you decide to make the jump from publishing to baking?
     KD:   I went to cooking school so it didn’t have a specific pastry program and I didn’t know I was going to focus on pastry at that point. My first internship from school was at a cute little restaurant not too far from Locanda Verde and it had a really small kitchen.  I ended up working with pastry chef there making some doughs and I really enjoyed it and started paying more attention to that and one thing lead to the next and I ended up at my first job in pastry.

      ML: How did you come to work with Tom Colicchio at Craft and how did your time there help shape your career/outlook on dessert/baking, the James Beard Award etc? 
      KD: It was one of my first jobs. I worked at Chanterelle which was a wonderful experience for about 2 years and the pastry chef there was leaving and it was sort of time for me to move on.  Gramercy Tavern was huge and I loved the restaurant and its where I loved to go and eat. I got a job there and that’s how I first met Tom. Claudia Fleming was the pastry chef there and she was amazing and the whole approach to food is so great.  It was the first time where I first saw that pastry didn’t have to be disassociated with food. They work together and you can have the same style of desserts as you do food and Claudia used to be sautéing food to order and using the same techniques as they were using in the kitchen just different products-getting everything from green market there-all sort of coming from a French kitchen at Chanterelle it was super organized, super structured, you couldn’t change anything and here we threw things around and changed up ingredients, changed up desserts at a moments notice. It was really exciting, really fun and it totally shaped my style of desserts, how I think about food, how I approach food: Very much ingredient focused. Like saying these are amazing apples lets figure out a great way to use them. As for the James Beard Award, you find out a little bit in advanced and I had a little anxiety about it. Once you win, you forever in the future you get to vote. I get to vote. You are presented/come up with 20 people and then you vote for people and then you get to vote on the short list. I think it creates a lot of expectations. It's given me some confidence in what I’m doing and that makes you a better cook.
      ML: Moving into the realm of health – how can we balance indulgent desserts and baked goods and still maintain healthful habits?   What’s the importance of fresh ingredients?
      KD: You can’t have a donut every day, and that’s where people start having problems. It’s a treat, something special. A few bites of something can just be very good. Growing up, a nice dessert was not something we had every night-it was a treat. I’d rather get great quality stuff and make it freaking good. When it comes to fresh ingredients, first off, it tastes better which is the biggest bonus and there’s a lot of things that you can do that make things taste better-I try to use less refined sugar and more natural sugar which can become almost an ingredient, it can add a flavor to something and it also isn’t straight sweet. There’s this organic dark brown sugar that I love. It’s less defined than the domino brown sugar. I think if you’re using ingredients like that, I think you’re more satisfied with a smaller piece. Like a piece of really intense delicious ginger bread will satisfy you more than something from Starbucks. If you are using a really good chocolate, it has a lot of healthful qualities to it.
 the pastry and coffee cafe` area at Locanda Verde

      ML: How do you translate healthy eating to your daughters and your family?  What’s their favorite dessert or cookie/baked good that you make? 

      KD: It’s hard. There are the ages where they are both so picky. Well, my older daughter is starting to open up more to food, which is great. And I try not to really force them into eating anything. Like eat your vegetables, take a bite if you really don’t like it. It’s working over time. Mary is now eating a lot more vegetables. She’s 5 and Maddie, she’s 3, she does whatever her sister does so she'll be like "ohh carrots are good". It’s funny. I try to eat healthy things around them. Neither one of them will eat salad now.  I make a big salad for dinner, but it's really hard. That has been challenging. Working, I get home late. We have two nights every week where we sit together as a family. They eat early so it’s hard to be home when there having dinner.

      ML: Do you think there’s a shift starting to occur in how we think about healthier ways of cooking/baking, focusing on quality food and fresh ingredients/ in America?  What’s the importance and potential impact?

      KD: I feel like what we were doing was really innovative at the time (9 years ago) and now it seems so widely accepted. With simple food, more seasonal. I think that’s been a huge general trend in restaurants and it goes down to home cooking too. I think it’s pretty common to be shopping in a green market now. I feel like every big new chef now has a big new book coming out about this.  It’s pretty interesting and I think it’s a very accepted idea.
Karen's lemon fennel muffin at Locanda Verde

     ML: Thinking back, what’s your biggest mishap in the kitchen and your biggest triumph? 

     KD: MISHAP: The case with any good chef is “trial and error”. TRIUMPH: My sous chef and I were trying to think of something new-it gets hard around the end of winter/beginning of spring to find what ingredients to use-there’s not a whole lot of options. This was a couple months ago and we made a sorbet to go with this maple custard. We were like "what about butternut sorbet?" We ended up coming up with an apple butternut sorbet where we juiced the apple. It was melony-so delicious and we were both so proud of it. We would ask everyone, “Did you try the sorbet?” That’s the thing that makes me so excited about working in a kitchen. 

          ML: What was both the best part and the most challenging aspect about publishing a book? I love         that your book takes on that Craft philosophy of not being afraid of trying something different, changing up a recipe….why did you decide to focus on this within your book?
          KD: I think that my biggest goal in writing the book was to make people feel more comfortable with baking at home. I really didn’t want it to be a coffee table book or a book you put on your shelf and you never touch. I wanted it to be something that gets dirty and you use it all the time. And I wanted to make baking less intimidating so I think taking a recipe and giving it flexibility becomes more approachable. 

            ML: If there’s one simple piece of advice you’d impart to home-cooks/bakers, what would it be?

           KD: My biggest piece of advice would be to enjoy the process of baking-take your time, read the                          recipe, make sure you have everything you need and its an enjoyable process. It’s so hands on and it’s so     satisfying. Everyday I come to work and it’s always something new. I can make the same things over and over again everyday and its just finding new nuances in it.               
Karen's raspberry granola bars featured in Food & Wine  
      ML: The baked goods you’re showcasing here at Locanda Verde has received serious praise, what’s been your goal or thought process in creating the menu selection? Where would you like to see your baking going in the future?  Next steps, plans etc?  what’s in store?  Another book, business venture?                                                                                                                                      KD: We try to change things quite a bit. There are certain staples we always have on the menu. For this restaurant, I sort of brought my style of desserts and am trying to give an Italian beat to it, mostly with ingredients. Andrew, the chef was really hopeful in that process. He’s very knowledgeable about Italy and the flavors, ingredients they use. Desserts in general. He helped focused me on a certain direction. So that was really cool.                                                                                           I’m very happy right now and maybe in the future a certain bakery concept or expanding the café.

      ML: Final question, what's your all-time favorite dessert?! 
      KD: Apple tarte tatine. Something about the pastry and the caramel and the way the apple is    totally cut thru. That with vanilla ice cream is just heaven. And that would probably be my all time favorite if I HAD to choose.

 *photos courtesy of:,,,

No comments: