Sweet Talent in Georgia’s capital
By Hope S. Philbrick
Masters of art and science, pastry chefs merge good taste with visual appeal. From layer cakes to petit fours their creations have a bewitching lure. Whether elegant or rustic, creative or classic, the best breads and desserts can satiate cravings, recall the past and create new memories, whether enjoyed as the grand finale to any meal or savored as a snack. We shine the spotlight on the talent behind Atlanta’s sweetest indulgences. Taste tests prove that whatever these folks present, from Southern innovations to twists on French classics, the taste is fantastic. Treat yourself to any of their creations and you’ll agree.
Fresh ingredients are Kathryn King’s passion. Thus at Aria, many of her elegant desserts incorporate peak seasonal produce like plump strawberries, succulent peaches and crisp apples, sourced locally whenever possible. “I’m a big fan of fruit,” she says. “You get great, intense flavor at their peak.” To showcase just-picked flavors, King’s approach is to “keep things simple and let the ingredients come through,” she says. But don’t be fooled: Her presentations may not incorporate what she refers to as “a lot of fancy pastry tricks like crazy sugar spirals,” but this University of Georgia grad studied fine art and ceramics so plates with artistic flair. Though she enjoys what she calls the “methodical” precision of pastry work, she most adores “seeing people’s reactions” to her creations like warm almond cheesecake with fresh cherry compote, strawberry angel cakes with pink pepper ice cream and chocolate hazelnut praline cakes.
At Briza, Atlanta native Kelly Lovett’s food-science experiments—she’s currently enamored with tapioca maltodextrin and transforming foodstuffs into powders; think olive oil dust and Nutella soil—yield out-of-the-box desserts like flexible ganache with bacon powder, brown butter streusel and grey sea salt ice cream. “I love being creative and pushing the envelope,” she says. “My approach is more whimsical, taking things from my childhood and revamping them in an adult way. I want surprise. It gets people’s minds going.” The Le Cordon Bleu graduate keeps the flavors familiar and finds that inspiration can be sparked even by popular cereals. Her fun approach and general love of food, especially chocolate, has led to delicious innovations like popcorn ice cream, chocolate-covered pop rocks, deconstructed s’mores and “boozy pops” (alcoholic push pops).
Balance is the hallmark of Pamela Moxley’s creations at Miller Union. “I’m not looking to do super constructed desserts,” she says. “I’m looking for something that people will remember in terms of how I combined certain flavors together, not necessarily because it’s the most beautiful thing.” Her unexpected combinations boast Southern influences and a nostalgic bent. Confections like rhubarb-almond tart with five spice ice cream, meyer lemon cake with tangerine and rosemary ice cream, and chocolate-coconut macaroon torte with spiced rum ice cream deliver sophisticated harmony of flavors, textures and temperatures. Seasonality is also a key consideration for this New England native, who most enjoys working with fruits. Moxley trained at Seattle Central College and was among this year’s nominees for Food & Wine’s “The People’s Best New Pastry Chef” award.
Geri Ravelo grew up in Manila, Philippines near a local bakery that scented the morning air with the aroma of baking bread. At Murphy’s she often begins her days baking flaky biscuits. Whether creating breads or desserts, her priorities are quality, flavor and visual appeal. “Garnishes are important to me,” she says, though she favors simplicity over elaborate “hanging off the chandelier” styles. A graduate of The Art Institute of Atlanta, Ravelo says she loves “the discerning aspect of pasty cooking” and “synchronizing all the details.” Her creations are a meticulous balanced blend of textures. “I like someone to have a complete experience when eating one of my desserts,” she says. Even traditional recipes like carrot and walnut cake benefit with her personal touches like brightly hued sauce, pineapple chutney and cream cheese ice cream. She most enjoys working with sugar, but with skillful restraint steers clear of going overly sweet.
At Pricci, Georgia native Jennifer Etchison-Gillafuerte creates polished desserts that combine seasonal American flavors with Italian ingredients and recipes. “Staying with the season is important,” she says, and the Italian restaurant’s rotating regional menu provides a platform for creativity beyond core menu items like cannolis and tiramisu. “I love salt in my desserts,” admits the Johnson & Wales grad and former Star Chef nominee, “and incorporating lots of nuts, different varietals of chocolate, cheeses and textures.”
Georgia native Aaron Russell of Restaurant Eugene enjoys what he calls the “precision and precise techniques” of the pastry kitchen. A relentless tinkerer, his recipes undergo “never-ending refinement,” he says. “It’s not uncommon for me to change a recipe dozens of times while the same dessert is on the menu.” Working almost exclusively with products from local farms, he merges science and art into innovative and daring dishes like corn ice cream with chocolate-espresso streusel and tomato jam; coca-cola and bourbon shaved ice with carbonated cherries, milk bubbles and almond; and roasted strawberry marmalade with frangipane, coriander blossom sorbet and cocoa crumble. He strives for a dessert menu with “at least one thing for everyone, whether adventurous eaters or not.” His efforts have not gone unnoticed: Four times Russell has been nominated to The James Beard Foundation’s list of semifinalists for “Outstanding Pastry Chef.”
“Pastry is so precise,” says Dallas Marsteller of The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. “You have to think about what you are doing. It’s science yet you can be expressive as an artist.” Her creations marry simple elegance with complex flavors that aren’t overly sweet. With an eye on balanced flavors, all components of her dishes are tasty on their own yet when combined create a mathematics-defying experience greater than the sum of the parts. The Georgia native, who attended culinary school at The Art Institute of Atlanta, says her goal is to “make desserts that are different” and most enjoys working with Valrhona chocolate. “People think chocolate is overly rich and dense but you can manipulate it in ways that it’s not,” she says. For proof try her Café at Café, which serves chocolate cake with mascarpone cream and coffee ice cream in a playful cup and saucer presentation.
Kamal Grant elevates doughnuts to ethereal highs at Sublime Doughnuts with mouth-watering flavors like red velvet, cookies and cream, dulce de leche and many more. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and the American Institute of Baking, Grant’s doughnuts are fried but so flaky, tender and greaseless you’ll swear they were baked. With a new second location in Bangkok, his Atlanta menu boasts fun Thai influences like coconut cream mango, banana chocolate brûlée and toasted doughnuts. He now also makes ice cream, which can be served between two doughnuts for a “sublime burger” (ice cream sandwich).
-Photo Credits: Moxley, 4amoeba; Grant, Olin Dawson; all courtesy employer restaurant.