dana cree photograph by christian seel

Dana Cree, A Modernist Classic.

There is no one type of pastry chef. For this I am grateful. Not only does it give diners zillions of delicious opportunities to be surprised, educated, and challenged; but our differences provide us limitless platforms for divergence, growth, inspiration, comparison, and conversation.

The truth is that pastry chefs are the industry’s chameleons. We are the Zelig in every photo line-up. Our “type” is the chef’s type. You’ve seen or tasted us before, or have you? You can’t be sure.

A pastry chef has to be malleable, creating plates that end sentences begun by the savory chef. Finding one’s unique voice — honing one’s vision, following one’s heart, staying true to one’s beliefs; learning the ingredients and technique to support one’s preferences — can take years.

Some pastry chefs set themselves on an obvious path, working for chefs with similar backgrounds, while other pastry chefs bounce like a pinball, knowing that acquiring skills from a varied pool of leaders will one day inform an approach they can firmly call their own.

Dana Cree is from the latter school. A pinball wizard, Dana is a tireless explorer who perpetually re-invents. She refuses to stand still or limit herself to a single way of thinking.

Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Dana started on the savory side as a line cook after attending culinary school in 2000. Five years later, she crossed the pond to do a long stagiaire at Heston Blumenthal’s groundbreaking restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, England.

Realizing Seattle could not hold her, or teach the new modern techniques she longed to see and taste and learn, Dana set out on an enviable journey, apprenticing in a series of kitchens and working with chefs whose names would later become synonymous with Modernist cuisine and its original discoveries.

Dana and I “met” in 2005 when her Seattle based blog Phat Duck in The Pastry Department caught my eye. While neither of us was a blogging pioneer, at that time, the chances of finding another professional cook behind the screen of a food blog seemed less than few and impossibly far between. It was such a relief to discover another nascent pastry chef, sharing her thoughts virtually.

We attempted to meet “in real life” a number of times. Coincidentally, we bumped into each other randomly on the street twice, when her airplanes touched down in New York City. But I was always hurriedly on my way to or from work. The advent of Twitter made it easier to follow each other’s careers, behold each other’s plates, interact with a wide range of pastry and savory chefs, and engage in conversations about such heated topics as why pastry chefs — who are mostly women, by no coincidence — receive far less money, benefits and support than our (mostly male) savory counterparts.

Dana and I shared confidences on, and off, public forums within our industry. We were both attracted to, and influenced by the same chefs and their protégés, but diverged where “molecular gastronomy/modern cuisine” was concerned.

It’s easy to take an “us vs. them” in any profession whose pioneers constantly shape and re-form the canon. Not content with easy, I’ve sought out discussions with chefs interested in and practicing Modernist techniques.

Photo: frozen parsnip custard, ginger milk meringue, finger lime, and peanut

Dana and I had an in-depth, candid conversation {in person!} recently about how she has successfully bound all her training — traditional, modern and the “new Nordic,” to achieve, what she says, is finally her own unique style.

I asked Dana about how her approach has changed over the course of her career.

“The two weeks I spent in Alex Stupak's pastry kitchen [2007] at WD 50 turned my creative process on it's head. He didn't rely on existing textures, he invented them. The biggest revelation I had, was to start with the flavor profile, and build interesting and complementary textures with flavors after defining them. This was in exact opposition to the way I had been running my menus, and opened me up for the first time to the possibility of creating something uniquely my own. Textures were isolated, and built into a composition on the plate. And all the textural invention of molecular gastronomy simply gave me more options when I began to build textures on top of a flavor profile.”

In 2010 Dana left her hometown and set off to explore the next wave of Modern cuisine — Nordic. Not one to do take the circuitous route, she delved right in, landing a stagiaire at Noma, Rene Redzepi’s avant-guard restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. Then, from there, she took a job at Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago. Magnetically pulled back to Denmark, where a radical vanguard was taking foraging and dining to a new extreme, Dana became the pastry chef at Kadeau, a restaurant on the island of Bornholm, immersing herself in its natural environs.

After Kadeau closed for the season, Dana went back to the states to secure a French visa for a job someone told her about in Paris. Instead of going to Europe again, she landed a job with Sherry Yard at Spago in Los Angeles.

“I had the opportunity to work with Sherry Yard. I went into Spago with my head so high in the clouds, and so detached from classic pastry, on my first day I had the nerve to think the desserts were going backwards for me. But then I tasted them. And I was reminded that Sherry had created this style, she was the source, not one of the thousands of replicas that had come after her. Making brioche and puff pastry were more inspiring to me than anything I'd seen in years. Working with her brought back the classic flavors I pushed aside while learning more progressive styles of cuisine like molecular gastronomy and the new Nordic style.

“When I met Sherry, I saw a leader I wanted to be. I also knew that I would be lost in abstraction if I continued to choose jobs in small restaurants with pastry departments of 1. If I wanted a real future in this industry, I needed to learn how to lead a team, and organize a full pastry department. No one does it like Sherry does, and I saw something I wanted when I looked at her.

“In essence, Sherry’s kitchen closed the creative loop for me. I had followed the lead of modern pastry chefs, running into the great unknown — redefining limits, wandering out of the kitchen with new Nordic chefs, trading chocolate for dew kissed sorrel plucked from the forest behind the restaurant. When I landed at Spago, it was like coming home. I was reminded of what I was deviating from and pushing away.”

Now the Executive Pastry Chef of Paul Kahan’s Blackbird and its adjacent Mediterranean wine bar Avec, in Chicago, Dana has a unique opportunity to convey her point of view in two distinct contexts.

Photo: burnt honey, dark chocolate, tangerine, cumin, sesame

At Blackbird, Dana’s flavor-texture principles are realized as elegant, complex multi-component plates, and at the simpler Avec, the same set of ideas are expressed more succinctly. She offered the following case study as evidence:

“A great example of this concept on my menu is this flavor profile: ‘burnt honey, dark chocolate, tangerine, cumin, sesame.’ At Blackbird, a broken piece of dark chocolate torte sits with sesame pastry cream, shattered cumin puff pastry, and burnt honey ice cream coated, to order, in sesame magic-shell. The entire composition sits on top of a “salad" of confit tangerines, fresh tangerine segments, and a tangerine tart fluid gel. The dessert is unique, genuine, and follows [savory chef] David Posey’s aesthetic.

“The same flavor profile, at Avec, is a dome of burnt honey semifreddo, set over a tangerine-sesame cookie, covered in sesame chocolate, and served with a sauce of tangerine caramel, toasted cumin and sesame. It utilizes a textural construct that is not uniquely my own, but is traditional and familiar, therefore a perfect fit for Avec, succeeding simpler, comforting food our diners want while enjoying an ample wine list.”

Photo: goat cheese cheesecake, cajeta ice cream, charred grapefruit, avocado

The conversation Dana and I started over chicken soup in my kitchen was one I hope to explore in the course of these columns. Pastry chefs working today have far more style options than ever before. But without the technical knowledge, or access to colleagues with different points of view; teaching, tasting, conversing, and, subsequently, growing, connecting, and evolving happen in a vacuum.

As is evidenced by her desserts, Dana Cree is unafraid of invention (and reinvention). She is both a fearless maverick and humble classicist. As she says, “I believe that each style defines each other. Hot is only hot because it isn't cold, and modern is only modern because it isn't traditional. Without looking towards modern pastry, classic desserts run the risk of becoming repetitive and irrelevant. Likewise, if modern pastry doesn't look at the classics, it has no tether, and is lost in abstraction.”