Stephanie Prida was once an aspiring artist. Today, she feeds her creative drive by developing classic desserts with locally sourced ingredients as pastry chef of Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif.
Prida cut her teeth at RM Seafood and Tableau in Las Vegas, as well as George’s at the Cove Restaurant in La Jolla, Calif. Following a stint in the kitchen of Nogarazza in Vicenza, Italy, she made her way to Chicago, where she served as pastry sous chef at Blackbird and then took a position as pastry chef at the Elysian Hotel, where she oversaw the pastry and bread program for RIA, the hotel’s two-Michelin star restaurant, and Balsan Restaurant.
However, when the opportunity to return to her home state arose, Prida jumped at the chance to join the team at Manresa.
“I love the fact that the restaurant truly lives off the land of California,” she said. “The style, food and environment are so unique — you can’t help but be inspired here.”
Prida — named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Pastry Chefs of 2013 — recently spoke to Nation’s Restaurant News about California ingredients and her approach to creating fresh, balanced desserts.
Describe your approach to the desserts that you make.
I am lucky I live in California. All of the most amazing produce is grown right at my fingertips, so I usually start with a piece of produce that is currently in season. From that I build onto the dish, trying to combine flavors that will be familiar with each other but somehow unfamiliar at the same time. I try to think about textures — smooth, creamy, crunchy and crispy. I try to make the dish balanced — acid, sweet, and salty. From there, it’s all a matter of trial and error.
What can people expect from the current dessert menu at Manresa?
Right now it is late summer, so I just put figs on the menu. In California we still have strawberries until September, so I have a strawberry dish on the menu that is served with malt, white chocolate and yuba. I also have the last of the peaches, which we pickle and then blacken right before we serve them. They get served with a noyau parfait, gingerbread and shiso. Plums are also beautiful right now. We are serving a variety of plums with butterscotch and buckwheat.
Ingredients and sourcing are extremely important at Manresa. How does this impact your menu and the way you conceive of and execute dishes?
It’s huge. We live in this beautiful state where everything grows plentiful. We try to live off the land of California in every aspect of what we do here. Whether it is sourcing great stone fruit or sourcing new chargers for the tables, we try to stay within the state.
Are there any ingredients you find particularly interesting or challenging to work with?
Anything coming from the Love Apple Farms is always so interesting and so intense in flavor. I love all the herbs they grow there — anise hyssop, lovage, basils, chamomile, shiso and mints. Every time I set foot on the farm I am inspired in a different way. Just walking from bed to bed you see the season’s expression at your feet.
Every year Manresa does a tomato dinner, and every dish has some sort of tomato element, so right now I am currently working on a dessert that will highlight tomatoes. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a challenge, but more expanding your repertoire.
With summer ending and fall approaching, how will your menu change? What kinds of fall flavors will you be incorporating?
Well I know chestnuts, apples and pears are just around the corner. [I’m] not necessarily planning yet, but always keeping those products in the back of my head.
What influences you in terms of the dishes you create?
There are so many things that influence dishes. That is what makes some dishes so special. Talking about flavors and ideas with my peers is really important to me. They are the people I work side by side with every day, and they are the people that understand me the most.
As a pastry chef, what do you see as your role when it comes to the customer’s dining experience?
I think we have the same role as the executive chef. At the end of the day both of us are in this for the same reason. Both of us have this huge love for food, and both of us want to create a unique dining experience.
How did being named one of this year's Best New Pastry Chefs by Food & Wine impact your career?
It was a huge honor to be a part of that very talented group of people. To earn the respect from the magazine feels amazing, and any recognition from my peers or people in the industry is very rewarding.
In your opinion, what is your perfect dessert?
It changes. Right now I am obsessed with ice cream. But sometimes just a beautiful glass of Armagnac is all I need.
Contact Charlie Duerr at [email protected].