Stella Parks, the head — and only — pastry chef at the tiny but much-adored Table 310 in Lexington, Ky., is essentially free to do as she pleases.
Whether that means working with gluten-free flours or baking spontaneous birthday cakes for customers, the Culinary Institute of America graduate aims to keep things fresh and unpredictable.
Since Food & Wine magazine named her one of the country’s top pastry chefs in 2012 — the first Kentucky chef to be recognized for the honor — Parks can barely keep up with the growing demand for her quirky spins on American classics. She recently spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about her inspiration, indulgent desserts and eschewing culinary trends.
What desserts at Table 310 are you most excited about now?
I'm in a bit of a doughnut craze at the moment. We’re a very small restaurant with extremely limited space and staff, so I haven’t been able to offer doughnuts in the past, since we could not fry them to order. But I’ve come up with a recipe and technique that keeps them light and fresh and crisp on the outside. It was such a huge surprise to figure out a way to keep them so wonderful without being fried to order. I had chocolate doughnuts with lavender ice cream and caramelized marshmallow fluff on my menu last week.
How often do you change the menu?
I’ve been known to change it three or four times in a week. It’s a chalkboard menu and I constitute the entire pastry department, so it’s very easy for me to turn on a dime. It’s very invigorating to be able to pursue my whims without having a required menu holding me in place.
I love creating desserts meant to mimic an experience. A mint julep panna cotta with a bourbon pecan macaron has a certain Derby Day excitement. A blueberry violet tart feels like a spring day; smoked vanilla bean ice cream with marshmallow brulee and crumbled grahams feels like a summer camping trip. I hope each dessert can evoke a sensation that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.
What ingredients do you find challenging or rewarding to work with?
I love working with the whole spectrum of gluten-free flours. They are both incredibly rewarding, in terms of the flavors and textures they offer, and also a huge challenge, since they don’t behave as wheat flour would. It takes some time to get to know them, but the payoff is huge. Teff flour makes chocolate chip cookies taste chocolatey-er; mochiko makes snickerdoodles chewier than ever; kinako adds amazing nuttiness to brownies. They’ve all got something to offer, and if we as chefs write them off as something meant only for “dietary restrictions,” then we’re actually the ones baking with a restriction — wheat flour only.
You spent some time in Tokyo. How did that influence your approach to creating desserts?
Being in Tokyo really turned me on to these alternative flours. Here, they’re special “GF” [gluten-free] flours, but over there, they’re just part of the arsenal. Sobako, mochiko and kinako all have different purposes (soba noodles, mochi cake, dango) that wheat flour could never accomplish. It made me want to find out what desserts those flours could work with.
Parks' most popular desserts
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What are some of your most popular menu items? How are they priced?
All of the desserts are $8, except cupcakes, which are $6. They’re not “cupcake” cupcakes, but cakes baked in cappuccino cups. Last week I had a birthday cake, which was an old-fashioned yellow cake, fudge frosting, housemade rainbow sprinkles and a candle. Spontaneously, everyone in the kitchen started singing happy birthday when the first order went out and then suddenly everyone ordered it. We were singing happy birthday all night. It was ridiculously fun and silly.
What are some of your most indulgent desserts?
That’s a little hard to answer. I like to aim for all of my desserts to feel indulgent. I don’t do healthy; that’s what salads are for. I sometimes do a peanut butter pot de crème with a red wine reduction, which feels very luxurious all around.
Food & Wine magazine named you one of the country’s top pastry chefs. How has that affected your career?
For me it was huge. I’ve become friends with a few of the other chefs who were named alongside me, and for them it was just another feather in their cap. They’re all in big cities, really working it. Doing James Beard dinners, being nominated for rising star chefs. But a Kentucky chef had never been nominated by Food & Wine before that, so when it happened the local media covered it really hard. For months after, I struggled to make enough desserts to not sell out every night.
What are some current dessert trends you’ve noticed? Do you incorporate them into your process?
I can honestly say that I have no idea. I’m working on a book right now about iconic American desserts, so I’ve got my nosed buried in 19th-century cookbooks. I do not have my pulse on anything au courant right now. I’m all about these old classics right now.
What can we expect from Table 310’s dessert menu in the future?
Things are definitely taking a turn for the American with me right now. In the past, I’ve done lots of French- and Italian-inspired desserts, but right now it’s doughnuts and individual cream pie and ice cream sandwiches. All Americana.
Contact Charlie Duerr at [email protected] .