Pastry chef Dana Cree has developed a broad base of experience in her 13-year career.
In 2000, she began culinary, baking and pastry programs at The Art Institute of Seattle, her hometown. Since then, she has worked at numerous high-end restaurants in the United States, including notable stints at WD-50 in New York and Spago in Los Angeles. In addition, Cree honed her skills at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, and learned Nordic techniques at two restaurants in Denmark.
She is now pastry chef at the wildly popular Blackbird in Chicago, complementing chef de cuisine David Posey’s eclectic menu and drawing from her wide range of influences to create desserts such as a steamed banana cake and the restaurant’s current bestseller, goat cheese cheesecake.
Cree recently spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about her career, approach to pastry and current dessert trends.
What was your path to Blackbird?
My background is broad and seemingly random, which is exactly what I set out to do 13 years ago. I wanted my career to look like a pyramid, rather than a ladder, with a very broad, strong foundation to build on. I started savory, switched to pastry three years later, because while it was always about pastry, it was more about restaurants, and that was the only way I saw into the world I wanted to be in.
I chose the restaurants I have worked in carefully, jumping at the chance to do something completely different whenever possible. I’ve spent time studying minimalism at Lampreia; farm to table cuisine at Eva and Poppy; molecular gastronomy and emotional cuisine at The Fat Duck, Alinea and WD-50; new Nordic at Noma and Kadeau in Denmark; and most recently the classics at Spago.
Blackbird was the perfect job to encompass the seemingly disparate nature of my career choices, giving me the opportunity to draw from every style of cuisine I have experienced for the highly creative menu led by David Posey.
What is your style or approach when it comes to creating new ideas?
My approach to pastry begins with a staunch belief that my job is not to create sweet desserts; it’s to culminate an experience. Be it in the stark white fine-dining room at Blackbird or next door in the wood paneled Avec, it’s my job to understand the emotional and physical state of the diner after two hours spent in that room and come up with the appropriate culmination. In this time and place, that is most commonly done with sweet dishes. But if the perfect end to a meal was a simple sip of tangerine juice, I would put my efforts into making that sip perfect.
When we create desserts at Blackbird, we start by identifying the flavor profile we want to work with, and then begin building textural construct around the flavors we have chosen. This is where my broad background really pays off. I look at textures like Legos. The more techniques you understand, the bigger and more interesting your set of Legos, the better you can build a dish. When I want to use the flavor of orange, I have a lot of choices, and I can express myself much more creatively.
Who or what influences you?
I find influences from every aspect of life, visual art, architecture, photography and film — the short films created by Christian Seel, for example. Over the years I’ve drawn a lot from some of the greats like Sherry Yard, Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Alex Stupak, René Redzepi, and Jerry Traunfeld. But most recently, I’ve had the good fortune of working with David Posey, who is a constant source of inspiration to me.
What are you doing at Blackbird right now that you are most excited about?
Honestly, the thing I am most excited about right now is the new morning staff meal we have started making, and the breakfast pastries I make for it each day. I am so excited by the muffins, cereals, breads, and scones we bake each day. I dove head first into Danish dough, which will likely find a home on an upcoming dish with rhubarb.
Modern techniques gain ground
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Do you have favorite ingredients to work with?
We have started working with Hua Moa bananas, a large bright-orange-fleshed banana from Florida. It has a wonderfully bright, floral flavor and is so perfect in and of itself; it needs no additional acid or sugar.
What dessert is most popular with your customers?
While the chocolate dessert in any form is usually the most popular, the current best-seller is a cheesecake made from goat cheese. It’s cheesecake in its most abstract form and is paired with avocado, grapefruit and butterscotch, which I thought would be a tough sell together. But the dish sells so well; I was reminded to never underestimate the power of cheesecake.
How do you incorporate berries into your menu?
Years ago, when I was working with Chris Young, he helped me come up with a formula to make my own bubble gum flavor. When I first started at Blackbird, strawberries had just come into season, and I made a dish featuring fresh strawberries, and an ice cream flavored like bubble gum. While I was at Alinea, Dave Beran had created a dish with bubble gum, and his thought process in creating the dish started with conceptualizing bubblegum as a red berry. Since then, I like to think of it that way, and the secret recipe I have for bubblegum was a huge success inserted into a strawberry ice cream.
What are some current trends that you are seeing happening right now?
Modern technique from molecular gastronomy and the natural approach from New Nordic are huge influences in pastry. Both of them eschew the classic techniques and have escalated pastry into a prominent part of the menu, rather than an afterthought.
These two disciplines inform my cuisine heavily, but most apparent on my menu currently is a recent brake from classic form while drawing from classic technique.
What can customer expect from the dessert menu at Blackbird?
The dessert menu at blackbird contains five desserts and two composed cheese courses. Each will contain dishes that feel familiar and surprising at the same time, introducing the diner to new flavors and texture, while remaining grounded and nostalgic.
What are your future plans for the dessert menu there?
The plan for the dessert menu at Blackbird is to utilize the definition given to the menu by my recent tenure to explore the flavors of the changing seasons. Basically, keep doing what we’ve just started doing.
Contact Charlie Duerr at [email protected] .