The ‘Superstar’ Pastry Princess
By Tara Renee Settembre
When you are the pastry chef at a five star restaurant in Maine, which is frequented by elite guests such as the Bushes, the pressure is on. There is even more to prove when you are the only female cook in that kitchen too. But when the Boston Globe reviewed the establishment last summer and found the cuisine just average, except for the pastries and desserts that is which were rated as excellent, well then victory is sweet, literally.
While the other chefs read the review out loud to a chorus of groans, the six foot, 26-year-old, Jeanie, who trained at the Baltimore International Culinary, finally felt vindicated after years of harassment and abuse in the male dominated kitchens.
“I felt sort of like the evil step child when the review came in. It separated me from my team a.k.a. the guys in the kitchen. I was back to being the pastry princess and not one of them anymore. So in that aspect it sucked. However, behind closed doors I was doing some serious praising of myself for coming so far and not getting slammed. It was a sense of real accomplishment,” admits Jeanie.
On her initial interview, the chef told her she had three strikes against her. “He said, ‘You are a woman, an American, and on top of that a New Yorker,’ not something they liked, but then he opened the door and introduced me to the rest of the staff,” says Jeanie with a laugh of recollection about her 12 hour interview, where she joined the cooking team for a day and had to come up with new recipes on the spot based on different regions of the globe.
Her worst experience she says was when she working in Mt. Kisco and, “being treated like shit on a daily basis from a French Chef who said I should be at home making babies than in the kitchen, everyday, for two years.”
With a bright but sneaky smile she adds, “I did learn from him though... I learned how good my temper is and that no matter how hard I was pushed, I can push ten times harder back and still get it done.”
Her ability to push back was put to the test not only in her career but during her fight against cancer, which she successfully beat. And her getting it done attitude has made Jeanie's desserts popular with reviewers, foreign diplomats and the many celebrities that she has made creations for, including Mike Meyers, Clint Eastwood, Meg Ryan and Vanessa Williams and her whole family on Mothers day a couple of years ago. But despite cooking for two Presidents the one she most enjoyed cooking for was Ming, the chef from TV’s East Meets West, since he is a fellow chef and one that everyone adores, she says.
The specialty that gets her rave reviews is her Crème Brulee in any flavor and shape. For her interview at White Barn she made a vanilla bean brulee shaped as a pear with poached pears accompanying it and a light port sauce around the plate. She also did a chocolate Marquis with tempered white and dark chocolate swirls with caramel and vanilla ice cream in a coffee caramel sauce.
Jeanie’s favorite thing about being a pastry chef is being able to come up with new ideas, she says and “getting creative everyday.” Ice Cream flavors especially and creating new flavors like Jack and Coke Ice Cream.
Among her friends Jeanie is known not just for her yummy deserts but for her “superstar” Saturday Night Live sketch imitations, her telling-it-like-it-is sense of humor and big heart. One particular funny story that shows all three assets of her personality, is when she tried to cheer up Letty the bartender at the restaurant she worked at in Mt. Kisco, New York, three years ago. Jeanie did an impromptu lip syncing session when the kitchen staff turned on the radio while setting up for dinner.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart came on the radio so I came bursting out of the kitchen doors singing at the top of my lungs. I was belting out, ‘I really need you tonight!’ when I noticed her look of horror instead of amusement, so my voice slowly dies down and I see someone sitting at the front table. It was actor Chazz Palmateri and this woman. I was going to die, but like a true superstar, finished my song and got called over to his table. I sat with him and he told me that I had charm and charisma.”
Although custards and ice creams are the easiest for her to create, she cannot decide what the hardest dessert for her to make is.
“That’s hard to call,” she says pondering the idea. “Soufflés are the most pressure because they need to rise tall and straight, but they are super easy to make. It’s just the baking method that can screw you. I would have to say anything with tempered chocolate or pulled, shaped sugar, because it needs to be the perfect temperature, the perfect climate- no humidity and if you mess up after some time consuming steps to get to a finished product, you need to start all over again.”
And when that happens it all relies upon Jeanie, since she does not have any other assistants. “It’s only me,” she says. “That is how Pastry is usually. So you learn to haul ass and move, work longer or get it done faster so you don’t need one.”
Working longer is always a requirement for pastry chefs at restaurants, since they have to get there early before the cooking staff arrives, in order to start on the desserts and then be out of the way until it is dinner time and be there for emergencies. Hours vary for pastry. There were days when Jeanie got there at five a.m. and went straight through to one a.m. Usually it’s a 12 hour schedule but in the summer since they are a seasonal place it could easily be 15 to 16 hours, all depending on how many people are there.
Her dessert menu has seven items on it at a time, but changes every week, which means if they have 150 people coming for dinner and aim to have at least 60 of each dessert, then it’s a lot of baking, mixing, preparing and decorating for one single pastry chef while the regular cooking staff consists of fifteen workers in comparison.
Right now the recent newly wed is working on her best creation yet, a son, with her Scottish husband and chef, Andy, whom she met while in Maine.
She is currently working three days a week at the restaurant where here husband is head chef at, but she says that one day she hopes to have her own place. “Every chef has a dream to do it on their own I think. We all think it’s easy until we try it. I hope to have my own at home business of cakes and tarts so I can stay at home with my children.”
For aspiring pastry chefs Jeanie advises, “Work hard. You do it because you have this little arrogant chip in your brain telling you that you are the best and you can do it.”