Pacific Northwest | February 8, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineFebruary 8, 2004seattletimes.com home
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PLANT LIFE
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NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY GREG ATKINSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG

Playing with Pastry
The masters of magical desserts slip savories into the mix
 
 Photo
Fish Club pastry chef Valerie Mudry uses goat cheese to turn cheesecake into something special, especially when served on top of thyme-accented shortbread.
IN THE WORLD of professional kitchens, no quarter is more mysterious than the pastry zone. Not only is the place full of impossible formulas and baffling equipment, it is peopled with that most peculiar breed of cook, the pastry chef.

Back in the '80s, when I worked a few short weeks at a Michelin-starred restaurant in France, the other cooks trembled for me when I was sent to spend a day with the pastry chef. "Il est toujours fâché," whispered the seafood chef's helper. "He is always angry." "Je pense qu'il fume le hachish," said the guy from the meat station. "I think he smokes hashish."

It didn't matter to me. The confections from that corner of the kitchen intrigued me. and I couldn't wait to see what went on in there.
 
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As it turned out, the pastry chef was neither angry nor stoned; rather, he was intensely focused on his craft and had little time for the other members of the crew. The dessert menu to which I was intimately exposed was not a list of single dishes but a program of elaborate performances: one exploring three distinct presentations of quince, another offering tribute to out-of-season raspberries, strawberries and currants (all imported from Africa), still another showcasing five different chocolate delights on a single plate. The experience changed forever how I view dessert and, for that matter, how I view pastry chefs.

Thanks to them, we have that inscrutable branch of haute cuisine known as the patisserie. But every time we think we have them figured out, they pull some new trick and remind us that we'll never really have them pinned. Their latest trick seems to be sneaking savory ingredients like pepper and goat cheese into their desserts.

Seattle's own Valerie Mudry is a quintessential pastry chef. After earning a degree in graphic design, she began her career as a baker with Surrogate Hostess in 1981. Then came stints at Julia's in Wallingford, Madison's Catering and the late Café Sophie, where her perfect cakes, tarts and Bavarian creams filled a case as intriguing as any window at Tiffany's. She worked at the Hunt Club and the Swingside Cafe, then as pastry chef at Campagne and Café Campagne before following Tamara Murphy to Brasa. Now she's taken her talents to Todd English's Fish Club on Alaskan Way.

In summer, Mudry was sneaking a surprise blast of basil into the berry compote that accompanied her lemon custard cake. "Now," she says, "I'm doing a limoncello trés leches cake with a minted citrus compote and lemon crème fraîche mousse." She's also breaking out of the mold with an otherwise fairly classic cheesecake by replacing the cream cheese with goat cheese and the graham cracker crust with a little slipper of lemon thyme shortbread.

Wow; who needs chocolate?

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and culinary consultant. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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