For whatever reason, desserts are very much an afterthought in discussions about chef-driven cuisine. Savory chefs get plenty of attention for their innovative uses of meat and veg, but it is less often that we see praise for the enterprising pastry chefs who create the perfect endings to those meals. At Front Room Tavern, though, it's pretty hard to ignore what pastry chef Allison Morse is up to.
Morse, a New Jersey transplant who has been cooking in Dallas for five years, is certainly a rising star in the local pastry scene. The small-but-impressive dessert menu at Front Room Tavern is easily one of the most thoughtful in town, and equally delicious. We sat down to talk with Morse about her experience in the kitchen from Atlantic City to Dallas, what it's like to navigate the executive chef/pastry chef dynamic, and the one dessert you'll never see on her menus.
Fair or not, it seems like the pastry chefs in this city are much less well-known than their savory-focused counterparts. Can you talk about your background and how you ended up at Front Room Tavern?
I went to culinary school in New Jersey, and the hotels and restaurants in Atlantic City recruit those students pretty heavily. My first memorable pastry cook job was with Wolfgang Puck. That's actually where I met my husband, and that's how we made it here. He was transferred to Wolfgang Puck Five-Sixty, where I worked as a pastry cook, and that's kind of how I got my start here in Dallas.
But I will say that I think that the pastry chefs here get much more attention than they did when I was working in Atlantic City. It was hard to find a restaurant there that even wanted to hire a salaried pastry chef. Most of the time it was just a pastry cook who was doing all the work or an executive chef and his sous. When I came here, it really wasn't that hard to find an opportunity where they really wanted to showcase pastry on the menu. I think it's really improved here compared to what I'm used to.
That sounds a little discouraging. Was there ever a time when you reconsidered specializing in pastry and thought you might go to the dark (savory) side?
No, never. It's always been pastry. I started in the hot line. I think my very first restaurant job was a line cook at a steakhouse kind of like Outback Steakhouse. I went to school specifically for hot foods, but as I got into the pastry classes toward the end of school, I realized that was my niche, and it's been pastry ever since.
Why do you think that is?
I'm a perfectionist. I tell all my cooks that I'm anal, and I want things done the way I want them done. Everything has to be so specific, and you have to have the patience to scale, measure and weigh every ingredient out to the gram. When you're working on the line, you don't have to be nearly as precise.
It is interesting, though, that both you and your husband are in the restaurant industry. How does that relationship dynamic work, especially with you working opposite schedules?
I love it. We talk shop all the time, and we help each other constantly. He's the executive sous chef at Five-Sixty, and he has a lot of really good insight. I can't wait for the day until we work together in the same kitchen. I work mornings, he works nights, so we're ships passing in the night. If we ever had the opportunity to work in a kitchen again, I think it would be amazing. I know him, he knows me, and we have fun. I think anyone who isn't in the industry would have a hard time understanding why we put so much time into our jobs. We're never home, and that can be difficult.
How was it transitioning from a massive kitchen to a smaller workspace? Was that intimidating?
I was really excited about it. The pace is easier, and when you're not banging out 300 covers a night over and over again, you have more time to play and concentrate on making things right instead of pushing them out. This is way better than crazy casino life, absolutely.
Every chef has to be a cook before they're "allowed" to call themselves a chef. How does that work in the pastry world? How do you know you've sort of moved on up?
For me, I think I just kind of threw myself into both roles. When I was just a pastry cook, I was really trying to take advantage of the industry that we're in, which means that you can travel around and find a job anywhere. I went to work at Spago in Colorado, also a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, and once I left there, I found a job listing for a pastry chef back in Atlantic City, and I wasn't sure that I was ready for that, but I applied for it anyway. I did a tasting with the team and everything went really well, so I just jumped feet first into that. From there, I just had to keep improving and move on.
What about your working relationship with Michael Ehlert, the restaurant's executive chef? Do you work together often?
We see each other some, but we're each off two days a week and sometimes feel like ships passing in the night, too. When we are in the kitchen together at the same time, we're hashing out as much as we can in that short time.
Do you ever have to step into his shoes at all?
When the executive chef isn't in the kitchen, myself and the other sous chefs do take charge. We want to keep a close eye on everything that he would when he's not around, and make sure that everything is at the same high level that we all expect.
Is that kind of difficult as a pastry chef, finding a good working relationship with an executive chef?
I think I've been pretty lucky in that respect. I really like the relationship with the chefs here. We have the same goals and the same work ethic. We have respect for each other, and we work in the same ways. The rapport between the three of us is great. It's the best I've ever worked with for sure.
How would you describe your approach to pastry?
I'd say homestyle rustic. I know the dessert that I enjoy eating, most of which is pie. When the pie trend got into full swing, I was so excited. I even had a pie table at my wedding instead of the traditional cake. That's how much I like pie. Outside of that, I like to make dishes that I would make for my family. They're really simple. Most of my plates have about four components because I really want to focus on the main flavors of the dish.
Pastry seems to be much more trend-driven than savory food. If you look at the ubiquity of trendy sweets like macarons, cupcakes and pie, how do you keep that fresh and innovative?
It's hard to stay away from trends because customers want them, but I try not to do something just because it's a trend. I'm not a cupcake person, so I never went that route. I'm focusing on what I want to do, and what I'm good at.
Are there any specific desserts that you'll never find on an Allison Morse pastry menu? Something that's too dated or cheesy?
Creme brulée, without hesitation. Everybody loves creme brulée -- it's my husband's favorite dessert! -- but I just don't like it. It doesn't hurt that it's so old-school and you can find it on just about any other menu in town, but I don't like it, so I won't make it.
How do your own flavor preferences impact what you do in the kitchen?
I don't think there are any specific flavors I repeat or use over and over again. On a pastry menu, there are certain expectations. You've got to have a chocolate dish, a citrus dish, a warm dish, and a not-chocolate option, but you can be creative within that.
What are your favorite flavors to work with?
I love gianduja. It's milk chocolate with hazelnut, and we'll actually be making a cheesecake with that on our new fall menu. I love it when the fresh strawberries come in. One of our purveyors is Dis n' Dat Farms, and they just bring me a couple of quarts every week. Peak, red ripe strawberries are the best.
What about flavors that are overdone? Or does that even matter?
I don't think it matters. It's personal preference. There are no flavors that are outdated, but there are outdated applications. Butterscotch and caramel are huge right now, but I think our salted caramel pot de creme on the menu will end up being a permanent fixture. Everybody loves it.
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Salted caramel is an interesting case, I think. It didn't really start popping up until a few years ago, and now everyone loves it and it is in every kind of dessert imaginable. What do you think makes those trends stick?
I think people are pretty adventurous. Things that are unique and different, people sort of gravitate towards. It also helps when they're really, really good like salted caramel.
I think people sometimes underestimate the work that chefs do. You're cooking a lot more than just making desserts -- where else do we see pastry influence on the menu?
We make all of the crackers in-house, and there are three on the menu. We make the French toast, pancakes and biscuits. We also make some of the compotes and jams, and the housemade ricotta cheese. It's a lot of work, no doubt.