Gemma has been adding a touch of freshness and California cool to Henderson Ave since opening earlier this year, and head pastry chef Stephanie Childress has proven herself a crucial part of the restaurant's success. Our own food critic raved about Childress' well-executed and offbeat dessert dishes, and diners have followed suit.
Working alongside chef-owner Stephen Rogers and front-of-house manager (and Rogers' wife) Alison Yoder has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for Childress, who made her home in Dallas after working in some of Las Vegas' most beloved kitchens. I sat down to talk with Childress about navigating the Dallas food world after working in Las Vegas, how she works with Chef Stephen Rogers for inspiration on both sides of the menu, and her best-in-town housemade ice cream program.
Can you talk a little about your background in Dallas as a pastry chef? You worked in Vegas before ending up here at Gemma, what did you do in your time in Dallas before that?
I moved here a few years ago and my first job was at Cowboys Stadium. A good friend I worked with in Vegas had moved here and was working as a sous chef, and he told me how glamorous it was and that I needed to check it out. I worked a football season there, and that was my first job here in Dallas. The rest of the time, I was working at Stephan Pyles under pastry chef Jill. I got a chance to see how Legends feeds the stadium and makes food for the suites. We made thousands and thousands of desserts. I had worked in hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, but I had never seen anything on that scale before.
I had heard about Stephan Pyles from the time that I was interested in food, so it was great to work there and see what he was doing. After working there, I did some front-of-house work at Maple & Motor with Jack Perkins. It was a very interesting experience. I had never worked in a casual restaurant before, and I was working lunch every day at Maple & Motor. It was a very eye-opening experience. Then I got the opportunity to work at Battuto, a restaurant that used to be in North Dallas. I've opened quite a few restaurants, but this time I had my hand in everything. I even printed menus and helped design them and picked out the salt and pepper shakers. It was a lot of hard work.
Was it as rewarding as pastry for you? Is that something you might consider doing in the future?
It is rewarding. I think chefs should know the front and back of the house, everything involved in a restaurant. You always need to know what is going on in your restaurant. But no, my passion is in the kitchen. Working at Maple & Motor and Battuto were my way of getting that bigger experience because I knew it was important for me to know how to do both. But after that, I knew that I just needed to stay in the kitchen. I also think I'm most talented there.
Do you think more chefs could benefit from stepping out of the kitchen and into the front of the house?
Chefs should always have a rapport with the staff, and the front of house should appreciate what the restaurants are doing in the back. A lot of times, restaurants are separated and one side doesn't understand what the other is trying to accomplish. It also helps you come out of the kitchen and learn about your guest. I got to ask them what they wanted, and what they're excited about at our restaurant. What is memorable. A lot of the time, it is things they don't like and how you can improve, but that's just important. Working here, Stephen and Alison have both worked in front and back of the house, so it's a great match.
Was that work a little necessary for you to learn about the Dallas diner after coming from Vegas. Are the palates different?
It's a little different. Vegas is very showy, of course, and not so down-home, not comforting. It's about the glitz and the glamour and the lights, and how we can top the casino next door. I was seeing a lot of unusual product and these wild techniques, but it's not about that here. It's about comforting food and satisfying the local neighborhood. In Vegas, you're constantly trying to become a destination restaurant and wow your guests because they're in Vegas and they expect that.
Does that limit you as a chef?
No way, it's made me better at what I do. I can just focus on the product and not so much worry about making it look glamorous. I have great product from local purveyors, and I can make it taste as good as it possibly can. I like the sort of small-town feel in the restaurant scene here, and I like that I don't have to struggle to make a plate look more glamorous than it's actually going to taste. Sometimes there are so many components that it all just gets lost in translation.
How would you describe your style as a pastry chef? It isn't exactly to peg you into one particular school of pastry.
I think it has become, in the last few years, something that is very comfortable. I like for people to be able to relate to my desserts, and I want our guests to know exactly what they're getting. I also want them to be memorable for them, because that's something that I always think about when I go out to dinner. Do I remember the dish the next day, and if I do, that means that chef has made an impression beyond just their food. I like for people to look at a dessert menu and know what they want. When they order the chocolate dessert because they like chocolate, I want it to be so much better than they even expected. And not wondering whether or not they actually had a chocolate dessert.
Dallas food has kind of a reputation for lagging behind trendier food cities, do you think that's also true for pastry?
When I first moved here, I thought so. Cake pops were the thing when I first got here, and every bakery was doing cake pops and cupcakes. Neither of those things were anything we focused on in Vegas, but Dallas is asking for these types of things. There are all different kinds of pastry shops in Dallas, and some of them are more advanced than what chefs in Las Vegas or anywhere else are doing, and there are plenty that are doing an equally good job.
What about in terms of dessert trends? Do you feel pressured to have certain items on your menu because they're the "new" dessert that everyone's reading about on food blogs?
It doesn't bother me. Going back to the issue of cake pops, I have a sister who is a schoolteacher and has two daughters. Cake pops are something that they love, and they want me to make it before them. All kinds of desserts have their place. I love cupcakes. I would rather make birthday cupcakes over a cake any day. I'll always go to a cupcake before anything else.
Are there any dessert trends that you really haven't been a fan of?
Well, it's funny that you mention pie. I don't like pie that much. Fried pies are just not my thing. Pies in general aren't really for me. I don't know why, but I'm much more likely to get cake or cookies or ice cream. I'm also not fond of using too many chemicals or creating dusts and powders. I like to see those things and appreciate chefs who do that, but it's just not for me.
Most pastry chefs will tell you that they're kind of the unsung heroes of the kitchen. Do you feel the same way, especially as someone who has worked their ass off in the background for so long?
This is the first time that I've been able to get my name out there and really shine through, and I'm humbled by that. I'm also really excited about this experience and what I'm doing this year at Gemma, and a huge part of that is knowing that I have a great savory chef to work with here. Savory food and pastry has to come together, or the menu just doesn't make sense. I have worked in the shadows for a long time without my name even being mentioned by anyone. It excites me that Stephen and Alison have taken an interest and want to provide the best pastry to their guests. They want to have homemade bread and crackers and little touches like that. Savory chefs don't always have time to do that, so we're able to work as a team to make a well-rounded menu where everything is made in-house.
Outside of the dessert menu, what items do you contribute to the menu at Gemma?
I make all the breads and crackers for the plates. I also make our cheese condiment, and a mostarda. I love to pickle and make jams in my spare time, so I can contribute on that level. I cook a lot of savory stuff at home, so I can experiment that way. I love cooking. I don't think I would ever want to be a savory chef, because I like my job and what I'm able to do. I wouldn't have it any other way, though. I love seeing the product savory chefs get to work with and learning about beef and pork. These guys who are turning simple product into something great is inspiring, and I learn something new every day from them.
Can you think of any specific instances where you're cooking in the kitchen and you're struck with this moment of inspiration from their savory ingredients?
We make a goat ricotta here, and I always hole away a little of that for myself. If he's making ricotta, I want to use it in a cake or ice cream of mine. I make creme fraiche for them, and they'll use it in sauces and for garnish. Chef Stephen is always telling me things that he'd like to see. One of his favorite desserts was the Basque cake, something he had seen a lot of in Napa, and I like that they challenge me into doing things that I wouldn't have before.
The ice cream program at Gemma kind of sets the dessert menu apart from others across the city. How did you get into making great ice cream?
It just kind of happened that way. Ice cream is one of my favorite things to make. You can add any flavor to it, and you can make it look as beautiful and vibrant as you want. I think that kind of gets lost here. Not a lot of restaurants have homemade ice cream because they maybe don't think it is as important as other parts of their menu. It takes a lot. You have to have the machinery, and sometimes it's just easier to buy it from a good purveyor. Like Henry's Ice Cream in Plano, and they do a great job, but I wanted to make my own because I enjoyed it.
When I was working at B & B for Mario Batali in Las Vegas, we had a huge gelati and sorbetti program. At any given time, we probably had 25 to 30 flavors on the menu. It was a big production, and I learned how to take any product that was given to me and turn it into gelato or sorbetti. It's ap assion for me. When I interviewed with Stephen, he told me that he purchased an ice cream machine and asked if I was interested, and he saw my face light up. Of course I said yes. They had to invest in that equipment to make that a part of what we can do here, and I'm very appreciative of that.
What's the weirdest flavor of ice cream you've ever made?
I'm not sure if it turned out right or not, but I recently tried a Chinese five spice ice cream, and it was just a really odd flavor. I don't know if it was good or not. I haven't done a lot of savory ice creams outside of a few cheese ice creams that have turned out really well. I've done a goat cheese ice cream, and maybe a parmesan or pecorino ice cream for a menu, and that's probably the most savory that I've gotten.
What do you think it takes to make really good ice cream?
You have to create the right balance of fats. I make gelato, which is lower in fat than ice cream is, and you keep it at a higher temperature so it's softer. You kind of reverse the ratio when making gelato. It has more milk, so less fat content. It doesn't freeze as hard, so you get a smooth, rich, creaminess. Ice cream is just the opposite. It has a lot more fat content so you're going to get a different texture and it's going to freeze harder than a gelato.
Do you prefer gelato over ice cream in general? Out of all the flavors you've created over the years, do you have a favorite?
Well, it is easier to quinelle a gelato because it's softer, but gelato can sometimes be fickle. It can sometimes melt more quickly than ice cream, but there's a place for both. My favorite gelato I've ever made hands-down was a brown butter pecan, and I also really loved a goat cheese ice cream for a dessert that we made when I worked at Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas. We made this really great strawberry jam and swirled it in, and served with a strawberry shortcake style dessert. It was really good.
You're obviously really happy at Gemma and are excited about the coming year. Are there things you think you'll change about the menu, especially as we transition into fall?
I'm excited to start doing some warmer desserts. I may have to put some sort of pie on the menu for fall, but it definitely won't look like a piece of pie. I also love bread puddings, so you'll see plenty of those in the menu. I love berry season and produce in the summertime, but there are also things that I enjoy working with during the fall, like quince and pumpkin and apples.
Will we still see the ice cream on the menu in the winter?
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Absolutely. We were already talking about adding a caramel apple ice cream, maybe a dark chocolate ice cream. The only chocolate I have right now is the mint chip, because we've been keeping that light over the summer. I'll also probably bring back the salted caramel gelato. I love richer and more filling desserts in fall and winter.
Most of the chefs I've talked to throughout this series are men, and all of the women I've spoken with are pastry chefs. Do you think there's something about the work that is more likely to attract women than men?
I think it has something to do with the precision that is necessary to bake. Women gravitate more toward being perfectionists. As a chef, I think that everything has to be in its place and I strive for perfection. It just seems to be more in the nature of women to gravitate toward this line of work because they're used to working within rules and getting things done whereas men tend to be a little more rough around the edges, and that doesn't always work with pastry.
So maybe something about the way women are raised? Yeah, I think so. We do family meal here every night, and I have Thursday nights. One Thursday, the guys were back in the kitchen just laughing at me as I'm measuring out spices for a meatloaf that I'm making. They're saying that they've never seen anyone measure anything for meatloaf before. I was even weighing the meat. I have to measure, it's in my blood. Everything has to be precise. I have to follow recipes, measure everything out in the beginning, and it seems like women are more likely to be more oriented that way from the beginning.