As we’ve said before, pastry chefs are the unsung heroes in kitchens everywhere. Tasked with creating the final bite a customer takes, these chefs have plenty of responsibility on their shoulders. At a place like LARK on the Park, where the cuisine is consistently fresh, innovative and downright delicious, that role is even more challenging. Fortunately, Laurel Wimberg is up to the job.
Wimberg is a relatively fresh hire for LARK on the Park, having just left Fort Worth’s recently shuttered American Food + Beverage. Now, she’s leading the pastry program at three Shannon Wynne-owned restaurants, including LARK, Meddlesome Moth and The Bird Cafe. We sat down to talk with Wimberg about her journey from a teenage baker to pastry chef, keeping it creative and eating vegetarian in the meat lover’s paradise that is Dallas.
How did you first get into pastry?
I always liked baking. In junior high, I did a science project to figure out which flour would bake the best bread, and my older sister was studying nutrition, which kind of got me interested in cooking. I’d always try to make something for events at school and friends’ parties, and that brought me into the whole culinary world. After I worked in a restaurant for a few years, I knew that as a vegetarian, if I wanted to continue my career in fine dining, I was either going to have to stick with pastry or get comfortable pressing a duck.
Did you study pastry in culinary school, or did you learn on the job?
Both. I was doing it at restaurants and sold my own baked goods at a farmers market in Lawrence, Kansas, but I did decide to go ahead and get some professional training at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C. I lived in Baltimore and completed the pastry program there.
Are you from here originally?
I’m not from Dallas, but I did spend a good part of my elementary school years in Texas, in Copperas Cove and College Station. I was a military brat, and my two sisters who were both older than me both graduated from college in Texas. Meanwhile, my parents and I had moved to Kansas, and then my parents retired. My sister lives in Dallas, and she always wanted me to move back here. I finally did, and my parents moved too.
What was your first job in Dallas?
When I very first moved here, I couldn’t find a pastry job right away. I figured that if I was just going to have a job to hold me over, I wanted to do something that I could feel good about, so I got a job with Operation Kindness in Carrollton working at the animal shelter. Then I got the job at Craft Dallas working under Shannon Swindell.
Can you talk about the experience of working at Craft? It’s long gone now, but at the time that had to have been a pretty intense entrée into the Dallas dining scene.
It was, but we had a lot of resources. Craft was really intense and pushing the limits, but we had a really beautiful kitchen, a great staff and the best ingredients. I’ll be lucky to ever see a kitchen setup like that again. I think everyone who’s worked there has a special place in their heart for the kitchen at Craft Dallas. It was a great experience. Shannon Swindell really took me under his wing and let me have a lot of independence. When he left to go to Craft LA, he set me up to take over his position.
It’s my contention that pastry chefs don’t get as much recognition as savory chefs, why do you think that is?
Most places don’t even have a pastry chef because they don’t have the money, don’t have the budget for it. It’s not their fault; if you have only one or two restaurants, it can be really expensive to keep a pastry staff. It takes a group like Moth Management to do that, a group with several restaurants, or a place with such a level of dining that dessert has to be really special. Dessert can be an afterthought at a lot of places, just because they can’t invest as much in it as they do the savory items on the menu. It does get pushed to the back burner a little, I think.
It seems that dessert used to be a much more prominent fixture of the dining experience. Do you think that has changed?
They teach you in culinary school that the first and last bite are the most important, so dessert really should be great. If someone’s going to spend the money, they shouldn’t think that they could have made it at home or had it anywhere. It really has to be worth it. I have noticed that people are more willing to be risky with their dining dollars when it comes to an appetizer or an entrée, but dessert, people really like to play it safe. They want to be sure that they really like it. They want to know that they’re going to like the brownie sundae or whatever.
Do you feel like that limits your creativity?
It can. It’s not cool to think of great stuff and then have to tone it down. One thing that I really enjoy about LARK on the Park is that the menu here is really eclectic. When you have a whole menu that you can work with and you have multiple restaurants, you can use dishes in different ways. You can have a more straightforward dessert for one restaurant and something more creative at another.
I also really love the international flair that LARK has. I really liked doing the Southern and American desserts for American Food & Beverage, but I do like more international influence. Not everything has to be heavy and down-South here, I can lighten things up and use more unique, global flavors.
Are you heading up the pastry program for all of the Moth Management properties?
I created the dessert menu here, and we do the brunch pastry. I have a great prep cook here who does most of the things here. I go back and forth between Meddlesome Moth and The Bird Cafe, and I’m just getting started there, so I’m working to figure out what works and getting used to the kitchen. They already have some dishes that are set because people love them, so I’m just making additions and changing a few things.
They don’t have set menus there, it’s all chalkboards, so you can create a one-off of something you have a little bit of. You don’t have to worry about printing it on the menu, you just put it on the chalkboard, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s nice to be able to be creative in that way and just use the ingredients that you have.
Do you feel like it’s difficult to create really unique menus for three different restaurants?
It can be. Meddlesome Moth and Bird Cafe are kind of sister restaurants and already share some menu items, so they don’t have to be completely different. But they are different restaurants, and different things work at the different places. The Bird Cafe has a bigger kitchen, and it’s less humid there so they can do pavlovas, but the Moth doesn’t have an oven to bake that. Nothing will ever be exactly the same, but there will be some overlap. The LARK menu will be the same as it has [been], changing seasonally four, maybe five or six times a year.
Can you talk about working with chefs Dennis Kelley and Melody Bishop on the menu?
It’s been really exciting to work with them, especially as a vegetarian. A lot of the cooking that I do is Indian, Thai, different kinds of Asian food. I’m familiar with a lot of the elements that they’ve brought to the dishes here, and it’s always exciting to see that be successful and people really liking it. That’s what I really like to eat, what I like to make. They’re really open. I’ve always enjoyed the collaborative process between the chefs.
A lot of times, people don’t give you critical feedback on desserts. People in general just like it, they don’t seem to have strong feelings about them. It’s hard to get strong critiques, you have to sort of lead people.
Why do you think people are so hesitant to critique desserts?
I don’t know, I just find that it’s been hard to get honest feedback from chefs and people in general.
You mentioned that you’re a vegetarian. What's the state of vegetarian dining in Dallas, in your opinion?
I think it’s pretty good. I eat at Bangkok City and Vietnam and just a lot of ethnic food. I don’t go to a lot of the newer restaurants that are all meat and charcuterie-centered. A lot of times there is just one vegetarian dish. We do have a lot of places in Dallas where people are making everything fresh so you can look at the menu and ask for the pasta to be a little different. People tend to be pretty accommodating here, so I haven’t really found it to be hard.
Did that surprise you, that the land of meat would be so accommodating to vegetarians?
Not really. I mean, I lived in Kansas. I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years, so I’m sort of used to figuring out what I can eat. The hardest thing in being a vegetarian is going on a road trip when there’s nothing but fast food. Those are the hard times.
Back to the pastry, how do you continue to grow as a chef when you’re baking classic stuff like pavlovas and cookies?
It can be hard to innovate. You make something new and think it’s great, but then it doesn’t sell. You try to bring back a really cool flavor and it doesn’t catch on. But everything old does become new again. All of the food trends and international cuisine mean that these new ingredients are becoming more readily available, so you’re constantly being exposed to new flavors and dishes. That’s what keeps me interested — how can I take this and create a classic dessert in a new and interesting way? It is dessert, there has to be some degree of familiarity and satisfaction.
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It seems like a place like LARK would make that really easy, especially with the commitment to good produce here. Do you find yourself hunting around the kitchen for good ingredients?
That’s what I did when I first got here. I found this bag of cocoa-covered cashews that Melody had ordered, and the butterscotch panna cotta with kettle corn almost came out with the idea that these would be on there. I know that in their kitchen they’re going to be open to coconut milk and saffron and palm sugar. They’re not going to be regular items for them, not special. You don’t have to explain why you need the good chocolate to them. They just get it.
Do you think that you’ll ever stop doing pastry and, I don’t know, open a vegetarian restaurant?
Yes and no. I’ve always had this fantasy about the perfect vegetarian restaurant full of things that I like to eat, but then I realize that I would be working there, I wouldn’t be a customer. I want to go to that restaurant, I don’t want to work at it. It is nice to do savory cooking at home, and I can surprise people with my savory talents every once in a while. To a certain extent, you do kind of kill cooking for yourself at home when you’re a chef, and I don’t know that I want to go all the way with that.