It's no surprise that Dallas lacks in the French pastry department. The involved, highly-technical processes of making macarons, croissants, and other French baked goods just isn't practical for today's high-volume, birthday-cake-and-cookies kind of bakery.
Samantha Rush of Rush Patisserie in Oak Cliff, though, prefers to keep things old school. Her technical background and global experience in pastry has helped her produce some of the finest baked goods in the city, but not without a lot of really hard work. I sat down with Rush to talk about her extensive training in French pastry, Dallas' lack of quality baked goods, and why you won't see gluten-free goods on her menu any time soon.
I see a very large wall of degrees and certificates proclaiming your pastry excellence on the wall. Can you tell me a little bit about your education and training as a pastry chef?
I went to culinary school in France for pastry at Le Cordon Bleu. I studied cuisine before that at California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and that's really where I fell in love with pastry. I didn't set out to be a baker by any stretch of the imagination. Before going into the industry, I was an accountant for about ten years before that. I kind of left my career to go to culinary school for cuisine, and it was in my first pastry class that I realized that I enjoyed it.
I hadn't done a whole lot of baking before that, and during that program I had two classes in pastry and as we were getting ready to graduate, I was looking to stay in San Francisco to do their pastry program. But then some of my instructors suggested that I pursue going to France because they thought it was my niche. If I really wanted to do it, I needed to do it the old school way.
I'm a horrible baker. No matter what I do, I can't seem to get any recipe just right. What do you think it takes, skills and personality-wise, to make a good baker?
Because I didn't start out with a baker, I always heard these stories about how bakers are extremely anal-retentive. The souffle falls and they're trying to slit their wrists. My instructor told me that he actually liked teaching culinary students to do pastry more than just pastry students because they're a little bit more resilient, and I think that's true. I guess I'm kind of a non-classical pastry person, so I'm not extremely anal. I was an accountant before, so I was to a point, but not really.
My baking training gives me options. If something's going wrong, a lot of times I can fix it. I don't just throw my hands up, but a lot of bakers do. Sometimes it's really gone, but you've got to figure out how to bring things back together. No kitchen is a perfect world. I don't care what you see on TV, but it's not perfect ever. A lot of things go wrong all the time, so you have to be a little bit resilient. Honestly, and I think this goes for cuisine in general, you have to have a passion for it. This is a blue-collar job in a white coat. Despite what you see, this is hard work, and it's work that you have to do every day. You really have to be up for that challenge, and really be passionate about it. If not, it will burn you out very quickly. You also probably need to have an experimental side. I'm a classic person, but I like to use new flavors and techniques. If you're going to work in a true bakery, you're also going to have to wake up early. That's the thing that kills most people. Restaurant life normally starts around 9 or 10 am, but bakery life starts way earlier. We're talking in the 2 to 4 am range, so you have to be able to wake up and function at those odd hours.
Studying pastry in France sounds like an incredible experience.
Le Cordon Bleu there, at the time that I went, it was very traditional. We weren't even allowed to touch a KitchenAid mixer until we were in Superieure class. Everything had to be done by hand. If you don't know the feel of it by hand, how are you going to know when to stop a machine? It was very old school, but it was very good. It was getting back to basics.
Do you think that more bakers who are trying to sell French pastry would benefit by going to France and studying? There are a lot of croissants or macaron or whatever that don't really resemble what you would see there.
I don't even think they have to go to France in particular, but you gain so much knowledge by traveling. I trained in France, but I have been all over Europe, gone to Africa, China, Thailand, eating across the world. I love to travel, and I think it helps you with the development of your cuisine. You see different spins on traditional things, and you see where people in other places of the world are using that traditional methodology to produce different things. It's hard to be in this industry and produce if you're not a person who likes to get out and travel and taste a lot of different foods.
How has going to all these places across the world affected your own cuisine and the pastry you're creating now?
Sometimes, it manifests just in a different flavor profile. Something that's more Asian than French. I was telling some friends recently that when I went to Thailand, I stood in this long line in the mall for some toast. But it was this milk bread that had been toasted, buttered, and with peanut butter. You think it's just toast, but it was so good. Now, if I'm making a bread pudding for friends in New Orleans, I'm toasting the bread because it adds this different dimension of flavor.
What are some of your other favorite French and global flavors that you've picked up throughout your travels?
I'm very into classic flavors, but I don't like lackluster flavor. They've got to be bold. If I am eating a raspberry truffle, I want it to taste like the best raspberry I've ever put in my mouth. I don't want a hint of raspberry. If you're calling it raspberry, I want to taste raspberry. I like a lot of bold flavors, like passionfruit. That is something that's very popular in Europe and Asia, but not popular at all here in Texas. But it is such a bold and wonderful flavor. I love salted caramel, and I don't want a salt brine in my mouth, but I want those salt crystals to hit your tongue when you're eating that a caramel. Right now, I'm doing a salted chocolate chip cookie, and people really love that salty-sweet mix.
I'm a big coconut person, and I'm starting to get into florals. I was very anti-floral for a very long time, at least anti-rose. It always just tasted like perfume. When I started trying to find out that it was all in the oils and the extraction of the rose that you were using that made all the difference. Now, I'm using jasmine, violet, rose, lavender, and I like to mix those a lot now with fruit. Like a raspberry lavender, or apricot jasmine, we've done both of those recently.
Is it kind of hard to convince people that floral flavors are good? They're not particularly common in the States.
It's just not very common here. It's funny, because I was in Williams Sonoma, and a customer told me that she felt like she had eaten a bar of soap, and I thought that was really funny. Florals are hard to do, so you have to make sure that a bakery knows what they're doing before you load up on floral flavors. But, when she tried one of my rose macarons, she thought it was way better than her previous experience.
Macarons are hard to find in this city. Why do you think it's so hard for bakeries to put out macarons and do a good job?
For one, macaron is a skill. Not everybody can make them, and you can't think that you've got them figured out right out of the gate. A French chef told me one time that it takes ten years to perfect making macarons, and I would probably agree with that. It takes years of practice. I find them very difficult because there are so many other factors involved. It's not about having a good recipe. You can have a good recipe, but you can screw them up. Sometimes it's not even just about the technique. You've got to have the mixing, baking, and all the other factors that go into making macarons down.
People think it's like a cake, just mix-and-go, and that's not how it is. With a macaron, you have a sixteenth of an inch to deliver your message, and that is the most perfect statement for a macaron. You have to get the right texture, but you also better know what you're putting in the middle of that. This crap cupcake icing that people are putting in there is not what is meant to be in a macaron. You've got to develop this wonderful, intense flavor in order to make that macaron worth eating. I don't want to eat something that's kinda, maybe pistachio. What's the point of that?
Does it drive you crazy to see see half-ass versions floating around?
It does annoy me, but it annoys me more because I think the market is still really trying to figure out what macarons are. I hate that so many people are eating bad macarons for their first experience. They either hate them, or love them, but they really don't know what they are. They're learning on a mediocre product, and that's what annoys me more than anything. There has to be an appreciation for the craft, and I think some of that's been lost in pursuit of a macaron craze.
Speaking of crazes, do you feel like you have to make gluten-free dishes?
No, I don't. The only gluten-free product that I make is a product that is naturally gluten free, which is the French macaron. People tell me all the time that French macaron have flour in them, and they're hearing from other bakers that there's wheat flour in the recipe. If there's flour in there, you're not eating macaron. We may also do some kind of berry or fruit verrine with a Bavarian cream or creme brulee or something, but that's pretty much it. Gluten-free is not my thing.
That's kind of an important stand to take, I think. It's better to say no rather than make a bunch of crappy gluten-free baked goods, right?
I agree. I get that all the time, really, especially being right next to Spiral Diner. People tell me that gluten-free is where it's at, but I tell them that I have not personally been able to make a gluten-free product that I would make myself or that I would pay to purchase. Until I can do that, I'm not making anything gluten-free.
Have you eaten any other baked goods that were gluten-free that you really liked?
Nope, not really.
We all know that food trends are cyclical, and it seems like French food is on the downswing right now. This lighter, more modern "new American" cuisine is huge now, and I just wonder how something as classical as pastry continues to be a part of that?
I think pastry is also cyclical. Everything goes through it's turn. It's cupcakes, then cake balls, then donuts. We don't have the same sort of appreciation for pastry as a normal, everyday product that is present in other cultures. I grew up in New York City, there's a bakery on every corner. Coming from a place like that, bakeries are entrenched in the culture. When I was a kid, they didn't sell cake in the grocery store. If you wanted cake, you went to a bakery. As a result of that, we operate on trends. Do I think that macarons are going to be forever and long-lasting? No, it'll fizzle. And then we'll have the year of the eclair or whatever.
A lot of us grew up on supermarket cake and white bread, and we don't know any better. Do you think that also has something to do with the dearth of good pastry?
Cake to me is not pastry. Pastry is more of a European style product, but I think that going to a bakery every day just isn't something that is going to happen here. When I wanted black and white cookies as a kid, we would go get one almost every day. Crumb buns, the New York breakfast of champions, were something that you bought one at a time. You didn't go and buy a loaf of it and take it home for the next week and a half, you bought one. Because if you wanted another one, you just go back to the bakery tomorrow. People don't really walk here, so that's part of that. You can't get 20 feet without passing a bakery in New York or Paris, and that's hard to walk by. It's just a cultural thing.
After living and cooking in Paris and San Francisco and New York, how did you end up in Dallas?
I had lived in Dallas before when I was working as an accountant, and I still had friends here. At the time, I was a chef in Las Vegas and I was looking to open my own business when I came back to visit a friend here. Dallas was very different from the Dallas that I had experienced ten years before. Dallas also didn't have any bakeries at that time, and they still really don't. There isn't a lot of European-style pastry. I guess I just figured I would try my hand and see what happened here.
It seems like it's not hard to get people to eat good pastry. If you put the good stuff in front of them, do they change their minds?
Oh yeah, you can convert people. You really can. I've converted a lot of people, just on a croissant. The problem is that people aren't really exposed to pastry so they don't know that things are sometimes, so you have to get them to taste it. You have to show what a good croissant that is made out of butter and baked properly looks like. Once they eat it, then they start searching these things out. We're also getting such an influx in Dallas of transplants. You've got people who are from New York or California who are used to going to bakeries, and they're looking for those goods.
I've talked to a lot of chefs in this interview series, but you're the first one who focuses exclusively on pastry. That kind of made me think that pastry chefs might be a little overlooked. What do you think?
We are so under-appreciated. I hate to get on my soapbox, but pastry chefs make executive chefs look so good all the time. We are like miracle workers sometimes. I know that I work a lot of miracles all the time, you wouldn't believe the kinds of crazy requests we get. Pastry chefs really are the unsung heroes of the kitchen, and I really think we don't get our due in Dallas. People are all focused on the food.
Speaking of crazy requests, any really memorable ones that come to mind?
The thing that really surprises me about Dallas is how everybody wants everything on-demand. I don't think people really have a concept of how much time goes into making pastry and how long this process takes. It doesn't just happen I have people ask me all the time if I just have something "lying around," and I think that's really weird. Would you want something that I just had "lying around?"
Do you think the amount of time that goes into baking good pastry is why a lot of it isn't very good? Bakeries want to cut corners or rush along the process?
Bakeries definitely want to crank things out. I really feel that time is always a big thing for most bakeries. I know that most people's gripe with me is that we run out of things. People will walk into the store at 9:55 when we close at 10, and look in the case and say "is that all you have?"
If I did have a full case at 9:55, what that's telling you is that I'm not selling enough pastry, and that as a businessperson, do you really think I'm going to throw out a whole case of pastry? Economically that doesn't work. So yeah, we sell out. We sell out to ensure that you're getting the freshest, best quality product. These things don't have a good shelf life. Two days, they're on the way out. I'm chucking them if they're not good.
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Quality seems really, really important to you.
It is. If it's not good or not up to my standards, I'm not going to sell it. I just refuse to do it. I'm not putting something in the case to sell that just isn't good. If I'm trying something out, I'm not going to put it out until it's great. Recently, I was making Kouign-amman, and it was my first pass in a long time, so it was good, but it wasn't great. I just gave it away to people, because it wasn't something I could sell.
That sounds like a very French mentality, this commitment to perfection over profits and convenience.
Maybe it is. Whether it's good for the business or bad, I'm not going to be putting out crap.