Growing up in the mountains of North Georgia, Pastry Chef Aaron Russell developed an appreciation for all nature had to offer—and particularly for the seasonal flora of his native Southern home.
With that love of nature firmly rooted in his soul, Russell turned toward the kitchen, and a career that meant working with his hands. He worked his way through culinary school while baking bread at night at Atlanta’s Breadgarden. After graduating, Russell became pastry chef for Johannes Klapdohr at Nikolai’s Roof, the first restaurant in the Southeast to receive four Mobil Stars. Four stars led to five when Russell earned a spot on the pastry team at The Dining Room in the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, one of only 15 restaurants in North America with five Mobil Stars. At The Dining Room, Russell’s career path was cemented working under the strict tutelage of Chef Bruno Menard and Pastry Chef Manabu Inoue. And after Inoue’s departure to New York, Menard promoted Russell (at a young 23) to become the youngest five-star pastry chef in the country.
Russell lived up to the pressure and took his experience to Guenter Seeger’s eponymous restaurant. Seeger’s austere approach to local, organic ingredients and simple preparations greatly influenced Russell’s style—now on delicious display at 2007 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Linton Hopkins’s Restaurant Eugene. Hopkins tapped the three-time James Beard “Outstanding Pastry Chef” nominee to run his pastry program in November 2010. Two years later he’s making modern desserts that speak to his appreciation of natural-style; Russell’s desserts often present bold savory combinations, flavors, and textures.
Interview with Rising Star Pastry Chef Aaron Russell
Katherine Sacks: What inspired you?
Aaron Russell: I started out as a savory chef. I needed a way to earn money in high school, so I started cooking when I was 16, and I just kind of took to it. I really enjoyed it, and it was fun enough that I never branched out or tried any other business.
KS: What is your philosophy on food and cooking?
AR: My style is what I like personally, what I do is aimed at pleasing the guests who come in here. The majority of work that I do is making dessert along the lines of ganache, which is quite sweet and appeals to a broader group. I do less of desserts like buckwheat, which is more what I like.
KS: What goes into creating a dish?
AR: It all just seems to happen without much thought. As far as inspiration goes, my favorite ingredients come from the farmers. Often times, we don't order anything specific from the farmers, Linton [Hopkins] just buys what they have left, and I pair it with what we have on hand. It’s all done in my head, I don't taste things together until the dish is composed. And then I adjust from there; some dishes require longer, 2 to 3 days. Sometimes ingredients are played with, the texture [altered] or a change in ratios, but for the most part the picture and execution are pretty close to what I have in mind.
KS: What is the toughest thing you’ve had to do?
AR: Teaching myself how to make bonbons. Reading, tempering, and scaling the recipes.
KS: What trends do you see emerging?
AR: I think that restaurants on a lot of levels are using a lot more farmer products. Other people are using wild foraged vegetables and flowers, and I think that will keep increasing.
KS: What is your favorite underappreciated ingredient?
AR: I think I might like to see more herbs and vegetables that are usually seen on the savory side like wood sorrel, mushrooms, and turnips. I like to make desserts out of these when I can.
KS: What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
AR: This is all I've ever done for money. I like to think I'd be working in fundamental research somewhere.
KS: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
AR: I wouldn't be surprised if I was still here. I think I am done moving around.