Philip Speer fell in love at 17, not with a person, but a craft. It was then that Speer first began experimenting as a scratch baker in his hometown of Houston, Texas. And based on his career to date (and Speer’s unending passion in pastry) it seems like the early experiment was a major success. The Texas native not only discovered a natural taste for the sweeter side of cuisine, but a serious talent for producing it.
Already self-propelled into baking from scratch, Speer vaulted himself into the professional world, helping to open the critically acclaimed Jean-Luc’s Bistro in Austin and working behind the lines at Jean-George Vongerichten’s Bank in Houston. Speer also took on the task of revamping the dessert programs at both Austin’s Seven and Starlite restaurants.
Well-seasoned in the professional world, Speer left Starlite in 2005 to join Tyson Cole at seasonal seafood concept restaurant Uchi. Cole’s emphasis on fresh, local ingredients and creative flavor combinations were an ideal match to Speer’s developing style. At both Uchi and the recently opened (and immediately lauded) Uchiko, Speer treats his desserts as part of the course-progression rather than sweetly emphatic exclamation points. They are featured in Uchi: the Cookbook and built with an emphasis on fresh product and a few key unconventional ingredients—all as a part of Speer’s ongoing love affair with the craft.
Pastry Chef Philip Speer of Uchi − Austin, TX
Katherine Sacks: You wear many hats—pastry chef, creative director, cookbook collaborator—what inspired you to get into the kitchen in the first place?
KS: Those three experiences play a lot into your cuisine. Can you explain your philosophy on food and dining?
Philip Speer: Really it was an old family friend who was the executive pastry chef for a hotel in Chicago. I fell in love with it as a kid and thought it might be something I might want to go into one day. I started working in bakeries, from advice from him to get down to the fundamentals, and then moved into restaurants. I’ve melded into what I’m doing now; I play a little role in the savory side as well, and my desserts have turned into a culmination of bakery, plated desserts, and savory.
I always cook for the person who is eating; I don’t cook for myself, but in a fun nostalgic way. I want to create something accessible, interesting, and playful; new in the way it’s presented but familiar in the way it tastes. Working all over the kitchen, I realize it’s important to really be rounded on both sides, and I like to blur that line a little bit. I always like to think what’s going to get my guests excited next. Food should be fun, especially dessert; not many people order food when they’re pissed off. It’s usually for a celebration. So I like my food to be on the lighter side; I use cucumber, tomato, and a lot of citrus, light refreshing flavors.
KS: As you move into a larger creative role for the Uchi restaurant group, what’s the biggest challenge facing you?
PS: Going from a pastry chef to an executive pastry chef and needing to release a little control, to be more of a mentor, has been hard. I’ve had to let some of that control go, to let some of my other pastry chefs have more creative control. To step back from some of the day-to-day food production, and that’s been very hard.
KS: Looking back over your experiences getting into that position, what advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
PS: School or no school, you have to work for this. Whether it’s walking out with a $60,000 culinary education or working for five years as an apprentice, you have to really work for it. You need to have respect for the food, the craft, the industry, and a lot of younger guys come in and don’t want to put in the work and respect. I’ve been doing this for 15 years—I’ve never taken a vacation, never been without a job; I’ve just worked, worked, worked. It’s just now I’m being recognized for it. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle, and it doesn’t get easier the more successful you get.
KS: And after 15 years, what are you most proud of?
PS: A lot of things: Having the opportunity to grow and evolve, James Beard nominations, getting to present at the International Chefs Congress last year, this StarChefs.com award. It’s really hard for a pastry chef to have stability, because having a pastry chef is a luxury, so I’m proud of keeping the same job for six years. It means a lot; it means you bring a lot more to the table than making chocolate. I’m proud of being able to sustain success with my career and being able to grow and evolve with it.
KS: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
PS: I plan to continue what I’m doing now, within our restaurant group. We are small but growing, and working on fourth concept now. I want to continue to open restaurants and create food, and travel, but on a broader scale. I like what we are doing and what the chefs I work for have done; I want to continue down that path.