Antoinette Bruno: What is your pastry philosophy?
Jennifer McCoy: Less is more. It’s about keeping things simple. My philosophy is really not about straying to far from classic pastry. There is a lot of room for avant garde desserts, but personally I like more simple, clean flavors and comforting ends to a meal.
AB: Where have you staged?
JM: I staged one day at Le Bernardin, with [pastry chef] Michael Laiskonis. He is a master about combining traditional desserts and molecular gastronomy.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
JM: Gordon, Chicago, [which is] no longer [open]. It used to be an institution in Chicago. So many chefs in Chicago have been through the ever-revolving doors of Gordon. I was just looking for a job and didn’t realize the history that the place had. I met cooks who were serious about being professional cooks and they really helped guide me in the direction of what level I wanted to be cooking [at]. Blackbird in Chicago, when Carol Wang was the pastry chef, was an interesting place to be. [It] was in its heyday and getting all of this notoriety [when I was there]. Working with this pasty chef who was from the savory side, I found myself in an interesting position because I was able to really be a part of menu development at an early point in my career. I really felt like I was apart of a team. Working under Paul Kahan at Charlie Trotter's was an interesting time, [but] not a place I was at for an incredibly long period of time. The best thing I got out of that was attention to detail and I got to see a lot of cool ingredients.
AB: Where did you go next?
JM: Bittersweet Bakery in Chicago. I hadn't done the bakery thing and through that [I] started working in the front of house and figured out what I wanted to do. I went to New Orleans on a weekend trip with a friend and I said “I want to move here.” And so a month later I did. When I first got there I worked for John Besh at August as the pastry chef; it was interesting. There were five of us right after the hurricane and it was insanity; it was so hard to work anywhere in that city at the time. [I[ moved there two days before the hurricane and of course [I] evacuated. I left everything I owned there. [Later I realized I] would be better suited to work with Emeril. I spent two years with him, with the pastry chef at Delmonico. [I] helped them reopen it after the hurricane, [along] with Shane Pritchett, the chef de cuisine. [I also worked at] Fat Hen Grill in New Orleans, the spot to go to for fried chicken. Spenser Minch was the current executive chef at Delmonico’s. [It was] not that busy in the summer and thought I needed more to do. [I asked them to] let me write for the Emerils.com blog, so they had me playing around in kitchen at the flagship, Emeril's New Orleans. Then I helped them open the Golfport, Mississippi restaurant. They wanted me to be a corporate pasty chef, [but I] decided I wasn't ready to be a corporate pasty chef. [And I always] wanted to work in NYC, [so after that] I started at Forge, actually opened up Forge, and was there for six months. Then [I] came here, to A Voce, in December.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JM: Celeste Zeccola from Bittersweet Bakery. I learned patience from her. Paul Kahan taught me about working within the seasons and sourcing locally. Emeril taught me the business side, keeping things kind of simple. I also learned from Karen Page, from a writing aspect.
AB: What question gives you the most insight into a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
JM: What are you goals? Why are you doing what you are doing? What are your plans? It gives me an idea if they have an understanding of the industry.
AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JM: I love blueberry and rosemary together. I decided to put the flavors together one day. We'd buy five flats of whatever at the farmer's market and I bought blueberries and wanted to come up with a cool flavor combination and tried rosemary. The earthy quality of rosemary pulled out the blueberry, and in the perfume there are top notes and base notes. In a way, the blueberry was the top note and the rosemary was the middle note.
AB: If you could have any chef cook for you, who would it be and why?
JM: Oh wow. I'm a huge fan of Eric Ripert and Michael Laiskonis at Le Bernardin. Their approach to food is so admirable, I think it's definitely influential to me the way they take an ingredient and figure out how they can make that ingredient stand out—what they can do to make that ingredient really shine. Especially in Michael's desserts, he'll take a pineapple and poach it, roast it, [and serve it] raw on one plate to let you see what you can do with something. And Eric Ripert definitely does those things with the same philosophy.
AB: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would you go and why?
JM: Well, I went to Austria and it was really great to see an Austrian patisserie. I think Spain was really influential, especially now [that I’m] using a lot of Mediterranean ingredients. Spain and Italy have a similar approach to [their] food, especially how it varies from region to region. I love Mexican food and I've been to Mexico a few times. What I love about Mexican food is that [it has] really bold, clean flavors and I think that sometimes influences my approach to food—for instance, how do I take this ingredient, if it’s ricotta, and make sure that if that’s the focal point of the dish, that you get that? And what pairing flavors can accompany that focal point and not overshadow it?
When I was in culinary school I did a culinary tour in France; there was a handful of us from our class that did a guided tour in Lyon. We toured the chocolate factory, which was really cool. Being so young and so exposed to food in that way was incredible. I don't think I realized at the time how cool it was. Now I look back and say I get to do a lot of things that aren't so easy to do.
AB: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
JM: Read everything you can, eat everywhere you can, and on your off days, stage. That's what I tell every single pastry cook. Get to know names and research and spend your money on eating. And if you can't, stage at different places and they'll usually feed you.
AB: What are your most essential tools?
JM: A mini offset spatula.
AB: What are your favorite off the beaten path restaurants in your city? What is your favorite dish there?
JM: In New York City, Pho Grand on Grand and Eldridge. I love Vietnamese food. I get the number 34, grilled pork lettuce wraps and banh mi. In New Orleans, it’s Patois; the chef that owns it is so involved in the farmers markets, and they have the best pancakes for brunch.
AB: Where do you like to eat pastry?
JM: I am a big fan of Magnolia's banana pudding. [I’m] often in the window of Il Laboratorio del Gelato. And the Donut Plant.