"That moment of something new. That, 'I did it, it's on the menu.' Yeah!"
Chef Tracy Obolsky recently took over the pastry department from Alexandra Ray at North End Grill, where she's transitioned from the much beloved Italian-infused plates she created at Esca to classic American desserts with hints of Chef Floyd Cardoz's particular warmth and spice. Her wide smile, energetic enthusiasm, and sharp artistic eye are a keen fit for Danny Meyer's friendly, impeccable sense of hospitality, and we've only just begun to see what sweets she's capable of.
A New Jersey native, Obolsky had some quirky aspirations to be a professional hockey player, and then a professional snowboarder, before she let her natural drawing talent take her to art school. So, how did she end up making desserts that make us weak in the knees? We had fun finding out.
You've cited your grandmother's recipes as a source of inspiration when you were working at General Green in Brooklyn. What was exploring them like? My grandmother passed away when I was a year and a half old so I didn't really get to know her, but she was a phenomenal baker. So it was really special to see her handwriting—some recipes were handwritten, and some were typed on a typewriter—and make the same things she made. I started with the Prune Cake. The first ingredient called for prune juice; it was a small restaurant and we couldn't just bring in a case of prune juice and have it sitting around, so I created a prune soak, where I took dried prunes and hydrated them with sugar and water and then pureed them. My boss at the time and the pastry chef that I worked for loved it and wanted to put in on the brunch menu.
You've also professed a serious love for ice cream. Where'd that come from? At my first job at Borough Food and Drink. We had a big ice cream program with six or seven different flavors and sundaes and splits, and that's where I really started making a lot of it, and realized how much I like it.
What specifically about it? There's something kind of Zen about it. And eating it—I like eating ice cream! It's fun to eat. And manipulating ingredients into ice cream is fun to think about. I do a doughnut ice cream that's smooth but tastes like doughnuts. It's really hard to get the consistency right and I don't use any stabilizers in my ice cream; I'm kind of against that, and compare it to sports players taking steroids—it's like cheating, because you can make crappy ice cream and just put a stabilizer in it and it'll work! At this point I can make it without a recipe, and it's a great challenge to say, "Hey, let's see if I can turn that into an ice cream." At this point I don't think there's anything I can't.
Any particularly weird ones? I've done smoked sweet corn. The Elvis—peanut butter banana ice cream with bacon in it—had bacon I rendered and cooked until it was really crispy, then froze it and crunched it up. Peanut Butter Curry was another. Sugar Snap Pea Sorbet.
This is the largest pastry program you've headed up in your career, and a bigger menu than you had recently at Esca. Was anything particularly hard to adjust to? It wasn't hard, it was exciting! I was excited to do more American dishes without having to have an Italian element like balsamic or mascarpone. I'm drawn more to fun, American flavors like peanut butter and jelly and things like that. I would come up with a dessert idea, give it to Chef Floyd, and usually he would tell me it was awesome! It was fun; I just did one dessert at a time, which was good for my staff so I could teach them how to make things properly, and then for the front of house, so they could really absorb and understand it.
North End Grill has crazy grills and a smoker. Have they affected what you are able to create? I couldn't wait to use the grills and smoker! I had a grilled pear sorbet, and now have a grilled pineapple sorbet. I have a smoked vanilla ice cream that goes with sticky toffee bread pudding—I smoked the vanilla and the cream, since smoking the vanilla wasn't bringing the smoke out enough. I also cold-smoke the maple syrup for doughnut holes.
How about transitioning your style from Esca's Italian to Chef Cardoz's warm, spicy American cuisine? I definitely try to think about spice more, because I think that is what he's kinda known for. On our cheese plate every cheese has an accoutrement, like black pepper pear jam or candied popcorn with Aleppo peppers. Even the plating has changed slightly—I still plate with my style, but I think the pops of color work very well.
I found out you're a huge Rangers fan. I presume you played hockey as a kid? I wanted to, but my parents wouldn't drive me to practices at 5:30 in the morning! But as a kid I legitimately thought I was going to be a professional hockey player. Then later in life I thought I was going to be a professional snowboarder. Then I went to art school. I don't know.
I originally went into pastry because with my art background I thought I could make crazy cakes and stuff. But when I got my first job, Borough Food and Drink was just opening and the adrenaline was nuts, and I thought, "This is what I want. I want to be in the crazy all the time." That's when I realized I wanted to be a pastry chef in a restaurant. My first job ever was at Carvel, and I remember taking the machine apart with ice cream all over my hair thinking, "Why am I doing this? I'm never going to need to know how to do this." Now I'm like, wow, that really did come in handy!
What feels like ice hockey to you now? I think the moment I get a new dish together, and the staff digs in and are like, "It's so good!" That moment of something new. That, "I did it, it's on the menu." Yeah. And I have a very new staff, so showing them things and seeing them do it exactly how I show it, and seeing light bulbs going off in their heads as they learn something new... I like those moments. It's like I'm a proud pastry mom or something.