The Dutch's Chef Kierin Baldwin on Pie, Nostalgia, and Eating vs Dining
"My desserts are just supposed to be enjoyable, not complicated...I want something you can dig into and eat with the people that you're with and really experience it."
Somehow Chef Kierin Baldwin looks like someone you can trust to make a really, really stellar pie. She's worked with some big New York City names like Karen Demasco and Andrew Carmellini, working with AC for an extended amount of time before he opened The Dutch, where her composed plates often come with a big slice o' pie all decked out in its finest. She executes her desserts with the impeccable technique of a French pastry chef and the American nostalgia of a born-and-bred New Yorker. And she very much recognizes the importance of recognizing a dining experience versus an eating experience.
If you Google Baldwin's name, talk of those pies and their respective recipes abound. But obviously her skills are not just about pie. Not nearly.
You've worked with some phenomenal chefs at well-respected restaurants—Café Boulud, Locanda Verde, A Voce—what did you learn from each of them that stuck with you? At Café Boulud I was working primarily with Ghaya Oliveira but also Eric Bortoia, the corporate pastry chef. Technique was the most important thing I picked up there, and about pushing yourself, and about needing to be very thoughtful about making things and developing technical ability. Ghaya was wonderful for teaching that because she does not let you go on anything—she knows exactly what she wants, expresses it well, and is able to teach you what you're looking for.
Then at A Voce Josh Gripper, who had been a sous chef at Café Boulud, had just started and needed a person who really "got it", and I just got sucked in. I would say there I learned to loosen up a little bit. I definitely jived very much right off the bat with the relaxed, "rustic" style. Then at Locanda Verde, Karen Demasco and I got along right off the bat—being her sous chef was wonderful, because she's really gracious about letting you be a part of the creative process, so shooting ideas back and forth with her was definitely a way I figured out how to compose a plate to make it a whole dessert. I feel like maybe I had been too visually oriented up until then. Karen was "this tastes good with this" or "this needs more salt" or "this needs more acid." She really solidified that was the primary concern.
How did all of those experiences help you when planning The Dutch's now much-beloved pie-focused menu? A lot of people think pie is supposed to be "easy as pie", but when you really let it be a composed dessert, it's awesome and endlessly variable; it can be any sort of shell and any sort of filling. And once you're able to start playing with that it can go on forever.
I'd had one pie recipe I'd used for ages, and it was good—a little bit of Crisco, a lot of butter, and water, very simple—but I wasn't sure what else was out there that would make it better, so I was like, what else can I do with this that will make it workable, that will keep well, that will still be super flaky and will be easy in a restaurant setting since we make giant batches of it? I played around with some variables and came up with [a recipe] that has a little vinegar to give it a kick of acidity, and a little egg yolk so that it's reasonably workable. Because we make it in such huge batches, mixing it by hand isn't realistic. Figuring out how to get it to stay flaky in such a big batch was a challenge. So I experimented with frisage, where once you mix your dough you grab pieces of it and kind of smash it against the table. Now we leave the butter a little bit bigger, frisage it, and it works perfectly. It was just about experimentation and knowing when something was working right, which takes time and patience.
My ideas for fillings usually start with a specific ingredient, and I try to not throw too much in there; too many things on the plate end up muddying the whole thing. If I'm going to do a strawberry rhubarb pie, that's probably as complicated as I'm going to make it so that you really taste the strawberry and the rhubarb, and the things on the plate are going to play up those flavors or compliment them, but not compete with them.
How do you counter other plated desserts so that they match the feel of the Dutch's savory menu and compliment the several pie offerings you have constantly changing? I come up with a flavor I want to work with first, often something that evokes a memory, something I feel is really recognizable or familiar in some way, and then come up with just a few elements that are going to make that flavor shine and compliment it. It's very much about taste, I guess.
Is there a lot of food nostalgia in your family? When I do interviews like this my mother will always read them and get mad at me, because when I was a kid I didn't get a lot of sugar; my mom raised me on sugar-free candies and such, so I always really wanted it, and would go to friends' houses and eat their cookies. What little we did have was what we'd make ourselves, like chocolate chip cookies out of The Joy of Cooking. She gave me a real appreciation for making things yourself and for enjoying simple food that's got great ingredients that you bring together on your own. That gave me an appreciation now for keeping it pretty simple and also for a kind of familiarity. I try not to be hokey about it, but definitely feel like familiarity is what I rely on to bring people in, because at The Dutch people come here to eat, not to dine. So I've found the desserts that people cherish the most appeal to them, and then I can slip in some stuff that's more novel.
Can you define what feels hokey versus nostalgic? I think it's more about forcing ideas; when you let something taste great and be itself without banging you over the head. My worst ideas are the ones where I think, "Oh, this is so cool", and I put things together that don't work. So letting things figure themselves out is important.
I feel there was a struggle for me in the art world, because I was like, "Why does it matter that I'm doing this?" It felt sort of frivolous. And then that carried over when I started making food, thinking what the point of me doing it was. And it struck me over a long time that enjoyment is really important; you can call it frivolous but it's such an important part of living a well-rounded life, and there's something beautiful and valuable about that. My dessert are just supposed to be enjoyable, not complicated; I don't want you to have to sit down and think about how I got something to stay or something to balance on something else. I want something you can dig into and eat with the people that you're with and really experience it.