"It's kind of interesting when you have a starting base of nothing because then you're like, 'Well, what are we gonna do today?" "
Callie Speer will be the first to tell you: she had no idea what she was getting into when she started her first kitchen job, inexperienced and sixteen years old, in a little neighborhood bistro in Austin. She would have never guessed she'd immediately go on to work across the street at Jeffrey's, one of the city's oldest esteemed restaurants, or drop out of the UT Physics Department to pursue the pastry sciences. She didn't forecast going on to become the pastry chef at Mars and then Parkside. And she certainly didn't know she'd fall for Uchi's Phillip Speer, fellow pastry chef and two-time James Beard semi-finalist.
Now the pastry chef at Swift's Attic, Speer was recently nominated by Food & Wine for People's Best New Pastry Chef Award. She and Phillip now share a last name, raise two potential future chefs, and manage to still own Cakemix, a specialty cake business, on the side.
Call her out on any of this, and the striking and down-to-earth Speer will shrug and tell you she still prefers take-out and cereal to cooking at home. But don't dare try to insinuate she can't cook, for she's had just as much experience on the line as at the pastry station.
"There's always jokes about pastry chefs—that they don't know how to cook, they have dull knives, all that." Callie grins and declares with a slight Texas twang, "Whatever! I'll kick all y'all's asses!"
Did you grow up baking as a child? How did you get into pastry? I didn't ever have any interest in doing anything cooking related, unless it was a box of mac and cheese, until I started working in a kitchen when I was 16 and I just liked it. I had one job [at Cipollina] where they got rid of this lady who was doing all the pastries in the morningtime. I was like, "I can do that!" and just ended up really liking it. I started doing all their desserts and pastries. I mean, I'd never done it before so I'm sure they were terrible, but I just kept doing it from there and really liked it. I think I liked the exactness of it, the science of it. It was fun for me.
What inspires your creations? I like to do throwbacks. Like the popcorn thing—sprucing up things that are already familiar, like candy bars, or we had one here that was a play on s'mores. I like doing things that are familiar to people and also the seasonality of things is really important. We had all this awesome rhubarb and we're getting Poteet strawberries in right now, so it was like 'What can I do with these?' but then I still keep cereal on there because I like cereal. I even like it for dinner!
What do you think you bring to the table, being a self-taught pastry chef, that's a little bit different than those who graduated culinary school? I feel like it's given me a little bit...I think people that are self taught in kitchens end up having a little bit more, this is a bold statement, but, a little more appreciation for the hard work that goes into it. And that's not all the way true. Like our chefs here and a lot of the chefs at Uchi that I know really well, they went to culinary school, but they went before it became a hot trend to go to culinary school. So they have that hard work ethic. There's a lot better perspective than a lot of the kids that come out now and think, 'Oh, I'm a chef!' No you're not. There's only one of those in the kitchen!
I also think that school sometimes leaves people in a box a little bit and a lot of people don't take the time or the opportunity to move themselves a little bit further than that. They end up just like, 'Oh this is something I learned in school. What variation can I make on this?' And so it's kind of interesting when you have a starting base of nothing because then you're like, 'Well, what are we gonna do today?"
You have these very arty and technical desserts too! Did you just pick up more and more knowledge at each place you worked? I learned from each place, like a lot of people do. A lot of snoopin' up on people's stuff, like 'How'd they do that? That's cool!' A lot of online research. Phillip [Speer] has been a really awesome, awesome resource. Still to this day, I'll call him up. He's much more into the molecular stuff. That's definitely much more his thing than my thing, but there's still things I like to do using that to spruce it up a little bit. I attribute a lot of the things I've learned from him.
How did you and Phillip meet? We met at a bar over on UT campus called Posse East. It was totally random. I used to hang out there a lot because I had a friend that hung out there and he had a friend that worked there. We didn't even end up going out until months later. I kind of stalked him down a little bit and then called him and told him I was looking for a new job, which wasn't true. I told him I wanted to go out and talk about any job prospects that he might have. I totally lied.
And you were both already pastry chefs? Yep, he was at Uchi at that point.
You and Phillip started your cake company, Cakemix, together before you opened up Swift's Attic. How did that come about? We still have it but between the two of us being so busy, there's not much time to do many cakes. It was started partially because I was already doing tons and tons of cakes. I really liked them and there were some really fun ones, like one of the managers from Uchi one time had me make a toilet. Like, a really dirty toilet cake. He said all there has to be is a toothbrush somewhere!
You probably get this all the time, but what is it like to be married to fellow pastry chef? People always assume we have pastries floating around the house but neither one of us really eats much dessert. I could care less, and he's the same way. I'm tired of it, first of all, but I'm not really that into sweet things. Phillip is a very good cook and likes to cook at home and does a lot...I don't like to cook at home! Then I have to clean it up! So it's nice being married to someone who's a culinary professional and enjoys doing that at home.
So if you're not big into sweets, what do you think drew you more to pastry, since you had lots of experience working on the line as well? I think the process of it [drew me to pastry]. The process is just a little more technical, it requires accuracy and it's definitely a little bit more methodical. I also think there's something about dessert that's really familiar and comforting to people. And I really liked that, making things that people enjoy, and I think the impact is sometimes a little bit bigger with dessert than with other things. It's easy to make friends! Like everybody at my kids' school, all the teachers, 'Here's some cookies!'
Do you ever bake at home with the kids? Sometimes the baby pretends to help. She's four so she's not really all that helpful. I let her pretend like she's helping sometimes. She likes when I make buttercream because she'll sit there and throw the individual pieces of butter in one at a time. I'll let her do that—she's great at that! Phillip's daughter Ella, who's fourteen, is great. She's grown up doing it and she's a very good little baker. Now she's changed her mind, she wants to be a food critic, but she used to say she wanted to be a pastry chef and she told Phillip when she was 8 or 9 that, when he died, she was going to take over the pastry empire!
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