Pastry Chef Ashley Brauze on Balancing Tradition and Modernity at Cafe Boulud

"I can show you how to make a mousse, but that doesn't mean you own every mousse ever made. There's a lot to be learned, and you need patience to figure it out."

Cafe Boulud's Chef Ashley Brauze

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

We've seen so many amazing desserts throughout this interview column, but a recent visit with Café Boulud's pastry chef Ashley Brauze still blew us away. Boulud's restaurants often have the feel of calm amongst the storm of New York City's energy, and Brauze's plates embodied that feeling that with their grace, complexity, and abundance of concentrated flavor. And then there's the presentation; you can see traces of her time at El Bulli and under Dominique Ansel in the variety she offers to the eyes.

Brauze fits well in the Dinex family, warmly saying hello by name to those who stroll in and out of the quiet bar, signing off on menus and then jumping smoothly back to the topic at hand. As Brent snaps away, she brings us out her favorite spoon—a common thread we like to chat about with chefs—then looks down at her plates; "I like how they have a little bit of life."

Cafe Boulud's Chef Ashley Brauze

You've credited your love of fine dining pastry from an epic meal you had at Daniel in 2004. What was so significant about it? I was working at the Inn at Little Washington, and it's the tiniest town; like 300 people. So to go to the grocery store you'd spend 30 minutes in a car, and one night I was driving home and I almost hit a cow just standing in the middle of the highway going 60 minutes an hour. And I was like, "That's it, I'm done!" I had to get out of there!

I had a lot of friends out in San Francisco so I went there to visit, and it was nice, but I didn't really feel it; it didn't have a lot of energy. So I came here for vacation and ate at Daniel. And I remember walking into the dining room, and Daniel was walking up the stairs, and he just had so much energy, and I remember being like, whoa. And he wanted to sit and talk with you; he's so friendly. I'd never met anybody like that before. Everything was clean and simple, and I loved the service and the atmosphere. I was super impressed. So I came up two weeks later and did a trial, and then moved up a month later. I was sold.

Cafe Boulud's Chef Ashley Brauze

How do you feel you've progressed the dessert menu? What are you adding that wasn't here before? My background is really varied. I started at Daniel in 2005, then was lucky enough to go with my husband to El Bulli, then to Per Se, then back to Daniel. And I think for me, I love using very modern techniques, but keeping classic. So nothing really crazy, just extra little touches and knowing more modern pastry techniques that help make the desserts look modern without being way out there; we still have to be able to plate rather quickly so we're not losing time.

Chocolate Napoleon at Cafe Boulud by Chef Ashley Brauze

Chocolate Napoleon: cherry gelee, sour cherry, pistachio ice cream

I loved the part of your bio that points out that your desserts have a lot of color and pop. Can you walk us through one dessert that feels particularly personal? The Napoleon. It started with receiving this really great nougat paste. February and March are sort of a struggle for everyone in the kitchen because you're just sort of tired of looking at apples and pears and brown and white. And so I was like, okay, what can I do that's going to have some color, and not be, like, raspberries? So my husband is from Michigan, and he loves the dried Michigan sour cherries, and nougat and sour cherries are kind of a natural combination.

And then as far as the look goes, you kind of get in a rut doing the same thing over and over again, but you don't need to necessarily reinvent yourself, so you look to see what you have in the kitchen to make a different shape that's not too far away from what you're doing already. We use a lot of tubes—which is very common in pastry—so the wave design came out from putting the tubes together and pressing the chocolate between them. I like it because it's still classic, but has that feminine curve to the top. I like thinking outside of the box with what I have in the kitchen.

Passion Caramel Flan at Cafe Boulud by Chef Ashley Brauze

Passion Caramel Flan; mint-poached mangos, lime cremu, passion fruit mango sorbet

You worked with Dominique Ansel at Daniel, and I love how, in a recent piece, he said that you're "constantly curious". How do you think your sense of curiosity has served you best? When I started at Daniel, everything was so classic, and I was always asking a lot of questions. Then at El Bulli it was the same thing; I would always ask, 'How does this work?' 'How does this chemically balance?' And Albert would be like, "If you're curious come in and play around." You have to make a thousand mistakes before you figure out something that works, and that can be really frustrating, but you're always learning from it.

That was one of the things that I learned from Dominique and Albert; there are a thousand ways to do one thing. And constantly reading up and going out to restaurants and figuring out how other people are doing things helps. And having a good network of pastry chef friends who like to talk about things and new techniques is always fun.

Is anything you learned at El Bulli particularly applicable to your menu now It's funny, when I was at El Bulli I appreciated everything I was doing there, but at the same time I missed making tarts and classical stuff. I think that's when you realize how much you've learned from working in another kitchen; when you move onto something. In no way did I dislike anything I did there, but I was antsy to get back and do stuff that was a little more structured. Working with Albert was amazing; when he creates the space that he goes to it's unlike anything I've ever seen, so to see that was really cool. Now I use a lot of the espuma guns, I have foams, but I don't put foams on everything; it's very selective. I think you have to be very selective about what modern things you use.

Dulce de Leche at Cafe Boulud by Chef Ashley Brauze

Dulce De Leche; peanut sable, caramel fondant, salted malt chocolate ice cream

Is there a chef you've worked with who's taught you something profound that you think about today? Before I worked with Dominique, there was a lot of screaming and aggressiveness in the kitchen. And he was the most patient person I've ever worked with. Yelling in a kitchen doesn't make anyone learn any faster. He'd explain, 'This is not OK, and this is why it's not OK.' But at the same time, if you had an idea, he was always very interested to learn from other people. When I got back from Spain he was like, "OK, come show me what you learned." He was very interested in that. And he's very humble. I think that's something that's very necessary.