Nancy Rommelmann Interviews Jehnee Rains – Suzette Creperie
Before Jehnee Rains became a pastry chef, she was a painter, and to hear the thirtysomething Portland native tell it, the enthusiasms are the same: a fascination with color, with texture; a curiosity as to how elements might work together, and a character that finds inspiration in something as perfectly simple as a peach. After more than a decade in the Bay Area, many of those years as pastry chef at Chez Panisse and Quince, Rains launched her local career last summer at Gotham Building Tavern, before several months ago becoming executive pastry chef at Balvo, where she updates classics, (somewhat) eschews chocolate, and hopes this year for a slightly longer strawberry season.
When and why did you start cooking?
I started to cook about twelve years ago. I went down to the Bay Area after graduating from Reed College in the painting program, to look into Masters degrees in painting, but I met a woman who’d just gone to culinary school. She was a very hard-working and passionate person, and I really responded to her passion, so, I got a job at a bakery. It was a really cute little bakery where I could go in and make one coffeecake and one poundcake and all the cookies and then twelve pies, lots of little things all day… The bakery manager taught classes at a culinary school, so, she taught everyone at the bakery what she was teaching at the school; they paid us to learn, so that was really great.
How long before you realized you were going to be making pastries instead of paintings?
Pretty quickly! [Laughs.] In terms of painting, I didn’t have the ideas that I wanted to see on the canvas anymore, but I did have ideas of things I wanted to bake, things I wanted to eat. That’s really what drives me, what flavors I want to see together and what I want to experience on the plate.
Is there anyone who’s been a big influence on what you do?
When I went to work at Chez Panisse; that was pretty key. I had been a pastry chef for a couple of years, but they have the canon of recipes for thirty years, [recipes] that really worked. They knew how to deal with fruit in a really simple way that highlighted it.
How did you wind up at Chez Panisse?
I had been on a trip to Italy for a month and I wasn’t working so I just went in there and was looking for a job and they needed someone so they hired me. [Laughs.] Yeah, timing is everything. The way it worked there is, there were two pastry chefs, each worked half the week, and there were four pastry assistants under them. I was one of those people.
What’s a typical day at work for you?
I go in early, six-thirty and bake everything I need to bake and make the ice creams and freeze those so they’re ready for service, and then I work on projects for the rest of my shift, in terms of making cookie dough, tart dough, things that don’t have to be ready for that day. Someone comes in to use my table at two o’clock. I can sort of work in other corners of the kitchen or share that table with him, but I’m supposed to be off that table at a certain point. Which is hard for a pastry chef.
I’m not use to giving up my table. I’m used to being there all day, all night, and having the desserts plated by a pastry professional, so the table stays pastry.
A chef in Portland told me fewer than fifty percent of customers order desserts, and that there simply isn’t the volume to afford to give a pastry chef a separate domain.
It does seem like people in Portland, or anywhere for that matter, don’t make the decision to eat dessert at the beginning of the meal; they want to have the appetizer and the pasta and a huge entrée and then they’re too full… When [my husband and I] go out to dinner, we’ll have a couple of appetizers, share an entrée—or we’ll each get an entrée and we’ll take some home—and then we order three desserts. [Laughs.] It’s really a part of the meal. For me, dessert at the end of the meal is like having wine with dinner. It’s not just having water with dinner; it’s part of the meal. It’s part of the experience.
Do you have favorite ingredients you like to work with?
All the fruits; I really base my menus on all the seasonal fruits. So right now, it’s Meyer lemons, still hanging in there; rhubarb just came on the scene so that’s exciting.
Is there an ingredient you think is overused?
I would say chocolate is kind of overused. I don’t find it the most interestingly presented; I’m not into the gooey, sweet, chocolate-y experience. I really want to have a roasted peach with honey ice cream or something. I’d like it if people would think [to order] dessert even if there isn’t a chocolate item; I always do have a chocolate item, but that doesn’t mean dessert for me.
What ingredients would you just as soon not work with, if you could get away with it?
I would say tropical ingredients, because I really want to focus on local produce. I try to avoid pineapple and bananas; of course, I use coffee and chocolate and vanilla beans; it’s hard to get away from those. But if I can substitute an apple dessert for pineapple, okay then.
How do you ensure quality control in your kitchen? Are you a taskmaster, or do you allow you assistants to riff?
I am a taskmaster, and mostly because I really only have one other person working with me, and that person is not the co-pastry chef; it’s someone who doesn’t have the skills that I do, so I’m teaching them the whole menu and how to make the whole thing; I sort of stand over them and say, “What you really want to do is have your whisk right next to you right now.” It helps me to teach them, because then I can take a day off.
A lot of people say, ‘I love cooking but I hate baking, because baking is so exact.’ Do you find it to be exacting?
I do, actually, and some people don’t have a problem with that; it’s natural to be able to measure out a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Some people can’t or don’t feel comfortable being so exact, and they don’t succeed very well in pastries.
Maybe they’re intimidated by the exactitude…
Right, but I think you can be creative in other ways. Maybe you need to follow the recipe in terms of scientific properties, but change out certain elements of the dessert.
Do you think having a pastry chef separate from the chef is important?
I do! It goes back to the importance of dessert at the end of the meal. If the restaurant takes seriously what they’re doing, and if they want to have all the right components of the savory food, then the dessert should follow that. Maybe the savory chef also does the pastries, but maybe he’s not expending all of his energy thinking about how to make the perfect mint ice cream.
Do you find there are more female pastry chefs than male?
Do you have any idea why that is?
[Long pause.] I don’t. I don’t really understand the gender dynamics of the food profession in general. If we assume in America that the woman is the one that’s home, cooking meals for the family, I don’t understand why the chefs are all male.
Because all the women are home cooking for their families…
But then also it’s been my experience, in the Bay Area, that at least half the cooks are women. I don’t know if half the chefs are women, but up until Portland, I have only worked in women-owned and operated businesses. Here, I haven’t worked for women. Working at ripe—where of course Naomi [Hebberoy] is a part owner—the chefs have been male, and at Balvo.
Which part of your body hurts the most after a shift?
My hip has the longest-running pain. A couple of years ago, it was my neck and shoulder, and now my hands hurt.
Are there any local places you’ve wanted to try, from a pastry point of view?
The Carlyle, where Steven Smith is the pastry chef; he seems to be doing some interesting things with ingredients, to be putting them together in a more complicated way than you see in a lot of restaurants.
This is the third time you’ve mentioned the combining of ingredients. Is this the element that fascinates you?
It is. It’s not just one [dessert] menu item, it’s the whole menu: what am I going to do with apples this month? What am I going to do with chocolate? And lemons?
Do you have a prerogative to complement what you’re making to the savory menu? For instance, Balvo’s cuisine is inspired by chef Kenny Giambalvo’s Italian/American heritage. Do your desserts need to reflect this, as well?
I try to have traditional Italian desserts, and update them; we have tiramisu on all the time; that one will ever come off… The recipe was made before I came to Balvo, and I’ve just been refining it a little bit as I go.
How do you make that your own?
I make the ladyfingers, and I make the mascarpone; I think it’s really important to make all the components of the dessert… It is hard to update a classic like tiramisu because it’s pretty much is so good in the traditional sense, but not all Italian desserts are delicious, and I think it’s because they’re four hundred years old, and our palates have changed, so to update those traditional desserts, we need to add more eggs or more butter or more cream or more fruit or whatever it is that the recipe needs.
Can you make whatever you want for dessert, or do you have to run it by the chef?
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation yet where I’ve had to run the whole [dessert] menu by the chef; I certainly ask for input from the chefs that I work with, and the pastry assistants that I work with and all the sous chefs; I want to have a lot of opinions about it, and that comes from Chez Panisse, where there was a lot of community tasting and talking and thinking about it. As it is right now, I will come up with a menu or different ideas and run them by all the chefs and see what they think, because I need more palates than just mine… Sometimes it is hard to get negative or constructive feedback; I wish there was more of that sometimes.
How important is it for you to keep up with what’s going on in the pastry world?
I definitely do a lot of research about what’s going on in the country; I read a lot of restaurant menus, from New York and the Bay Area; I want to see what different people are doing, what their ingredients are. It’s not so much that I want to keep up with them, as much as I want to be inspired by new ideas.
If you could train under any pastry chef, who would it be?
Probably Pierre Herme, in Paris; he’s kind of a rock star pastry chef. His technique is exquisite; he makes the most beautiful things, and then his flavor combinations are very exotic… If you go to his bakeries in Paris, there will be a line that’s forty-five minutes long just to get in; all the people want to go in for the specialty signature cakes. One I remember… was a meringue that had raspberries around it and rose cream and another meringue on top, so it looked like a macaroon, but huge.
What is your most well used cookbook?
That question’s a little hard for pastry, because most baking books want to give you a good recipe for brownies or pound cake or chocolate chip cookies, and those are great but that’s not really what I’m looking for, so I go more to French cookbooks and Italian cookbooks and look at the desserts sections. Patricia Wells is terrific; I was just looking at her books this morning. Another good pastry book is The Last Course, by Claudia Fleming when she was at Gramercy Tavern. She has a lot of interesting flavor combinations.
Are there any ingredients you have difficulty getting in Portland?
I would say no, but the hardest thing here is the growing season is so short. It’s pretty weird to me that the Hood strawberries are only available for a short period and you have to jump on it and you won’t get any good strawberries after that. I need to do more canning this year and really take advantage of those summer fruits when they’re around.
How do think Portland rates as a food town?
I think it’s gotten better. I actually grew up here. I left in 1993, and then there were no farmers markets and you couldn’t buy Italian parsley in this town, so, a lot has changed since then. It seems like bread has really taken off in Portland, and the restaurant scene seems more sophisticated.
Are there dishes you’d love to make but suspect people wouldn’t order?
For years I’ve wanted to make a beet and orange sorbet.
If you could make one request of the Portland diner, what would it be?
I guess to save room for dessert.
Who’s your favorite customer?
It’s my husband. [Laughs.] He has a fantastic sweet tooth, which is why we’re married, and he also has a really good palate and he has a lot of criticism. So, he’s a great patron.
What advice do you have for anyone considering a career as a pastry chef?
To stand up straight, and take breaks often. Taste everything, every time. And spend some time in a kitchen before you make the career jump, to see if that’s really for you.
Do you have any humbling or humorous anecdotes from your baking career?
It’s not strictly food but, it was New Year’s Eve at Chez Panisse, the biggest night of the year, and I knocked a little pitcher of cream off the table. It just hit the ground perfectly, and then it sprayed cream all over the back of [Chez Panisse owner] Alice [Waters], who was in her finest New Year’s Eve dress. [Laughs.] I thought my career was over. I just said, ‘Sorry, Alice, I’m just going to brush you off here.”
Jehnee Rains now owns her own restaurant, Suzette Creperie on NE Alberta St.