Talking with her you'd think she was a bright-eyed schoolgirl who just made her first cupcake, constantly in awe of her surroundings in the RN74 kitchen and the possibilities the ingredients in the pantry hold. In fact, Kim Mahar's roots in Seattle are deep within the arts community. It's a story that starts with Mahar studying glass blowing when she arrived in this city nearly 20 years ago and ends with her blowing sugar at one of Seattle's most revered restaurants. It's a story about a woman who never considered pastries as a career path until a well-timed culinary class unlocked her hidden passion.
Photo by Julien Perry
In this week's Grillaxin, Mahar talks about the modern techniques she's using to make desserts at RN74, the Seattle restaurants that inspire her, and whether or not a good pastry chef also needs to be a good artist.
SW: When did you come to Seattle?
KM: I'm a Midwest girl. I came to Seattle in 1992 from Michigan. I went to art school in Ohio and then moved out here with friends.
What prompted the move out west?
We sort of flipped a coin and Time Magazine was saying that Seattle was one of the best places to get a job and none of us had been here, so we were like, " Alright. Let's go." We jumped in the car and headed this way.
Are you a professionally trained pastry chef?
I have a fine arts degree. I was involved in the local arts community for years. That eventually segued into pastry. I ended up in pastry school at Seattle Central Culinary Academy in 2004. I graduated in 2006.
What happened is I moved to Seattle and I got really involved in the glass community here. I started teaching at Pratt Fine Arts Center and I was spending my summers at the Pilchuck Glass School. There's a huge arts community here. There's an incredible amount of artists and people to learn from and teach. I got very curious about blowing sugar and so I started researching to see if I could take one class here or there and you can't! You can't find it! And I thought, "If I ever learn this, I'm going to teach that class!" Anyway, what I heard is that I had to get involved in a culinary arts program. So, out of curiosity, I went up to Seattle Culinary Academy and I walked through the classroom and I talked to the students and I thought, "This looks pretty good," and I started nosing around a bunch more up at the school. They have this fabulous Dean up there, Linda Chauncey, who put a lot of time and energy into the program and just makes it this electric place to learn and I thought, "God! Culinary is so passionate and so creative," and I jumped in with two feet and went back to school. It felt so good. I loved it!
Yet, no part of you before that had the urge to pursue pastry?
No. It was eye-opening. It was so fun!
Do you think someone can be a good pastry chef without being a good artist?
I think you probably could because everything isn't just about the looks. The flavor profile obviously is what speaks to dessert, but the first taste is absolutely with your eyes. Take all the culinary magazines, books and everything; you're not tasting anything there. It's all visual and they are phenomenal to look at, right? Especially with all the modern techniques happening in food. Being an artist and stepping into pastry, I think it's a very good place for me to be.
Once you graduated from the SCCA, what was the first job you landed?
The first thing I did, even before my last day of school, is go to work for Sue McCown at [the short-lived] Coco La Ti Da. Working with Sue was fabulous. I wanted to try and expose myself to people who had experience, were role models, and were career driven and she was way up there at the top of the list. And then from there, I went to Macrina and worked for Leslie Mackie who was a phenomenal role model and cheerleader. She's one of my greatest friends. I'll have her around forever. She's just such a good, good person. After Macrina, I went to the Four Seasons when they opened. As soon as I heard Michael Mina was coming to Seattle I was like, "Oh, please!," crossing my fingers, "Let's do this!"
What sort of cool, new techniques are you using in the kitchen?
New to me since starting at RN74 is that we're using quite a few chemistry processes, like xanthan gums and agar agar and carrageenan and all of these things. I get home at night and I gotta go look them up, "Okay, What is this stuff?," and it's a lot of research on my part, a lot of studying. It's fabulous. I bake cakes in a combi-oven that has both heat and steam so you can regulate how much steam you want to heat something. It's a very cool piece of equipment. Now I do all of my custards in that oven and there's no more water bath. I just put it on 100-percent steam. I have a dehydrator that's going 24-hours a day dehydrating meringues. Oh, and I make meringues out of egg-white powder--dehydrated egg-whites instead of actual egg whites so I can control the amount of liquid that I want to rehydrate it with. I think I'm turning into part chemist, but art is kind of like that.
I work with a fabulous group of people in the kitchen. That's probably hands-down one of the best things. There's a lot of collaborating, a lot of evolving ideas, a lot of inspiring things that happen back there; I get inspired by the savory side every day. I do. Even all of the spices that we have here, I'm always nosing around and going, "What is that? Oh my gosh!"
When I first started working here, probably one of the most profound things that really set with me and felt like one of my own personal mantras was our corporate pastry chef, Lincoln Carson, said, "Question every single thing that you do." And it just keeps you going. It's what we do here.
Do you feel like curiosity is a huge part of maintaining your success?
Absolutely, but the curiosity is what's inspiring, isn't it? Watching things unfold or discovering something new, my god, it's so fun!
How have pastries evolved since you've been in Seattle?
Gone are the days of a having a square something in the center of a plate. Since I started working here, I now have to not only pay attention to the components that I put down on a plate, but I also have to pay attention to all of the negative space around it. It's so cool that way! One of my first platings I did for chef Michelle [Retallack], I came out and I presented it to her and she said, "This is great. I need you to go back and I need you to think about the negative space on this plate," and I thought, "My god, I love it here!"
What kind of desserts do you like to eat?
I like things whimsical and nostalgic. I like things that are gooey. I try to incorporate those things in my own desserts.
When you say nostalgic dessert, what are you thinking of?
The other day we were talking about Nutter Butters and what a great idea to build a dessert around them. I mean, look at how whoopie pies have taken over. It's nostalgia!
I just put sticky toffee pudding on the menu. Just the name, it sounds so good! It has modern approaches with different types of gels. One is all boozy, it has cognac in it. It's a good combo with toffee and a cake made out of dates. I did vanilla ice cream I steeped with bay leaves. So, it's taking all of these ideas and making them your own and evolving them into something new. The whole layout of the plate is visually stunning. It's like, "I want to get into that!"
What would you order on your own menu if you were going to go big?
I just put something really fun on the menu and the flavor profiles are so good! This is what I'd go for: It's a creme brulee and it has popcorn ice cream and it has a piece of caramel glass on there, so visually it has a lot of height and whimsy and it's really beautiful. It has a little pretzel sugar streusel and it has curry-coated peanuts. So your profiles are caramel, salty popcorn and curry.
Do you have a favorite candy?
It changes all the time, but I like things chewy. Something like Skittles? Bring it on! When Halloween comes I always go for the baby Snickers, maybe because it's a baby. Miniature is awesome. On my desserts I really get fixed on putting really little macarons as one of the garnishes because they're so little and you just want to eat it because it's so little!
Pie or cake?
I'm super pro-cake. I love pie, too. I made all of the wedding cakes at the Four Seasons.
Any advice for cake bakers this holiday season?
Here's the thing. Always question what you do. Everyone says, at least in big bake shops, that you need to brush the layers of your cake with simple syrup. Sugar and water. Why? They're brushing it with sugar and water because their cake is dry! If you bake the most phenomenal cake and it comes out of the oven, it's not going to be dry so you don't need to brush it! Just start with an incredible cake. To me, it just adds more sweet to something that's already sweet.
I like what's happening over at Bakery Nouveau. I love Macrina because they're my family over there and I love what Leslie is doing with her desserts all the time and her process for how she works. I like the desserts that Dana [Tough] and Brian [McCracken] are doing at their restaurants. I think there's some good desserts coming out of Seattle.
As a pastry chef, what are some of the questions you get asked most?
I get, "What's your favorite thing to make?" and "What's your favorite ingredient?" a lot. "Do you bake all the time at home?" No! I don't! I make dog food at home because I have an old dog. She's an old girl, an old Great Dane, so I'm a dog chef when I get home.
If you had an extra $20, what would you splurge on at the grocery store?
I'd get a nice bottle of wine and probably a really awesome piece of cheese. Okay, maybe it's not that great of a bottle of wine. A so-so bottle of wine and a really great piece of cheese!
Your last meal.
It's going to have avocados and it's going to be Mexican food. And I'm going to go sinful for the soft flour tortilla.
What's next for you?
You know what I'm going to do? I have always really felt a lot of charge to the battery and a lot of energy off of teaching. Right now as a pastry chef I'm a student. I'm a student every day. I was teaching pastry theory to the culinary students at the Culinary Academy and because of my hours here [at RN74] I had to take a couple semesters off, but I want to get back into that. And do that in tandem with this. Pastry theory may seem like a very boring subject and it absolutely can be, but I have a lot of passion about pastry and so I just got really into it with the students and I think even though it's a 7 a.m. class they really got into it, too. I still have students coming in [to RN74] for dinner all the time and asking for me. It's just phenomenal to feel that impact. It's just a huge compliment.