Food & Wine: Tiffany MacIsaac

Tiffany MacIsaac

F&W Star Chef

Chef: Tiffany MacIsaac

Restaurants: Buttercream Bakeshop (Washington, D.C.)

Experience: Union Square Café, CRU, Allen & Delancey (NYC); Neighborhood Restaurant Group (Washington, D.C.)

Education: Institute of Culinary Education

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Deborah Snyder [at Union Square Café]. She was my first pastry chef. She taught me about doing it the right away, taking the long road, making sure you did it the proper way and did it once.

Shea Gallante at CRU was an absolute perfectionist. With him it wasn’t “make it nice or make it twice,” it was “Make it nice, or get out of my restaurant.” His whole team was so passionate and committed. My husband had worked there and told me, “You’ve got to get into this kitchen. These people are for real.” That’s where professional pastry clicked for me.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
When I was a kid, whenever I had to make dinner, I would do spaghetti, or the world-famous Tiffany omelets on weekends. I didn’t really grow up in a food family. That started to happen for me when I moved to New York. I was 18 years old and lived with a bunch of strangers, none of whom could cook. Out of necessity, needing to eat and being poor, I started getting into cooking. I don’t remember the specifics of what I made, though.

Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
When I first moved to New York, I would watch the Food Network. My favorite show was Sara Moulton’s. It was the least flashy and I learned the most. I also loved how she had people call in and answer their questions. I watched her religiously. I have such fond memories of being 19 and trying to make her dishes the next day for my roommates. They said, “You should really go to cooking school.” She came to dinner at Allen & Delancey when I was cooking there. For the first time in my life, I was starstruck. I was a total dork and went to the table, just to thank her. I’d take her anywhere she wants! Probably somewhere simple and easy, because I’d want to pick her brain like crazy.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Ice cream. You need a machine, but then the success rate is high, and it stays in the freezer so you can enjoy it over time. Whatever people cook at home, especially if they’re learning, it should be easy and fun and bring instant gratification. I want people to cook something where they’ll be successful, because I want them to want to do it again.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
I love to collect cookbooks from elementary schools where the parents pooled recipes. My mom looks for them for me at garage sales. There’s a lot of crap in them, like recipes that call for eight different canned foods. But the pastry recipes tend to be family heirlooms, passed down through generations. I have found some awesome recipes in those books. The peanut butter cookie dough that I use throughout the restaurant group is based from one. I also have a recipe for jammy thumbprints that came from another. They’re the best.

One technique everyone should know.
Creaming. Knowing how the butter and sugar should look when you cream them, depending on the end result. We have a lot of interns at our restaurants. For the first month and half with us, all they make is buttercream frosting and cookie doughs. They cream butter and sugar all day. Literally: I’ll have them make six 22-quart containers in one day. I’ll tell them, “I swear to God, I know it seems like I’m trying to torture you, but repetition is how you’ll learn.” Particularly when you’re making large restaurant batches, it’s not as easy to judge. But if it’s under-creamed, it will spread too much; if it’s over-creamed, it won’t spread properly. When all of their cookies are perfect, and their butter creams are beautiful, I start moving them onto harder stuff.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Laminated doughs for danishes, croissants or puff pastries. It’s hard to find time, but I try to carve out a half of a day at least once a month to hone a skill. Usually on a Saturday or Sunday, when the bakery kitchen is more quiet.

What is your current food obsession?
This is kind of embarrassing, but my husband and I are obsessed with Five Guys burgers and fries. My more high-end obsession: He’s been cooking with offal, like kidneys and livers and hearts, so I’ve been ordering more of it when we go out. When he told me he wanted to put beef heart tartare on the menu at Blue Jacket, I was worried customers would find it too weird. But it turned out to be the most complimented item when we served it for friends and family.

What are your talents besides cooking?
Is watching TV a talent? Because if it is, I’m such a boss. Or napping. I’m really good at that, too. I used to knit, but now I just fall asleep when I do it. If I’m being perfectly honest, we don’t do anything besides work, eat out, and sit on the couch to watch TV. Luckily, I get to do so many things when I am working that it doesn’t feel like I’m deprived.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Basil. It has this pretty, floral quality that goes with everything. I’ll add it to anything tropical, anything with strawberries or blueberries. Generally not chocolate, except white chocolate. I love to use basil microgreens. I’ll just throw them all over the plate. Their flavor is strong, so often you only need four or five pieces. Sometimes too many microgreens can feel like eating grass.

What’s a favorite secret-weapon ingredient?
Passion fruit. I always call it the pork fat of pastry. When a chef doesn’t think a dish is good, he’ll put a little pork fat on it. When I don’t think a dessert is good, I’ll add some passion fruit somewhere in the background. I’ll often make a caramel with passion fruit instead of water or cream. It still looks like normal caramel; people don’t always know what’s in it, but it gives it a nice tartness. I’ll add a little to a dish like a savory chef might add a gastrique.

Favorite store-bought ingredient?
I’m obsessed with condensed milk. I put it in everything. It’s the main ingredient in our key lime pie. We make an energy bar where we pour condensed milk over granola with dried fruits and nuts and bake it. It’s so delicious, sticky and gooey.

What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
At home, every season Kyle and I focus on a different spirit. This year we did the summer of rum. That was the best, because we got to do tiki drinks. I think this autumn we might do sherry. Last year we did winter of gin; it’s so fun and nerdy.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Oh man, we don’t even have any food in our refrigerator. If there’s any kind of grapes, I’ll eat those with the door open. Or if we have cheese, I’ll just break off a piece and stand there at three in the morning enjoying that.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
My dream since culinary school has always been to have an ice cream shop, something fun and old-school with pies and sundaes that doubled as a burger counter.

Recipes by Tiffany MacIsaac

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