Everyone smiles a little more when there's dessert around. Four Food & Wine Best New Chefs share a career moment that fed their sweet tooth and their soul.

By Stacey Ballis
Updated May 27, 2020
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Landon Nordeman / Ramona Rosales / Ramona Rosales / Evan Sung

It seems the whole world is baking up a storm right now. The digital sphere is full of photos of pies and cookies and cakes, and it’s no wonder. The magic of baking, especially desserts, is that it is always special. Meals are a requirement. Sweets are bonus. You have to eat, but a pastry with your morning coffee, or a cookie or piece of sweet bread with your afternoon tea, or a dessert after dinner: Those are always extra.

Sweets bring comfort and joy, and we could all use some of that right now. Chefs all over the world are posting amazing videos of their at-home cooking, and even traditionally savory chefs are jumping in on baking projects, from Nancy's Silverton's sourdough bread, to Joseph Flamm’s cinnamon rolls.

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Inspired by all of this homestyle pastry work, we reached out to some of Best New Chefs to ask them to share a “sweet” memory and tell us how it might have informed their career path. They had plenty to share.

Diana Davila, BNC 2018

Mi Tocaya Antojeria

Chicago IL

Landon Nordeman

“I’ve never been someone with a sweet tooth,” says Diana Davila. “And there was not really a baking tradition in my family, if we wanted pastry or bread, we went to the local panaderia!”

But she acknowledges that there is one sweet memory that has informed her menus as a chef, a simple offering from her abuela, her mom’s mom, who lived in the Chihuahua region of Mexico. The traditions there include flour tortillas, and her grandmother’s were the best. Davila remembers fondly that if you caught her at just the right time in the process, she would add a little sugar to the ball of dough she was rolling, then she would cook it, sprinkle it with more sugar, roll it up and hand it to you with some sour cream to dip it into.

“It wasn’t like she made a bunch of them to serve to people, you just had to catch her in the moment for that special kitchen treat.” Davila doesn’t serve sweet rolled tortillas at her Chicago restaurant Mi Tocaya, but she has had house-made flour tortillas on the menu at every restaurant she has helmed. “It feels important, even though there are a lot of people who don’t know how authentic it is, people who think flour tortillas aren’t ‘real’ Mexican, even a lot of Mexicans,” she laughs. “But having flour tortillas on my menus keeps that tradition alive, keeps the spirit of my abuela in the kitchen and in my place. It is about honoring that, and her.”

Katie Button, BNC 2015

Curaté, Buttons & Co. Bagels

Asheville, NC

Evan Sung

Katie Button remembers working at the famous elBulli when they were working with a powdered hard candy, experimenting with an idea of sprinkling it on top of potato starch paper to give it structure to shape. While brainstorming creative ideas of how to use the technique, Button went home and thought up an elaborate dessert comprising a candy "bell jar" using that technique. The dessert had a frozen cassis “flower” inside, on top of yogurt mousse.

“When I got back to work the next day, I shared my idea with the pastry chef, Mateu Cassanas, and he invited me to come in early to work on the "bell jar" component,” she says, remembering that what came out of that was a candy sculpture that could be flavored and finished with all different types of structures, and they called it a pañuelo.

“Later Mateu attributed the idea to me,” says Button. “At the time, I didn't think it was my idea that caused that creation because they didn't go for the entirety of the dessert I had dreamed up. Then I realized it was just the idea of shaping the candy in a bigger format that led to the ultimate final application of the candy. No, I didn't create it all myself, but the thinking and the idea-share sparked an idea for someone else to turn it into something that worked for the restaurant.”

It wasn’t just the collaboration that stuck with her, but the credit she was given, and how everyone’s contributions layered to make a final dish that the whole team could be excited about. “Now I think about that moment when talking to our cooks about creating dishes for the restaurant. They don't have to create the entire thing start to finish, but an idea, any idea can be the seed that creates something new.”

Paxx Caraballo Moll, BNC 2019

Jungle BaoBao

San, Juan, Puerto Rico

Ramona Rosales

Paxx Caraballo Moll is another chef who never really had much of a sweet tooth, but they will always remember when their dad would make them pumpkin fritters that are called, "barriguitas de vieja" which translates to "old lady bellies."

“He had a no recipe-recipe but they would always taste exactly the same.” Moll remembers. “I'd help him out and he'd tell me the coolest stories about Puerto Rican heroes like Lolita Lebrón and Pedro Albizu Campos. This is a moment in my life way before I even thought I'd cook professionally but I always treasure it.”

The memory of the way their dad took care of them by cooking something meaningful just for them and making it part of their relationship is how they lead the kitchen at Jungle BaoBao. “I love to be able to treat my cooks (kids) with love, respect and give forward to them. And that is a sweetness that I can have all the time!”

Kwame Onwuachi, BNC 2019

Kith/Kin

Washington, D.C.

Ramona Rosales

Kwame Onwuachi credits his entire career to a cheesecake. As a young cook, wanting to follow in the catering footsteps of his mother, Onwuachi had no idea how to launch such a business on his own in NYC. Wandering around SoHo, he went into a new store and after casual conversation with the owner, found out that she was planning a grand opening celebration. “But she hadn’t found a caterer. I said I was a caterer, and she hired me on the spot to cater her opening.”

Just one problem: She really wanted cheesecake, which he said he could bake for her no problem and offered to do a tasting with her the next day. Except he had never made a cheesecake in his life. “It was a disaster,” he remembers.

He called his sister for the recipe but didn’t pay close attention. The first attempt had huge blobs of unincorporated cheese in the batter. The second had curdled scrambled egg pieces throughout. He finally called her back in the wee hours after being up all night making failed cheesecakes, and really listened to the process. At 7:30 am, after 12 straight hours of work, he had a perfect cheesecake.

“I didn’t listen to music or have the TV on, I didn’t sleep or rest or take a break, I worked at this one thing for the whole night and I was happy!” That joy, that contentment, was the moment he says he realized that he needed to be doing this as a career, that cooking was his true passion.

One thing that all of these chefs agree upon, is that it is important to have a balance with sweet dishes. Whether it is the literal flavor balance of a cooling crema with a rolled sweet tortilla, or the metaphorical balance of a cooked treat as an act of love and connection. And when it comes to pairing beverages with desserts, balance can be hard to find. While every chef has their personal favorites—a bitter coffee to complement sweetness, or a dessert wine to bring out nuances—the one thing they all agree upon is that sparkling water is a wonderful pairing with any dessert. The slight mineral quality is a terrific accompaniment to sweet dishes, and the effervescence cuts through richness. A high-quality natural sparkler with light bubbles, like S.Pellegrino, is the choice of chefs, and one of the reasons you see it on so many restaurant menus. S.Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water is equally at home with savory and sweet dishes, which makes it a one-stop shop for discerning chefs to have on their beverage menu.