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Q & A with Karen DeMasco

Pastry chef Karen DeMasco has distinguished herself not with subversive
creations or unconventional methods, but with exemplary, classic
desserts.  Trends may come and go, but Karen’s elemental style that
embraces seasonal fruits has sustained her ever-evolving career and a
seven-year run at Craft.  Karen first honed her techniques at Gramercy Tavern, and then Della Femina, where she was well-received by the New York Times. She was then lured by chef Tom Colicchio to helm the pastry department at Craft, and later Craftbar.

At Craft, Karen’s signature desserts include gingerbread
with roasted pear and crème fraiche, and chocolate cake with malted
milk ice cream.  But hurry to have a “choose your own adventure”
dessert, as she will soon be departing.  Officially ending her tenure
with Craft and Craftbar this May, Karen plans to
spend the summer finishing her cookbook and working on her own
restaurant project to unveil in 2009.  DeMasco is a pastry chef on the
rise and we await her imminent solo debut.

Status: Single/Married/Divorced
Married, for 10 years this year.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A truck driver, that didn’t really work out.

What was your first job in food?
Waitressing at Sand’s Delicatessen in Shaker Heights, Ohio during high school.

After spending time working in NYC restaurants (One if by
Land, Gramercy Tavern), you moved to Portland, ME to work as pastry
chef at Fore Street Restaurant. How was the transition from bustling
NYC to a more tranquil lifestyle in Maine?

I loved it-
we lived in a beautiful (and cheap) apartment on the east end of
Portland overlooking Casco Bay and I walked to work every day. I
learned how to ski and mountain bike, and made lots of good friends.

You clearly missed NYC soon, as you moved back not long
after to become the pastry chef at Della Femina. What propelled that

My husband, Bobby, had a great opportunity to
open his own business here (which is Pierless Fish- a wholesale seafood
purveyor). It was a little scary, because it is a very comfortable
lifestyle up there, but we both missed New York restaurants- and there
were a lot more opportunities for me here as well. Looking back, I
think we made a great decision.

Your current position rests within Tom Colicchio’s
Craft-iness, assuming head manager of Craft and Craftbar’s pastry
kitchens. How did this opportunity come about?

I had
worked for Tom and Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern before moving to
Maine and I absolutely loved it. When I first moved back from Maine, I
went back to Gramercy while I waited for Della Femina to open. Later,
when I heard that Tom was going to open a restaurant I jumped at the
chance to be considered. Tom hired me based mostly on Claudia’s
recommendation, and it all grew from there. Craftbar opened next, and
we sent the desserts from my pastry kitchen. Later, ‘wichcraft opened.
We would carry all of the trays of pastries over each morning. In the
beginning, they were all in a row along 19th street. That was great.

Tom Colicchio has made himself a notable icon, through both
his restaurant accomplishments as well as Top Chef appearances. How is
it working for such a critical Top judge?…

Tom is not
a micromanager. He lets all of us make our own mistakes and figure out
how to deal with them. Over the years, I have been able to pretty much
do my own thing. That being said, he has an uncanny ability to spot the
one thing in the kitchen that really did not come out right that day,
and I have quite a complex about it. I always try to have him taste
something else that is great after that happens. He doesn’t do it
often, but when he tells me he doesn’t like something, I change it

Managing two pastry kitchens is tough when you can only be at one place at one time. How do you juggle the responsibilities?
Craftbar, the desserts are plated by the garde manger. This has had its
ups and downs, but the chef, Lauren Hirschberg, does a great job
overseeing it. He cares about each plate that leaves the kitchen-
desserts included. I have to trust him because I cannot be there most
of the time. I spend my time at Craft, where we do all of the craftbar
production along with everything for Craft.

As of late, we’ve seen a lot of shifting in pastry towards more savory flavors. What’s your take on this trendy transition?

I like desserts that are not overly sweet, but personally, I will leave the bacon to the hot line.

We’ve heard you’ve got your own dessert cookbook in the works; can you
give us a little glimpse into what’s in store for us, and a possible
release date?

It is going to be very approachable- the kind of book I hope that
people will use a lot. Simple desserts using quality ingredients. It is
being published by Clarkson Potter and the tentative release date is
Fall 2009.

What’s your favorite dessert on Craft’s menu, and why?

Meyer Lemon Beignets- warm buttermilk doughnuts with lemon curd in the
center- it doesn’t get much better than that. Or the rhubarb cobbler- I
love homey desserts like that, and rhubarb is great after a long winter
of apples.

What’s your least favorite dessert (and yes, you must pick one)?

Apple Tart, I love it, but see above. Enough already. I’m ready for some peaches.

What is your junk food of choice?

Something salty like salt and vinegar potato chips definitely.

Other than your own, what’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?

I don’t eat out nearly enough, and when I do, it is usually trying a
new place. I used to love eating at the bar at Veritas when Scott Bryan
was there. I haven’t eaten there since. I had a great meal last week at
Elettaria. I also love the pastas at A Voce.

What culinary trend do you most embrace?

Greenmarket cooking

What trend do you wish would die already?

It’s the obvious choice I know, but I have to say molecular gastronomy.

What’s next on the horizon for you? Any new ventures or restaurants in the works? Spill the beans…

OK, here we go…. I am leaving Craft after 7 years in mid May. It has
been a great run, one that has seen me through many changes, both as a
cook and as a person. I have witnessed Craft grow from one great
restaurant to an entire empire and I feel very lucky to have been a
part of that. I am going to spend the summer finishing my book, which
is a huge project and spending some time with my husband and 2
daughters, Mary (31/2) and Madeline (21 months). I am working on a
business plan to open something of my own in 2009. More to come…

Address: 43 East 19th Street, nr. Park Ave. South  
Phone: (212)780-0880

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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One Comment

  1. When in NY a few years ago, we had a ricotta fritter served with a lavender ice cream??/ YUM!!
    Also loved the lemon pudding cake with rhubarb and strawberry compote. Heavenly desserts

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