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Q & A with Heather Bertinetti

Heather_Bertinetti.JPGHeather Bertinetti used to clean bathrooms in a patisserie.  Now — she’s the head pastry chef at Convivio.  Not bad at all.  Bertinetti studied at the Culinary Institute of America before landing jobs at Gramercy Tavern and per se.

Nowadays, Bertinetti works alongside Michael White at both Alto and Convivio, juggling haute and rustic desserts.  At Alto, she layers a homemade torrone with nougat semifreddo, hazelnut cake, and chocolate sauce.  At Convivio, she takes a polished approach to Southern Italian with a pistachio tartaletta, garnished with blood orange sorbet and candied pistachios.


What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a pastry chef.

What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
This little pastry shop in New Jersey called La Petite Patisserie. I learned how to build, make and decorate cakes. But because I was only 15 at the time and really just happy to be there, I also learned how to clean a bathroom properly, definitely another useful life lesson.

What’s your take on the evolution of Italian pastry in America these days?
I think it’s still up and coming. There definitely is a trend with gelato lately. (and it’s about time because it’s so good and, in my opinion, so much better than ice cream.) The more people are traveling to Italy the more likely they are to seek out more traditional Italian food. Restaurants Like ALTO and Convivio are traditional and true to the region. It’s not your typical Italian American cuisine. So I’m happy to be a part of the evolution of Italian desserts in America.

Were you worried about becoming Alto’s third pastry chef in less than a year?
No not at all. I was willing to come on board and show what I can do while still constantly learning. 

How did your CIA education experience shape your career?
The Culinary Institute of America really provided the building blocks for my career. It opened doors and gave me the foundation of baking and pastry arts. I don’t know that I would have been as confident in my skills had I not gone there.

Have you ever been to Italy for inspiration?
Not yet but I’m planning on going to Italy in February.

What was it like working with Michelle Antonishek and Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern?
Gramercy was one of the busiest places I have ever worked and challenged me every day.  I think it’s healthy to choose a restaurant you know will be a challenge when you first come out of school—you can’t learn how to swim if you don’t jump in the water. Both Michelle and Claudia have taught me more than they will ever know. It’s those first chefs when you start out that influence you the most. I learned everything from production and service to time management and organization at Gramercy.

You can’t do much better than per se.  How did working with Sebastien Rouxel influence your current work at Alto and Convivio?
Sebastien is one of the greatest influences in my professional life. He taught me the importance of paying attention to detail and consistency—the desserts need to look just as good as they taste. At Alto and Convivo I try to make the desserts look beautiful with clean lines and flavors. Also, as a manager, I try to teach my cooks the values and discipline that Per se instilled in me.  

Do you try to make desserts to complement Michael White’s menu?

We both try to stay seasonal and we are constantly giving each other constructive criticism about the food. It’s not unlikely to see us both tearing apart a dessert and talking about it step by step.  I try not to use the same flavors that the savory side does just for variety of the menu and I always strive to keep my desserts light.

What are the key distinctions between the desserts at Alto and Convivio?
The desserts at Convivio tend to be a bit more rustic and soulful, which the desserts at Alto tend to be more refined and contemporary—both styles are equally delicious!

What are the biggest challenges of pastry ?
Consistency. Little factors—things some people never think of, like the outside temperature’s effect on chocolate tempering—can influence, and potentially ruin, the final product.  It can be a real struggle if you don’t know how to troubleshoot certain problems.

What is your favorite dessert at Convivio? At Alto?
At Convivio, it’s the Apple Crostata (Spiced Apple, Walnut Crumble, Caramel Gelato).  At ALTO the Toronne (piemontese nougat semifreddo, hazelnut cake, warm chocolate sauce).

What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
I stand by my food. I whole heartily love all of my desserts and realize that there will always be someone who won’t like something but that’s the reality of the restaurant biz.

Do you have a favorite junk food?
Red rope licorice

Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
Nope, not right now.

Address: 45 Tudor City Place
Phone: (212) 599-5045

Photo Credit: Melissa Hom

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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