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Q & A with Deborah Racicot

Gotham_Deborah_137F.jpgPastry chef Deborah Racicot defined herself as one of New York’s finest pastry chefs early on in her career.  With no formal culinary schooling, Deborah Racicot found herself training under such prominent chefs as Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern as well as Richard Leach at Le Cote Basque.


Having grown up in Vermont, Racicot gravitated toward classic  creations with a decidedly creative and refined twist.  Now at Gotham Bar and Grill, she divines a grown up version of “S’mores” with chicory ice cream, a key lime souffle, and a summer cheesecake with blueberry compote and nectarine sorbet.




What did you want to be when you grew up?
A veternarian.


What was your first job in food?
I was a cocktail waitress in a Mexican restaurant in Vermont. It was a blast.


What compelled you to move from the front of the house as a waitress to the back of the house?
Well, first I started off as a cocktail waitress, moved on to bartender, and then actually started serving food. It was then that I saw that the restaurant had a need for good desserts. So I told the chef that I could do a lot better, he asked me to prove it and I did. Then I got into catering, all the while waiting tables. When I went to Seattle for college I was still waiting, but the manager tried the cake I made for a birthday party, and all of a sudden I was the restaurant’s pastry chef! It was totally by luck, and a lot of work for a 22 year old! I made display cakes, bread, pastries, and would literally work until 9:30 PM after riding my bike to the kitchen at 4:30 in the morning! Finally, I decided to move to the East Coast, where I was the assistant manager at Savoy. It was there that I was given the idea to join Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern.

You became a pastry chef via experience rather than through formal schooling. If you had the chance to do it all again, would you go to culinary school?
Nope. Cooking is something within you and can’t be taught from a textbook. You’ll end up spending tons of money for six months of schooling, only to come to a restaurant and wonder, “Oh my god, what the hell did I just do?” and then be re- taught everything you learned anyway.

Your desserts are very seasonally guided and ever changing. What’s in season right now?
Well right now I have a strawberry and rhubarb dessert – I get the strawberries from Berried Treasures in Union Square. Blackberries are just coming out, along with blueberries, gooseberries, figs, and melons (though I’m not working with them at this time.) And then there’s my signature dessert: s’mores with chicory ice cream. I also have a dessert with apricots and red currant, and one with raspberries and peach.


What did you learn from working with Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern?
I learned a lot about flavor and seasonality. All of her desserts were so simple, from the greenmarket, but so flavorful. I also learned how a professional kitchen runs in a very fast-paced environment.

This year, you were named one of Pastry Art and Design’s Top Ten American Pastry Chefs. Do you find there is more pressure to stay on top?…

I never want to have a giant head from fame, and I always try to remain humble. If anything, I hope that helps bring more people to the restaurant to try my desserts, but really I just think it’s cool and then just not think about it.


Are there any specific recipes from your childhood in New England that have influenced your work
Tough question. We had apple trees and a garden in my backyard, so we were always picking berries and apples…picking things fresh. Seasonality was a big thing, as was a sense of hominess that I like to bring to my desserts.


Throughout your career, you’ve worked in Scandinavian, French Mediterranean and Italian restaurants. How do these experiences connect to your work as a seasonal American chef at Gotham Bar and Grill?
It really broadened my horizons and kept me open-minded. But then again, American cuisine encompasses everything. I wouldn’t call myself an expert either in any one of these cuisines; you know, I sort of dabbled in each of them.


How has your business degree from Gordon College contributed to your success?
My business degree made me understand that this is a business that needs to survive. You learn how you can’t throw anything away, how every piece of produce counts. For instance, I macerate berries, and take the juice to make a variety of different summer coolers for lunch. Maybe I’ll use the juice for a sorbet, or fruit jellies, et cetera. Basically, how can the pastry department make more money for the restaurant?


Do you find there are challenges to being a female chef in a profession dominated by men?
You know, I never really thought about it because ever since I started working in kitchens, I was surrounded by men. I worked like a guy, thought like a guy, so I didn’t think of myself as “woman.” However, I do feel that people often forget there are women working hard in the kitchens. I also think that, perhaps, there is something about the strong male prowess, their sexuality,  that makes them more interesting to write and talk about, which is why they get the spotlight. But in the end, you definitely have to be a strong woman – physically and mentally strong.


You once said you wanted your desserts to be the flawless ending to an impeccable meal. Which restaurant (other than your own, of course) has given you this experience?
The old Daniel, when Francois Payard was the pastry chef. He just completely complimented the meal that Boulud had created. It was perfect, classic, and consistent. I would say that per se, especially with its several desserts and petits fours at the end of the meal, reached that level too.

What do you consider your most indispensable kitchen tool?
Definitely a spackle knife and bowl scrapers, because you’re constantly scraping batters from bowls, chopping produce and sliding it over to the side. I also like to use a long, metal yardstick to slide under rolled dough. Carpenter in the Kitchen!


What is your favorite dessert on the menu at Gotham Bar and Grill?
None in particular, but I do have a fascination with soufflés. I like to change them and make them new and interesting, so I’ve been using a lot of fruits to make them. I like to go beyond typical chocolate, grand marnier, the usual stuff.


What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
Again, none in particular. I’m always growing and get to learn what people like and don’t like. And in the end, it’s the customer that decides if a dessert stays or goes. For instance, I once made this really light and fresh dessert that I really loved. It was a honeydew melon charlotte with a light vanilla mousse, melon broth, and sorbet. You’d think after a big, hearty meal people would embrace something so refreshing, but it seems people aren’t crazy about melons as a dessert.


Which culinary trends do you embrace?
There are a lot of new techniques of cooking out there, aka  molecular gastronomy, and it’s all very modern. I have a fascination with it and am constantly open to all trends. Dessert is like fashion and art: it’s constantly changing.


What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
Nope-I’m open to everything.


Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
I definitely want to have my own place. I always keep a journal of thoughts and ideas. But for now, I’m content with what I’m doing.


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