When we woke up from our Top Chef-induced food-TV coma last week, we realized that we forgot to save room for dessert! Top Chef: Just Desserts has been on for three weeks now. It’s hosted by Gail Simmons and it even features a local competitor, Hook’s Heather Chittum. How could we ignore it?
If you’ve ever dreamt of walking away from your day job and getting into the restaurant business, Chittum should be an inspiration. She came to Washington from New York to work on the Hill. After four years she took a job with Share Our Strength, and then in 2001 her passion led her to L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. She has since built a reputation as one of the top pastry chefs in the Washington metropolitan area, winning the award for Pastry Chef of the Year from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington in 2008.
We caught up with Chef Chittum last Friday and talked about pastry chefs in the spotlight, the interplay between entrees and desserts, and – of course – whoopie pies.
SPOILER ALERT – if you haven’t watched last week’s episode, you may want to stop reading now. But just until you have a chance to watch it. Then come back. We’ll be here.
Capital Spice: Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to us, chef. I’m sure they’ve got you pretty busy with these interviews. Let’s start with the basics: What was the Top Chef experience like for you?
Heather Chittum: Overall it was fantastic. It’s not something I had ever sought out, so I really didn’t know what to expect. It was a crazy, up-and-down kind of ride, but it was definitely a good experience.
HC: It used to be that pastry chefs were hardly even mentioned. Or that they were an afterthought. But it definitely seems like the tide is turning – there are even some celebrity chefs who are known for their desserts.
CS: Do you think a show like Top Chef: Just Desserts reflect that change, or is it driving it?
HC: I think it’s a bit of both. The show definitely helps to shine the spotlight on pastry chefs, but it’s ultimately the folks in the industry driving it.
CS: You were recognized by RAMW as Pastry Chef of the Year in 2008 for your work at Hook. How do you come up with a dessert menu to follow such light, clean flavors?
HC: I try to keep things balanced. Desserts at Hook are generally smaller, more refined, though there are times when I intentionally go big for a specific effect. I also work with seasonal ingredients frequently to take advantage of what’s freshest and best. You need to offer a diversity of options: light, dense, chocolatey, creamy, fruity, rich.
CS: …And that brings us to the issue of whoopie pies.
CS: You wanted to do them for this week’s challenge, but you ended up making the peanut butter cookies that got you sent home. Any regrets?
HC: I try to live my life “always forward, never back,” so I don’t know that it’s a regret. But if I had it to do over I definitely would have fought harder to make the whoopie pies.
CS: Since taping TC:JD, you’ve gotten married [to James Roth, co-owner of Falls Church gourmet shop Red, White and Bleu]. How’s married life treating you so far?
HC: We both treat food as a celebration as well as an everyday experience. It’s nice – we try to eat dinner together as often as possible.
CS: Who cooks?
HC: I like to shop for food, and we go to the local farmers’ market together – it’s right near the shop. But I’m definitely the one doing the cooking. Last night was shrimp with pasta and broccolini. I also do a take on Indian food – chicken vindaloo – that’s really good. I get inspiration and tips from chef friends I’ve worked with like Barry Kozlow [of Tallula], Brendan Cox [of DC Coast] and my ex-husband, Tony Chittum [of Vermilion].
CS: Any final thoughts on your Top Chef experience?
HC: I’m a fighter. I’m resilient. In the end, it’s a competition and a television show. With an experience like this it’s as much about what you take away from it as it is about winning. I will definitely cherish the friendships I made – I met some fantastic people on the show. And I love that I served Jacques Torres his first whoopie pie!