Pastry Chef Christine McCabe Tentori's Sweet Idea
Standing in the midst of Sugar's compact basement kitchen on a Friday night, there's no doubt that Tentori and her staff of two have rhythm. And radar. The kitchen hums as she and her assistants deftly float around, over and along side each other - every movement interlaced.
"The challenging part," said Tentori, "is to know when to stop prepping so we don't get caught short on time." They prioritize the prep to accommodate interruptions once the orders start coming in.
This is going to be a busy night. On top of the twenty desserts on the menu - made up of over 100 separate components - there's prep for 300 individual desserts for the following night's Jean Banchet awards dinner - Chocolate Meringue with Chocolate Pavé and Coffee Cremina, topped with Candied Kumquat sauce.
Her calm, refreshingly understated style keeps the kitchen atmosphere purposefully collaborative. "The food that comes out of my kitchen is my main priority," she said, "not what's printed about me in the paper."
Art and Science
Tentori's desserts avoid architectural super-structuring and reside in the foundations of texture, flavor and humor. The finished products suggest Mies van der Rohe with a hat tip to Willy Wonka - clean construction with a plume of grape cotton candy firing overhead.
Inspiration comes from many sources and Tentori relishes the process. She developed her own brain-storming method which allows her to rifle through her library of pastry books with intent. "I make lists of ingredients (walnuts, dates, raspberry…) and bases (tapioca, bread pudding, chocolate macaroon…) and then play a mix and match game of sorts."
Over the years, her sources have evolved from Bon Appetit and Chocolatier magazines to Gramercy Park's Claudia Fleming and famed Spanish restaurant, El Bulli. She refers back to Ferran Adria's El Bulli books regularly drawing ideas from his unconventional take-the-familiar-in-unexpected-directions approach.
Her first pastry job after graduating from Chicago's Washburne Trade School Culinary Program was under Gabriel Viti at Gabriel's in Highwood, Illinois. He arranged for her to do a ten-day stage, or mini apprenticeship, at Joël Robuchon's famed Parisian restaurant, Robuchon. "I learned more in those ten days than I've learned in the past ten years," she says. It was at Robuchon that she began honing her technical skills, until then primarily self taught, and understanding the science behind great pastry.
"I definitely have more of an analytical brain," explains Tentori, "I think about the recipe idea and then try it out at least four times before the plating thoughts begin. The tweaking and arranging - I'm always looking for other people's input on how it could look better."
Drinking Pecans & Biting Plates
Her desserts look deceptively simple. The pecan soup that moats under the Yam Crème Brulee stacked on Brown Butter Pecan Cake in the Yamlet, infuses pecans and cream with such clarity and richness you feel like you're drinking a pecan. The Yamlet's crisp parsnip crown, held in place with caramel prongs, adds an earthy depth of sweetness.
Tentori deftly uses a light hand with sugar, coaxing flavors and ingredients to stand like soloists but orchestrate together with sparkle. The near bitter hot fudge under the Banana Karenina balances the caramel banana pudding and emboldens the chocolate tone in the pavlova base. None of these notes are accidental.
The menu item that attracts nearly as much attention as Sugar's Suhail designed interior is the Marquis de Sucre dessert sampler. The edible plate, made of colored Isomalt, a sucrose derivative a bit less temperamental than sugar, looks like art glass. The pedestal feet are brilliantly colored and gleam like Jolly Rancher candies. This sampler currently features Tentori's signature chocolate Bouchon along with a fruit, a custard and a sorbet dessert which vary.
Meanwhile back at the bar…
The most unconventional piece of equipment, the cotton candy machine, gets a steady work out. Originally, the machine was planned for the bar area as a quasi-performance art piece, but they couldn't tame it. The staff discovered that the fine sugar flew everywhere coating everything, including them, in candy dust. Now relegated to the kitchen, "we draw straws to see who will be the cotton candy victim of the day," laughs Tentori. Customers eat bowls of cotton candy that look like brightly colored tumbleweeds in Sassy Apple, Grape and Watermelon flavors. The Cotton Dandy, a Stoli based cocktail, and the tapioca based Remains of the Parfait are garnished with it.
As the evening wears into night, Tentori heads upstairs to walk the dining room. Jerry Seqi guides her toward Tony Curtis who's mingling with fellow cast members from Some Like It Hot. One of the lead characters, originated by Marilyn Monroe in the 1959 movie, is named Sugar. They had to come in. "Curtis is a total sweetheart," Suqi tells her.
As Tentori leans in to chat with Curtis, she looks right at home. She enjoys being on center stage but after a few moments she quietly excuses herself. She has lots of guests tonight and wants to see how they're enjoying her desserts.
Rossenthal plateware. The shapes are cleverly considered - the Interpretation of Creams, a trio of ice cream sandwiches, recline into a narrow, wavy bottom that props them up like pillows.
Farmer's Markets (in season):
Chicago's Green City Market (Wednesday) "It's turning into a scene." Lincoln Park Farmer's Market (Saturday)
Taylor Ice Cream Maker
Equipment Wish List:
"There's always more that you want. I'd love a Pacojet for making sorbets."
A Little Sage Advice:
Temperature is the invisible ingredient in pastry. The temperature of your raw ingredients and the temperature you cook things to, all affect the product's consistency. Learn it well.
Favorite Customer Complaint:
"This soufflé, it's all air!"
Most dreaded interview question:
"What's your favorite dessert? - what kind of a question is that?"
Sugar: a dessert bar, 108 W. Kinzie, Chicago, Illinois. Tel: 312-822-9999
Written By: Mari Coyne
Mari Coyne wanders the culinary alleys and fields looking for curious people and stuff to photograph and write about. After a nearly 5 year run, she sold her interest in Three Tarts Bakery, to pursue her original interests in journalism, agriculture, documentary photography, culinary history and FBI Most Wanted posters. She's single, cute (occasionally, but rarely, cranky), willing to move and refuses to work retail again. Ever.