The position of pastry chef at Congress, the new and much-lauded fine dining venue in downtown Austin, didn’t stay open long. Thirty-one-year-old Erica Waksmunski has slipped into the opening left by the departure of Plinio Sandalio (who went to the Carillon, in Austin). She started on January 22. Two days ago I sat down with Waksmunski to sample her wares (what’s the opposite of hardship pay?!) and chat about her love of making desserts and how she came to Austin for a visit and ended up with a job offer.
TM: How did you get started cooking sweet things?
EW: When I was a kid, my mom and I would begin baking at Thanksgiving to have gifts ready for everybody on our Christmas list, which included the mailman and the check-out clerk at the grocery store as well as friends and family. It was all scratch baking—breads, cookies, that sort of thing.
TM: What was the hardest?
EW: Rugelach! These are small rolled pastries filled with things like nuts and raisins. My mom is from New York—they are popular in the Northeast—and I remember spending hours and hours and hours rolling out that cream cheese dough.
TM: For you, was it always pastry, from the beginning?
EW: Actually, I cooked a lot of savory [unsweet foods] as a kid. I remember a cooking show on TV taught by some German chef (at least, I thought he was German). I would watch it religiously, write down all the ingredients, and call my dad at work and tell him what I needed him to pick up on his way home. Then I would cook dinner.
TM: Where did you go to school and work before moving to Austin?
EW: I grew up in Virginia Beach and I went to Johnson & Wales University, which is a culinary school in Charlotte, North Carolina. After that I got an internship at Everest in Chicago—I was really lucky. I called the kitchen every single day until Chef Perry told me yes, and later I got hired there. After a couple of years, I went to Flyte World Dining & Wine, in Nashville, which was kind of crazy. I was so young in my career and it was a demanding job, but I told myself, it’s sink-or-swim time.
TM: How did you get to Texas?
EW: I had been working at Chez TJ, which is in Mountain View, in the San Francisco Bay area, and was visiting friends in Austin at Thanksgiving. I happened to be at a party talking to another chef, who mentioned that David Bull was looking for a pastry chef at Congress. I thought, Well, why not? I sent my resume on Monday night and on Tuesday morning, I got a call from chef Bull!
TM: That’s fast.
EW: It was crazy! We emailed back and forth, and then he said they were going to fly me out for an interview. I packed up some special or unusual things I knew I would need, in baggies, and got on the plane. I went straight to the restaurant and they threw me right in! I worked Friday service. Then I slept four hours, got up at 8 a.m., and made a couple of desserts for them to taste. Right after the tasting, he offered me the job.
TM: Do you fit the cliché of the pastry chef who’s a control freak?
EW: Once upon a time I would let the anxiety and stress get to me. But I took a step back, and at this point I feel like I have a way more laid-back approach to my food and management style. I’m not curing cancer; I’m just making people dinner, or dessert! (Laughs.)
TM: What is the best thing about your job—licking the spoon, plating the final result, or something else?
EW: All of the above! Come on, I make candy and sweets for a living. It’s great, it’s fun, it tastes good, and it makes people happy. I love it from start to finish.
TM: What do you think about bacon as a dessert ingredient?
EW: Oh, gosh, I am rolling my eyes here. That is a trend I find obnoxious. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, bacon tastes great with maple syrup. But, please, let’s leave bacon for breakfast.
EW: That yogurt and lime sorbet dessert. I like to end a multi-course meal on a light, palate-cleansing note. Your tongue has been bombarded, and you need to lighten it back up. That combination is fruit-forward and acidic and has punchy flavors. I’m pretty proud of it. [Dear readers, she’s referring to her amazing Greek yogurt mousse with lime–Thai basil sorbet; they are accompanied by small cubes of compressed Asian pear in yuzu syrup, super-thin mango slices, dabs of mango purée, and feuillitine crunchies tossed with white chocolate and black lava salt. Your life will not be complete until you have it.]
TM: Last question: Dark or milk chocolate?
(Photo of Erica by Scott Walker; Photo of Dessert by David Bull)