Dana Cree’s desserts were standouts from her first days as a pastry chef in Seattle, but she never stopped looking for new ways to explore her craft. Her creations have been inspired by ingredients from a toddler’s rice cake to foraged European sorrel leaves, using preparations as classic as puff pastry (perhaps made with rye) and as modernist as gels.
Reaching what seemed like a ceiling in Seattle opportunities, she left her steady job at Poppy in 2010 for a flurry of further training. She landed positions in kitchens from NOMA in Copenhagen, named the world’s best restaurant in one survey, to molecular gastronomy temple Alinea in Chicago, named the world’s best restaurant in another. She was pastry chef at the Michelin-starred Kadeau in Denmark, then worked with the legendary Sherry Yard of Spago in Los Angeles.
Most chefs would consider it a serious coup to have any of those restaurants on a resume; for Cree they were a series of classrooms.
Somewhere along the way, though, the student became the teacher.
Cree, now pastry chef at Blackbird in Chicago and its more casual sister restaurant avec, is a finalist for the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Pastry Chef in the nation, sharing the honor with more famous names such as Christina Tosi and Dominique Ansel. Her food blog aimed at professional chefs, The Pastry Department, was named a finalist in Saveur magazine’s competition for the best sites in the country less than a year after her first entry.
Throughout her journey, Cree — self-possessed and never self-aggrandizing — has always been able to explain the logical underpinning of her delicious work. She considers the reasons for each ingredient and technique used to build a particular meal’s finale, whether looking at casual or rarified menus.
One dessert served at NOMA, she recalled, was fermented plum jam and a dollop of plum kernel cream and a dollop of potato puree. “It works for NOMA. You sit in that dining room, you have that dessert, and it is perfection,” she said. One of her own signatures, at Poppy, could not have been more different; a deceptively simple take on Nutter Butters tagged by Food and Wine as one of “America’s Best Salty-Sweet Desserts.”
Cree was raised in the Seattle area, and grew up cooking with her grandmother, a home ec teacher. “She always had a lesson plan for us. It was either sewing or cooking. I definitely picked up an early appreciation for both of those things,” she said.
She didn’t take a direct route to her profession, persuaded at first to pursue a more practical teaching career instead. A trip backpacking — and eating – – in Europe convinced her to make the switch.
But “sometimes when we talk about culinary school, we joke around that I have the privilege of having dropped out twice,” she said. The first time was to move from the Art Institute of Seattle’s main culinary program to its pastry program, the second time was when she left school a semester early — missing the coursework on centerpiece desserts – – to work at Seattle’s Lampreia with perfectionist chef Scott Carsberg.
“I’ve never made a sugar sculpture, but I worked for Scott Carsberg for three years instead. I think I won.”
An unpaid internship at the modernist Fat Duck in England (which led the world’s 50 best restaurants list a few years before NOMA took the top spot) “completely changed the way I thought about food,” she said, and gave her new goals.
“I wanted to cook in Europe and I wanted to cook Michelin three-star food, and I wanted to learn the best, I wanted to be the best, I wanted to be part of the best — not because it was an elite restaurant, but because I thought that it was some of the most beautiful food in the world.”
Her next move, though, wasn’t what she expected. Her mother became ill. Cree returned to Seattle to help care for her — “nothing but a blessing,” she wrote in her blog at the time — until her death two years later.
Cree had also been hired on at her first pastry chef position at family-owned Eva restaurant in Tangletown. It was rare for neighborhood Seattle restaurants to employ even a part-time pastry chef, and it gave Cree an early and unusual amount of authority — yet no on-site mentor to guide her in her move from savory foods to desserts. In her department of one, she learned from cookbooks and online posts, using inspirations from nostalgic childhood memories and ingredients like the sour plums from the owner’s backyard tree. A stint at wd-50 in New York (yet another Michelin-starred stop) was a formative experience, helping change the way she conceptualized food.
Then-pastry chef Alex Stupak taught her, rather than considering what pre-established “houses” like cakes or tarts she might choose to serve, to say instead “Let’s not even look at those houses. I’ve got yuzu, yogurt, spruce and pine nuts, let’s build a house no one has ever seen.”
The biggest influence on her recent career, though, might have been her time at Spago, an unusually traditional destination. The desserts there appeared dated to her at first glimpse, Cree said, until she came to realize “it’s that everyone who came behind Sherry has emulated her.” Learning to make puff pastry with Yard “was as exciting and innovative to me as learning how to stabilize milk into a meringue. It sort of closed the circle for me.”
She returned to blogging last year, providing a window into her thoughts for “that younger version of myself,” the pastry chef starting out in the professional world. Home cooks get “99.9 percent” of available recipes; Cree shows the philosophical development and practical steps of recipes using commercial Hobart mixers and ingredients like sucrose measured in grams.
After two years, she’s comfortably settled in at Blackbird and avec. It’s not a place for signature desserts, at Blackbird the menu is “constantly in flux,” she said, and it’s hard to think of one dish as being more distinctively her style than another. “They’re sort of all in their own ways my children.”
Two years sounds like a long stay for someone accustomed to always looking onward, but Cree is in a different place now.
“I have invested so heavily (in a career,) and it comes at a huge cost. Bouncing around you lose any sense of stability in your life, you’re dead broke all the time, you’re constantly starting a new job, which is the most awkward thing in the world, but I sacrificed all those things for an education. At some point it needs to add up to something, and I really feel like Blackbird is what it adds up to,” she said.
So much of the beauty of the job for her now goes beyond plating the food. It also lies in having her own department of colleagues and helping them learn and grow, figuring out the best way to culminate whatever style and season of meal being served.
“I love seeing them every single day, and I love being a part of what takes them to where they want to be.”