Industrial Arts is a series in which we talk to some of our favorite hospitality professionals who've been involved in non-culinary, non-mixological arts. Kate Holowchik went to school for illustration, not pastry, but her creative powers are out in full force on JM Curley's dessert menu. We got drinks with her at Drink.
Christine Fernsebner Eslao: I have never actually had any of your desserts, because I haven’t been to JM Curley for a few months. You started in April—
Kate Holowchik: April 1st.
The legendary Fernet bonbon
CFE: April Fool’s Day. So next time I go to JM Curley, what dessert should I start with?
KH: One of the things we’re featuring, that I’m known for in this town—which I think is hilarious—is Fernet ice cream bonbons. I found a way through “science”—quote unquote—to incorporate more alcohol into ice cream.
CFE: How do do you do that?
KH: We stabilize the liquid first. We stabilize it with xanthan gum. And you have to be careful how much you use, because if you don’t you get a really gummy, weird texture.
CFE: So, how drunk—
KH: There is actually quite a high alcohol content. I can’t remember what the percentage came out to, but, traditionally, you put two tablespoons per quart. I can put a cup.
Brayden C. Burroughs: A scoop of ice cream would be how many shots?
KH: It would probably be a solid shot.
CFE: So we could do shots of Fernet ice cream.
KH: I was like, you can get drunk off ice cream. I’m done here. They let me explore my whole gamut of what I can do, so the [desserts on] the actual JM Curley’s menu [are] fun, playful, simple. The specials board is saved for experimenting, seeing what we can do, showing my peers what we’re working on. And Bogie’s Place is kind of more fine-dining. I’m never bored.
For Mardi Gras: Milk Punch panna cotta, coffee chicory caramel, cafe brulot oranges, pecan praline.
BCB: On your specials board, do you coordinate with folks about what they’re working on—
KH: Yup. It’s one of the first kitchens I’ve worked in where I have an active dialogue going on every day with my peers, especially my sous chef and my executive chef. We throw out crazy ideas and then we backtrack. We go, “Well what if we did it this way? We could actually make this happen.”
CFE: What’s the starting point for that process? Is it that you need to pair a dish with a particular thing, or you need to start with a seasonal ingredient? Or do you just brainstorm?
KH: I’m definitely into brainstorming, big time. I definitely try to focus, especially this time of year now, on a lot of fruit. My main thing with pastry I’ve always done is getting back to my roots. So many people have so many memories tied to pastry. I have a lot of memories of making candy with my grandmother, and making pies, cornbread, biscuits. I like bringing out the inner child in people, because I feel like food—I know we’re moving away from that, but [food] went in kind of a pretentious direction, to almost where it wasn’t tangible. You’d go to a fine dining restaurant and have this amazing experience, but you would not be able to describe it after. What did you have for dessert? Oh, there was, like, chocolate, and some other stuff, and like, powder and foam. And it’s like, no, what did you have? I want to get people excited again for dessert. Get them acting like kids again, being interactive and having fun with it.
CFE: Most people associate pastry and dessert with sweet things, but you seem to have a really active interest in—
CFE: Savory, and bitter, and Fernet. How did that come about?
KH: Because—the number one complaint from people, as soon as I open my mouth and say my profession. “I’m a pastry chef.” “Oh, that’s really cool, but I don’t like sweets.” And I feel like that’s such a broad umbrella term to use. Pastry’s not just sweets. It can be so much more. I want to push that balance. I came from a bartending background. I bartended and served for years; I’ve been front of the house for years. I like to try to think that I build my pastries as I would cocktails. So you have a bitter element, you have acid involved, and sweetness—just having everything kind of play together. With pastry I get to play with texture as well. It should be exciting; every bite should be different. You’re noticing different nuances. It should be interactive. I think it’s important to have a bitter element. Definitely savory as well. As a society, our palates have become more sophisticated. People are ready for it. They want something exciting. They’re done with the molten chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. We’re ready for other things.
CFE: [I recently read an essay concerning Negroni Week that posited that] a predilection for bitter things is somehow a pretentious thing that isn’t a genuine desire on the part of consumers.
KH: You’re always going to have that one person. People have their opinions. “You don’t like negronis. Nobody likes negronis.” “You don’t like Fernet. Nobody likes Fernet.” I’m like, I don’t know why I drink it, then. I must be a glutton for punishment, at this point. I definitely crave bitter things. I, over the years, have tasted so many sweet things, and I get tired of it. I want something that’s gonna challenge me and get me off the track for a little while. I always love when a bartender forewarns me: “This is going to be extremely bitter.” I’m like, “Awesome. Totally ready for it.” Daren Swisher, who I work with at JM Curley—he’s a phenomenal bartender—he did this thing where he took an entire bottle of Campari, dehydrated the entire thing and put it in another bottle of Campari and made Super Campari.
BCB: I heard of that, but I haven't had it. CFE: That’s amazing.
KH: He makes dreams come true.
For the NH Beekeepers Society
CFE: Does your visual art background influence the visual or aesthetic aspects of your—
KH: I’m really focused on color combinations. I don’t like a whole plate of brown. Really utilizing the entire plate—you kind of look at it as a composition. You want to keep the person’s eye moving. Oh, look at this and look at this and oh my god I can’t wait to eat this. Once again, it has a whole interactive aspect.
BCB: Has pastry-making in turn influenced any of your illustration?
KH: I mean, definitely. My main goal—and I’ve had it on the backburner for so long, but I’m in the process this next month—is going full swing with this. I’m starting my own blog. I know everybody shudders at the idea of blogs but mine’s different—
CFE: We have a blog. It’s okay. [Editor's Note: It's awesome.]
KH: But I’m [going to be] doing something called The Not So Starving Artist. I want to illustrate it entirely comic book style. I’m just telling anecdotes and stories and [talking] about the industry. Because I think it’s so interesting and, you know, it has pulled me away—and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing—from pursuing a full time art career. Because it's so intoxicating. It’s awesome. I love the people I work with, the people I meet. There are nights where I go out for dinner and I run into other people and—it’s stuff you can’t make up, the shenanigans, the awesome nights you have. It’s just incredible. And just, in times of need, especially when I was transitioning from Les Zygomates to Curley’s, the amount of love from the industry that came to my side: “we’ll help you find a job”, “we’ll get you back on track”, “I know a person.” This, that, and the other thing. It’s just incredible to see. I really want to highlight that.
BCB: Tell us about your art background.
KH: I’ve been drawing since about the age of three or four. [My mom will] tell you the first time that she knew I was an artist, I drew a tea cup, and she could see the ellipse and [you could] look into the cup. I had a concept of space and whatnot. I [ended up] on two different career paths. I was initially going to school to become a doctor, of all things. My mom’s a nurse, a lot of people in my family are doctors and nurses. I realized after a year of schooling that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I was taking elective classes that were art classes. I loved them. That was my escape. [My father] was never really encouraging of the fact that I was going to school for medical, because, at the end of the day, he knew I wasn’t happy. He knew that I had to be creating. He knew I had to be doing something that was about a way to emote. I went to art school full time in New Hampshire, and graduated in 2011 with a degree in illustration. Main focus on fashion. I do love really graphic stuff. I grew up reading comic books because of my brother, so I always love very graphic lines, bright colors. ]
An obviously "rigid and scientific" cake...
BCB: In art you have a leeway, and my understanding of baking and pastry-making is that it’s more rigid and scientific…
KH: Definitely with the bases and stuff. You have freedom with the flavors and combinations, but as far as the bases for what you’re using as a vehicle for your flavor, yes, it’s very exact.
BCB: Is there any tension there…?
KH: I definitely have moments where I get frustrated. I am never one to play by the rules, but I know when I have to and what I can get away with. Those aspects of baking that I can actually have a lot of freedom in, I expose that to the nth degree.
CFE: If you thought about an art career, and you’re in this other industry—how do you perceive the differences between these industries besides the edibility of their products?
KH: At the end of the day, people are always going to go out to eat. They’re not always necessarily going to order dessert, but there are always going to be people in restaurants. It’s just a fact of nature. We all like going out, having a good time. With art, it would be a little harder. Because I saw a lot of my peers doing it, especially fresh out of college, almost heckling people with their art. “Do you like this print? I’ll sell it to your for fifty dollars.” I was like, I don’t want to be that person. If my art does sell, it sells on its own, and I don’t need to push it on people. I’m not forcing it so I can pay rent or, you know, put food in my mouth. So I knew I had to have a job that was stable.
CFE: There are stereotypes about chefs, and about bartenders, and about artists. But I don’t have a mental image of what a typical pastry chef is like. Do you want to make up some stereotypes about pastry chefs now, so that we can disseminate them? They don’t have to be true.
KH: Everybody asks about my hours. They always ask if I am up at the crack of dawn, which is not true. I’m in at twelve and I function like a normal person. I do admit that there’s a couple tendencies that I am known for, and other pastry chefs are known for, to be territorial when it comes to space, when it comes to my tools. We have specific tools that us pastry chefs use, but I’ve had other chefs take them and use them for other purposes. Our stuff is more detail-oriented, smaller. All this stuff that people don’t consider carrying on their person, I carry on a daily basis. My nice peelers, stuff like that. It’s not communal, it’s mine. I volunteered for the Star Chefs Congress in New York City, and I was hanging out with a group of pastry chefs that were in the pastry competition. We had this ongoing joke that in order to be a pastry chef you had to have awesome hair. All of us had ridiculous hair cuts. I was like, this true. We’re a different breed of human.
CFE: How’s [your job at JM Curley] been different from previous positions? It sounds like there’s probably a different emphasis to it.
KH: Definitely. It was one of those places—I used to go there all the time. It was kind of like my sanctuary from my last job. I’m not saying it was an awful job, it just wasn’t a good fit. I was trying to put myself in a role that I couldn’t—it was very strict French food and they wanted the simple, they wanted the creème brûlée, they wanted the apple tarte tatin. But I’m like, I want to do something different! And they were just not into it. So, it’s like, that’s fine. There’s someone who will fit in that spot perfectly. Whereas Curley’s, they want to showcase anybody who works there, from the bartenders to the serving staff to us chefs. We’re allowed to do pretty much whatever we want. It just keeps me really happy. I just can’t explain the fact that I go into work happy, I leave work happy, the people I work with are amazing—I just can’t get over it. I’m so thankful to be working for them.
CFE: What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve gotten away with so far?
KH: I’ve been working closely with Nick Korn, from Offsite, and he approached me one night, when I was sitting at his bar, at Silvertone, and he was talking about the May the Fourth Be With You event. Star Wars, all that. He was like, would you be willing to come up with a dessert for Star Wars? I’m a huge dork, so yes, please. So I came up with a Seven Leia Bar—classic seven layer bar, and on top I did a chocolate Han Solo in carbonite. I put a negroni [carrot cake] on this last menu, and it sold really well. I just had a lot of fun with it, trying to incorporate all the elements to make it taste like a negroni and not overshadowing stuff. I’m looking at other negroni desserts when I’m doing my research, and no one emphasizes the gin. They’re so afraid of the gin in desserts. It has so much character, so I did a gin dreamsicle ice cream, because it plays so well with orange.
CFE: [I saw your tweet about that and] I considered, briefly, changing my name to Gin Dreamsicle.
KH: It was one of my favorite things I executed. I did gin-pickled oranges, and they really just accentuate the fact that there’s gin in it. No one complained. No one was like [“ew” noise]. If you’re getting a negroni dessert, I think you know what you’re walking into. [We pause to order additional drinks. Christine looks around the room for Drink manager Palmer Matthews.]
CFE: Palmer’s going to miss his window for a hug break [as mandated by the official Opus Affair Blog style guide]. If you see him before me, flag him down.
KH: I will flap my arms with all my might.
CFE: Thank you. You did a Pastry Pairings [event] with Opus Affair. I’m curious how you came up with the pairings, and what it’s like to serve food in an art gallery.
KH: For me it’s like the perfect marriage of the two things that I love. When they told me it was going to be in an art gallery, I was absolutely thrilled. Getting people excited about art [...] and also eating delicious pastries. I was very lucky to work with Jonathan [Fenelon] from Clio, who did all the wine pairings. He and I had not met before we did the event, and all he had to work off of was the actual description that I wrote. That’s it. And he did the most perfect pairings. I was jumping up and down. “You did this, I was thinking of doing a wine that’s similar to a lambic.” Just very matter-of-fact. I’m always trying to do stuff on the side—that includes Opus Affair, and SoonSpoon. They’re just such awesome people. I’ve met so many incredible people through the events. It’s truly humbling.
CFE : Palmer, you’re missing your window for interrupting the interview with a hug break.
KH: He saunters over.
CFE: It’s in the Opus Affair style guide. [Obligatory hugs. Some excuse about killing crabs to order. Palmer saunters away.]
CFE: Any upcoming events?
KH: I’m doing another event with Opus Affair. July 16th? 17th?
CFE: I don’t even know about this yet. Dang.
KH: We’re reinventing the movie experience. I am in charge of sodas. I’ll be doing three different sodas. We have Josh Lewin doing, I think, popcorn. Taza’s doing chocolate. Someone’s doing nachos. Graham’s going to pick a movie. It’ll be awesome.
CFE: What’s the venue?
KH: I think it’s Workbar, in Cambridge. We’re still ironing out the details. I definitely want to do something with shrub. I know all the bartenders are doing shrubs. Carbonating it is really awesome. Especially with all the seasonal vegetation we have right now.
CFE: What’s up with your soda explorations?
KH: That’s kind of like the end game. Most chefs have a goal to own their own restaurant. I want to bring back the soda jerk. I would like to incorporate booze, but I don’t want that to be my main focus. I’d like to have sodas on draft lines. Lots of crazy flavor combinations. Two of my favorite things are soda and ice cream. I’ve been working closely with the JM Curley staff on soda syrups. We’re cracking the code for Moxie, so we can make our own Moxie.
CFE: That’s magic.
KH: Whether it’s my illustration, or my fascination with fashion, I love the fifties. That’s such a romantic era. Nothing is more romantic to me than sharing a soda or an ice cream float with someone. I want to bring that back. I want to have a place people can come, that I want to open late night, where you don’t feel an obligation to get drunk to get to know someone. Giggle and get excited about sharing ice cream and just see people for who they really are.
Some time after we shut off our digital voice recorder, we had to write down something she said: "If you let me go to my car, I have toffee Legos in there. Because that’s normal." But the context was lost among the juleps.