Seeing Red: Mixing The Sweet With The Savory

By: Allana Mortell

I live by the mantra, "Life's too short - eat dessert first!" When you're having an off day or need a small pick-me-up, I like to think there's nothing a cup of dark chocolate mousse can't fix. So, when I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Chef Peter Steele, the newest pastry chef of Red Rooster, it was like a dream-come-true.

But other aren't too keen on sweets, so it's often hard to get restaurant-goers to leave room for dessert. But to Chef Peter, he takes that fact like a challenge and creates desserts that all audiences will love. By combining the sweet with the savory, Peter has innovative dishes pumping out left and right from the Red Rooster kitchen that just might make you want to eat dessert first, too! Check out Chef Peter's story and the science of pastry...

What was your first memory in the kitchen?

I spent many years in Jamaica as a child and I always loved the kitchen. I loved watching my grandmother cook and quickly became very curious about the spices and different herbs she would use in cooking savory items, as well as desserts.

How did you get into pastry?

I actually stumbled into pastry by accident, not until the early 90s. I always thought pastry was kind of a woman's gig, sort of sissy. I was working the hot line at Monkey Bar under my mentor, Chef John Schenk, and there was an open position available in pastry. They asked me so I said yes. As time went on, I really became a fast learner. I started to make bread and used a bread scale. I worked out balance and realized it was so natural - kind of funny how those things work out.

What is it then about pastry that you love?

I love that pastry is so precise. If there is a flaw in an ingredient, it can throw things off. It really is a science. You must have passion for what you do, be creative in what you do and that will all drive you to do better. You must have a game plan with cooking - be in the right mindset to be challenged and you must have an idea for what you want to accomplish!

What is the most difficult thing about working in pastry?

Pastry itself isn't difficult - it's the surrounding workers. They are an extension of you! You have to find workers to better yourself; you want to have dedicated co-workers who are willing to learn so your end result is a smooth, team effort.

So, what's your favorite dessert?

My desserts are like my kids - I love them all equally! They are all on the same board; I can't pick. But, I do love chocolate. It's such a romantic dessert. It's passionate and I love that you can create chocolate in so many different ways.

Are there are unique sweet and savory combinations you like to play with in the kitchen?

With pastry, you get to have the best of both worlds. You can incorporate so many things to create something beautiful. For me, I love figs, beets, Japanese eggplant - you can actually work those things into pastry to create something interesting for the customer.

I did hear something about a new beet dessert coming to the Rooster? Anything you want to share?

Well, it's currently in the works, but we've been experimenting with a crispy beet napoleon. It would feature a vanilla bean chip, goat cheese mousse, crispy, candied walnuts and a blood orange fluid gel. I've also been working on a sour apple sorbet, which was inspired by my childhood love of the green apple Jolly Ranchers. It is a sorbet with apple juice, sour apple and fennel seed powder. And some others like grilled fennel with apricot, salted caramel sorbet and blue cheese ice cream with candied walnuts and balsamic reduction.

My hope for the dessert is that the customer who would have thought, "I know where he's coming from, but ...." to then taste it and go, "Wow!"

So what is life like outside the restaurant? Any favorite dishes you cook at home?

What's funny is that my wife isn't a fan of dessert! She is a big time foodie, prefers things much more savory. She's big on some desserts like fruit tarts and apple pies. At home though, it's just regular savory cooking! Seafood, proteins - really, whatever my wife is in the mood for! There's really no baking going on in the house, unless its making cupcakes with my kids, who are 2, 8, and 17.

My kids, they call me a private chef. Whatever they want, I make it for them.

Stop by Red Rooster Harlem to try one of Chef Peter's innovative desserts and check out our other Seeing Red interviews here. 

For more on Red Rooster Harlem, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)