Women We Admire: Lauren Pett

Women We Admire By Julia Burgi

Lauren Pett, of Rich Chocolates, is living her dream: she ditched the cubicle for pastry school and has created her own chocolate and candies company, where each piece is a hand-made piece of art! I received a box of these chocolates for my birthday this year and was inspired to share this delicious Chicago secret.

Lauren's creativity is clear - she originally went to art school before settling for office jobs that brought no lasting satisfaction. She attended the Kendall College and the French Pastry School in Chicago and even cooked at one of my personal favorites, Bleeding Heart Bakery, which specializes (though is not limited to) vegan baked goods.

The materials Lauren uses are top of the line, what she calls "the Lexus" of ingredients. This includes the best Swiss chocolate, real fruit, and real spices rather than artificial flavorings. Some of the chocolates that Rich Chocolates offer are in collections, such as the Chicago-inspired Windy City Collection, the cocktail-infused Barfly Collection, and the nostalgic Whimsy Collection. Lauren's artistic background is clearly expressed in these chocolates, in every one of which her talent and passion are visible.

I asked Lauren about the best parts of being a self-made chocolatier:

What is your favorite ingredient that you use?

I try to use as many local ingredients as possible, which can be tricky for a chocolatier in the Midwest. One of my absolute favorites is heavy cream from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, IL, a small family farm that raises pasture-fed Jersey cows. The cream is so rich and sweet, you'd almost want to drink it straight, but I manage to save it for my ganaches and caramels. My other favorite ingredient is my white chocolate. I use Felchlin's Edelweiss, which is a 36% white chocolate. I know that it can be a controversial chocolate- so many people think they hate white chocolate, because their experiences have been with overly sugary ones that have a cloying, almost sickening sweetness. The Edelweiss, because of it's high cocoa butter content, has much less sugar than most commercial white chocolates. I always tell people it tastes like a sweetened glass of milk- more rich and creamy than sweet. It's the perfect base for my Mint Chocolate Chip, Key Lime Pie, and Creamsicle ganaches, and goes perfectly with the tartness of the Lemon Pine Nut Toffee.

What is your favorite product or collection?

My absolute favorite product is the Honey Almond Toffee. I use Bron's Bees honey, which is from a local farm, and there's just something about the combination of the honey and butter in the toffee with roasted almonds and dark chocolate that just makes it addictive.

What are some of your flavor inspirations?

I am constantly inspired by so many things- food, music, travel. . . The Windy City Collection was born from my desire to thank Chicago for being so awesome. I moved here in 2002 and immediately felt at home, so the collection is what I call my "love letter" to the city.

Chicago is known for being a "city of neighborhoods," each with its own distinct culture and history, so I just figured out how they would translate to chocolate. I recently added a new flavor- the Bronzeville, which is a neighborhood on the south side that was once THE spot for jazz and blues. I mixed dark and milk chocolate with whiskey from Koval distillery (a local boutique distillery), and rolled it in chocolate shavings. It's dark, boozy and a little smokey. If that doesn't say jazz and blues, I don't know what does!

What is the best part about working in the kitchen (relative to being an office)?

I have nothing against offices in general, I've just never had any fulfilling office jobs. I spent my whole life training as an artist, so the idea of sitting behind a computer with no creative outlet is so stifling for me. I love working with my hands, and being able to see the progress I'm making through every stage of production. My absolute favorite part about what I do is the fact that the candies I make put smiles on people's faces. And that's something that never resulted from any spreadsheet I ever worked on.

Do you have any advice for others seeking to explore their culinary passions professionally, particularly those in office jobs?

Staging is a great way to get a feel for kitchen life. So many people think, I make cookies or candies at home, so I'm going to be a pastry chef! But then when they start working professionally, they see what a truly hard life it is. The work is physical, the hours are long, and let's be honest, the pay isn't so great. I truly do believe that if you love doing something, it makes all the pain and hard work worth it. But the reality of the food industry is very different from what we see on TV.

I think that pastry school is very important. For the culinary side of things, it's much easier to learn by doing, but pastry is such a science, I think it's very important to have that background before you go work in someone's kitchen. Many schools will offer continuing education programs, 2 or 3 day workshops that you can try before you commit to a full program. And then stage or shadow at a pastry shop for a day, so you can get more of a feel for it.

And of course. . . eat! For those who want to be in the culinary world, I think it's so, so important to explore food. Try new restaurants, new ethnic cuisines, new bakeries. . . Everywhere I travel, I always seek out a chocolate shop I've never tried, and I'm constantly amazed by the creativity that's out there!

Women We Admire: Joan Nathan

Women We Admire By Julia Burgi

Joan Nathan is an incredible woman who has managed to fit two lives into one - the first dedicated to public service and the second to Jewish cuisine. A prodigious food writer, Nathan specializes in cuisine that spans the Jewish ethnic tradition, ranging from Americanized specialties to Israeli ones. Her impressive repertoire includes 10 cookbooks, regular contribution to The New York Times Food Arts Magazine and Tablet Magazine, and PBS series called Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan.

Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, Joan studied French Literature at the undergraduate level before getting a masters in Public Administration from Harvard. She lived in Israel for three years working for the mayor of Jerusalem in the 1970s. While working for the New York City administration, she was a co-founder of the Ninth Street Food Festival, which is about to celebrate its 38th year!

Joan started to share her passion for Jewish food with the publication of The Flavor of Jerusalem in 1975 and has continued to do so, with her most recent publication being Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France in 2010.

Joan now lives in Washington DC and Martha's Vineyard with her husband and three children. She has hardly slowed down - and for that we're quite grateful! In an April 13th article from the New York Times she recognized restaurants that provide Seder meals, a tradition of Passover, a holiday that celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt.

As Joan explains, there are a host of reasons that people chose not to have Seder meals at home: there are too many relatives to cook for and there isn't enough room, the former host of the meals may have passed away, or some people aren't practicing Jews but crave a connection to their ancestors and ethnic traditions. The Seder meals that are offered around the country are all different - some are more religiously focused while other's aren't even Kosher. Many restaurants offer non-tradition spins on Jewish specialties, such as matzo and briskets.

Joan has been awarded numerous honors from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She is truly a woman to admire!

Women We Admire: Sue Conley And Peggy Smith

Women We Admire By Julia Burgi

There are some rockin' women who are working towards a better world, bite by bite, through the foods they produce. We'd like to bring some of them to your attention! On Tuesday we shared Stacey Murphy's story and the company she founded, BK Farmyards. Today we bring you two women who're making some of the best cheeses stateside.

Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery are artisan cheese producers who make unique and delicious project with awesome ethics.

Co-founder Sue Conley's fascination with food began at an early age. Her grandfather ran Washington D.C.'s most popular cafeteria-style restaurant, Sholl's Colonial when she was a child. After her first trip to San Francisco, though, Sue Conley was hooked to the city's ambiance, working her way through the restaurant industry there. After running a restaurant of her own with friends, Bette's Oceanview Diner, Sue looked for a change of pace. She found it nearby, especially inspired by the Straus Family Creamery, a local, organic dairy farm, from whom Cowgirl Creamery still sources their milk!

Peggy Smith, co-founder, through a series of restaurant experiences, was drawn to the "Bay Area's food renaissance," eventually settling into a job at the revolutionary restaurant of Alice Waters, Chez Panisse. After discovering the wonders of cooking sustainably sourced food, international wines, and French cheeses, Peggy was immediately attracted to opening up an artisanal creamery.

When first starting their food ventures in the unique microclimate of Point Reyes, California, one of the Straus Creamery family members warned Sue and Peggy that the world of cheese production was akin to the "Wild West" - and thus the concept and name of Cowgirl Creamery was born!

After a series of learning experiences, Cowgirl Creamery set to producing their own fresh, organic cheeses that they hoped would be accessible to a wide variety of palettes. Mt. Tam, their star cheese, is a cow's milk cheese with a bloomy rind. It has remarkable buttery, earthy flavors. No wonder Mt. Tam has won numerous cheese awards, including Best Soft-Ripened Cheese from the American Cheese Society.

These great ladies thank the high quality of the Straus Family's milk and their simple approach to cheese-making as the drivers towards gustatory success. Their locally produced products are now distributed all over the world to customers seeking to satisfy their palettes!

Right now, Cowgirl Creamery makes five aged cheeses as well as a variety of fresh products such as cottage cheese and creme fraiche. Besides Mt. Tam, my favorite Cowgirl Creamery cheese is Red Hawk, another soft cheese with an orange-hued bloomy rind that is washed in a brine solution.

Women We Admire: Stacey Murphy, Founder of BK Farmyards

Interview With Stacey Murphy, founder of BK Farmyards By Julia Burgi

Most people take the gustatory pleasures of food for granted - we all know that what we eat can be delicious. Some people are also concerned about the impact of their food on the environment, on other people, on animals.

Where one's food comes from - especially produce and animal products - has become a mainstream issue. Both how it is farmed and how far it travels to reach our kitchens are important things to think about, especially in urban centers. Stacey Murphy founded BK Farmyards in response to these issues. BK Farmyards brings delicious, fresh produce and eggs to New Yorkers.

Stacey and the BK Farmyards crew seek to reconnect consumers with their food by helping people participate in its production. Where might such land exist in such a dense city? Right in people's backyards! Essentially, BK Farmyards takes underutilized, open land and turns it into farmland, including land belonging to developers, organizations, and homeowners with backyards.

The produce harvested is distributed to the landowners as well as members of the BK Farmyards CSA. But they go further than just providing the food - BK Farmyards helps organize community meals to use food as a way of bringing people together. Through their produce, Stacey and BK Farmyards employees and members seek to provide "local jobs, local economic growth, and a sense of stewardship and pride in the community."

BK Farmyards has also been working with the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn, a public school that provides students with the academic and social skills necessary to become the "Heroes of Tomorrow". With BK Farmyards, the school has created a farm run by students that has been integrated into the curriculum as well as the community through a CSA.

Stacey has taken on this amazing venture after getting an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering, a Masters in Architecture, as well as years of gardening and teaching experience. One of the most amazing parts about Stacey's farm work is that she aims to bring fresh produce to lower-income communities in an affordable way. While there are certainly many sustainable food programs out there, they are often a luxury of the wealthy who can make the choice to spend more money on ethically produced food. Stacey is working to make sure produce with a great background reaches everyone.

I asked Stacey about the best parts of being part of BK Farmyards:

Julia Burgi: What is your favorite thing that you harvest at BK Farmyards? How do you like to prepare it?

Stacey Murphy: Lacinato Kale (some call it dinosaur kale): I think the leaves are sweeter and more tender than other varieties. I love preparing our teens' raw kale salad recipe which has a delicious honey, lemon, peanut butter dressing.

JB: What is your favorite part of working with BK Farmyards? Are you into digging in the dirt or is it the people you meet or something else?

SM: My favorite part is that you never know what is going to happen on the farm: every day is different, and the number of people I interact with has broadened my understanding of cultures around the world. Farmers Market days during the summer are extremely rewarding when we are selling gorgeous produce, talking with the community, and teens are doing cooking demonstrations.

JB: What has it been like to watch BK Farmyards grow so successfully over the past few years?

SM: Some days I look around and I am humbled by all the people who are dedicated to the work we do and by all the people whose lives have been altered. We could never have grown this much so quickly without a lot of support from the community. We also have so much yet to do! There are still a lot of people who lack access to fresh and affordable produce.