If pastry is that perfect combination of science and art, then no one is more qualified to create it than Angela Pinkerton. She is the Executive Pastry Chef at Eleven Madison Park, one of the most impressive fine dining restaurants in Manhattan. For someone who has such a high pressure job, and spent two years working right alongside Executive Chef Daniel Humm, Pinkerton is extremely down-to-earth and easy to talk with. Don’t be fooled by her casual manner; she’s a true artist and a perfectionist in the kitchen. In 2011, she won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
CC: You were a biology major in college. How did you transition from that into baking?
“I actually was in college for biology, and I needed a part time job, and I just happened to become a bakery clerk. And so just working in the bakery, watching the bakers and cake decorators, I was kind of enamored of what they were doing, and eventually I started doing cakes there. And then I just worked in baking years later. I baked once when I was in college. I didn’t have any money, so I baked Christmas cookies for my family for gifts, and I just fell in love with it and never really stopped baking.”
CC: What were you planning to do when you started college?
“That’s a good question. I don’t think any 17- or 18-year-old kid really knows. Biology? I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. [I thought,] ‘Maybe I’ll be a veterinarian, but do I really want to operate on animals?’ So I had no idea what I wanted to do. So thank goodness I found something.” [Laughs]
CC: And then you took time off before going to culinary/pastry school?
“I did. I worked in the field, worked in a couple of bakeries, worked in a country club doing some pastry, had a small business making wedding cakes for a time back when I lived in Ohio. Stuff like that; teaching myself, using books, and just working in the field and learning from others. “
CC: Did you make mistakes?
“Of course! I went to pastry school to make it easier on myself, honestly because I just didn’t have a solid foundation of what to look for when you’re making things. So I remember trying to make Italian meringue buttercream from a book once, and looking back on it now, it’s obvious there was nothing wrong with the recipe, I just had no idea what I was looking for. But I remember just throwing it away, time and time again, thinking it was wrong, and then realizing now, it’s just that my butter was too cold and so it would curdle, and it looked like it was messed up. I could have just warmed it up a little bit and it would have been perfect. So I’m thinking, how much money did I go through with butter? It’s expensive. It’s funny to look back, and think about the things that you had done, when you just didn’t really understand why it was like that, or if it was fixable, or how one little thing, little tiny tidbits of information, can really make the difference in how you work. “
CC: Did you experiment on your friends? Did they get used to trying stuff?
“Oh yeah. I still do that. [Laughs] My boyfriend actually likes to bake too, so he experiments on me. And so he’s always making things, and making me taste them, and I’m trying to give him tips without hurting his ego. I don’t want to tell him what to do.”
CC: I’d think that would be intimidating.
“Yeah, well, yeah. I think … yes. Sometimes I just leave the kitchen, because I’m used to seeing something and trying to correct somebody, but then I think that’s just not a good thing to do to your mate, all the time.”
CC: Yeah, I hear the same thing.
“Yeah. [Laughs] I’m sure it doesn’t just cross baking.”
CC: It’s pretty universal. Tell me about where you grew up.
“I grew up in a pretty small town in Ohio. We grew up outside of town, in the country, on five acres. We had a field in the back. I have an older sister. It was pretty quiet. We had a garden growing up, and that’s where I learned to appreciate vegetables, whole foods, and gardening. And there was a farm with sheep next door, and then on the street, there was a dairy farm. So I’m used to living in the country. I miss living in the country.”
CC: So it’s just like New York!
“Yeah, it’s just like New York, but it’s slightly different, and slightly the same, amazingly enough. So I think that’s where I got to appreciate food. We cooked at home almost every night, even though both of my parents worked. My sister did like to bake when we were younger, and I never really got into it until … I think when I was 17, I baked once. My mom likes to tell this story, that I made blueberry muffins, or something like that, from a box mix, and they turned out well, and I was like, ‘Oh this baking thing is easy!’ And she just thinks that’s the funniest story. That was where I got my start.”
CC: And did you feel, when you made those, “This is something I want to do!” or were you just fooling around?
“Nooooo. Because it wasn’t really … the way being a cook or a chef was viewed where I’m from, [it’s] not necessarily something that my father wanted me to pursue. He wanted me to go to college, and to get a good paying job, and a solid career. And I don’t think where I’m from that that at the time was necessarily what he thought was a good paying career for me. [He wanted] something more stable. So I never really thought about cooking. I used to play with my food a little bit, when I would make lunch, and I’d arrange it on the plate a little. But I never really thought of it as a career until I started working in the bake shop, and realized that it made me really happy and that I was really interested in it. And I didn’t really feel that from what I was studying in school.”
CC: Has your family come to visit you here at the restaurant? Do they get the tour and special treatment when they visit?
“Yeah! They came to dinner. My mother’s been here a few times. She’s in love with it, you know, it’s hard to not be when you come to dinner and have this experience. And my father came for the first time last year and he just was amazed. It’s hard for them to understand what you’re doing until they experience it for themselves. There’s nothing like this — well, there’s nothing like Eleven Madison Park anywhere else — and there’s definitely nothing that’s fine dining close to where I’m from, so I don’t think they realized how much time and effort and passion goes into it. And it was really nice for them to see it and feel it when they were here last year.”
CC: Did you take them back to the kitchen?
“We did. I gave them a little kitchen tour, and I think it was good for them to see how many people were back there, and the level of excitement and passion in the kitchen, and then we had to say hi to all of my cooks too, so that was nice. I think it was fun for them.”
CC: You have a big staff, too.
“I do. We have about thirteen people in pastry, so it’s quite large.”
CC: How are you as a manager of all those people?
“I try my best. I try to be really fair. I love them all in a way, you know. They’re my children. I don’t have any children. I think we have really passionate people back there, who just want to be here and be part of it and learn everything they can. It’s great to see, it’s great to teach. It’s great to see when they learn something new and how excited they are about it, and I think it’s rewarding to show somebody something and then they’re able to surpass your expectations. It feels good.”
CC: Are there any trends in desserts right now that you don’t like, that you think are silly?
“Silly … I know that as a whole in the restaurant, we’re looking to simplify everything a little bit. I think it’s fun, when you have a plate of food that’s so beautiful and you want to add little garnishes, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’ll be fun,’ and then you end up with dishes that have 15 components – which is great and it’s fun, but then when you’re making a dish and you’re thinking, ‘What else can I put on it?’ does it really make sense anymore? I want to narrow it down and pick out a few main components, so it’s still complex, but at the same time it’s simple and beautiful and really refined. That’s what we’re doing here.”
CC: When you’re creating something brand new, do you have a process?
“I feel like I used to. Recently I don’t know, I feel like I’ve steered away from the process. But I know I always started with my ice cream. If I got the flavor of that down, then I would always build from that.
“The process that I use now is kind of like, whatever ingredient it is, I pick milk or something like that, which maybe some people don’t think is the most exciting ingredient. But I’ve done four desserts on milk, which is kind of crazy, and I’m working on another one, so obviously it’s pretty exciting. I like to pick it apart, and think about the different flavors or textures. What do you really get from milk when you’re drinking it? When you’re tasting it? Is there bitterness? Are there sweet tones? Is it vegetal? Think about it differently, not just as something you eat. Think about the color, think about the transparency of it. What is it in? What do you use milk to make, like milk chocolate or something? I did the milk and chocolate dessert; I broke down the flavors of milk chocolate. It was milk and chocolate, obviously, but then there’s also a little bit of bitterness, and caramel tones in it, and so then you take that and you think of all the different textures you can make with milk. It’s creamy, and we dry milk, so it’s crispy.
“When I put dishes together, like I did a chamomile dish, but then I was thinking, this was last spring … what flavors do you get in chamomile? It’s sweet, sweet tea, but there’s also a very vegetal quality about it too, so when you use that as your main component, it’s hard, because it’s not like a cherry where it’s an actual thing. It’s a flower. It’s not going to be a main component of the dish, but the flavor is. So how can you take that ingredient and make it into a whole dessert? It’s how you go through the process of it, how there are flavors that remind you of it, so that if something reminds you of chamomile, you put that together and see if it works. We used chamomile, and I did green curry, so it had that really green flavor, and it was a little spicy, which was fun, because then the chamomile was the sweetness of the dish. And then I was looking for something to cut the spiciness a little bit, and to give it some fatty texture, so I ended up using coconut milk. Which kind of makes sense with the green curry, but then it was a little bit different with the chamomile. So that was pretty fun. I really liked that dish a lot. And then I did that in a rice pudding kind of base, so that’s a familiar for everybody, so it’s not like, ‘What the hell is this thing on my plate, with chamomile and green curry?’”
CC: It is, but with a great twist that’s really unusual. Did you have a big sweet tooth as a kid?
CC: What were your favorite things to eat as a kid?
“I liked ice cream. I still like ice cream and candy. And cookies. But ice cream has always been my big thing. “
CC: Do you ever still eat packaged crappy cookies, things like that?
“Oh yeah, sure. I eat it all.”
CC: What kind?
“I was always eating Snickers bars. That was always the joke with my best friend. We’d go out for dinner, and I wouldn’t really want anything for dessert, and then I’d walk out, and walk into a bodega, and get a Snickers bar. And she’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and I’m like, ‘I know, I feel awful.’ I should be supporting the other pastry chefs in the restaurants, but here I am eating a crappy Snickers bar. I don’t know. It’s bad. [Laughs]
“But I stopped eating Snickers bars, because I was reading some facts about the Mars company. So I don’t boycott them, but I haven’t had a Snickers bar in a long time.
“My thing is Taco Bell. When I leave New York and go on a road trip somewhere, I’ve really gotta have my bean burrito from Taco Bell. It’s kind of shameful, honestly, but it tastes good. It can’t have onions on it, because they can’t make it right, with onions. When they do it, they put the stuff on, which I don’t want to know, but then they put on, I think the onions are in a sauce, and it always ends up on one side. So then you only get onions on half your burrito, and then the rest of it is normal, so for me it’s a bean burrito, no onions.”
CC (Battman): You could become a consultant for Taco Bell.
CC: I was picturing you running back in, and being like “No, no, no, no, no!”
“If I was making that burrito, it’d be amazing. You know, my first job in food, I come from a really small town, was at Burger King. I worked there for three years in school. And I came back for one summer in college. Yeah, it was really fun.” [Laughs]
CC: What was the worst part of that job?
“I think the worst part, which I think is the best part [at Eleven Madison Park], it was that I was raised to care about everything that I do. I think that’s obvious. But even if it’s not, even if it’s making a burger at Burger King, or it’s running the drive-through or whatever it was, you have to do the best that you can do. And I really cared about it, and I think that a lot of people that I worked with didn’t necessarily put that much heart in their job. And I think that was the hardest part. I really cared. And some other people didn’t. So I would run around trying to make everything run smoothly, and they didn’t, and I would get so frustrated, I would be crying. And I’m like, ‘Why am I crying over this job?’ It was so ridiculous. And then you come to a place like this, and you’re like, ‘That’s why.’ Because you’re meant to work at a place like this. It doesn’t have to be a 4-star or 3-star Michelin restaurant. There are plenty of amazing restaurants out there, where people care. And not just restaurants, but everything. So you just have to surround yourself with the people that you look up to, and the people that have the same philosophy as you do. And I think that was something I didn’t realize, what was going on there. I didn’t realize why I was so upset. “
CC: Not to be found at Burger King.
“Not to be found at Burger King! [Laughs] But I was just looking to drive the car. I had to have a job to drive the car, you know, ‘cause I had to pay for my insurance, so that’s all I cared about.”
CC: Do you eat Burger King, still?
“I haven’t eaten at Burger King in a long time. I went through weird phases there, too. I ended up eating Veggie Whoppers, where at the time, there was no meat. They didn’t have the mushroom patties or whatever they have now.”
CC: I didn’t even know they had that!
“I don’t know. It was just a bun with cheese, and condiments on it.”
CC: Did you work a specific station? I know at McDonald’s, they assign stations, like “You are the French fry person.”
“Yeah, you start probably making cheeseburgers. I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. And then you move. It’s just like the kitchen; you move to different stations. But then it wasn’t in the greatest part of town either. It was like the ghetto Burger King, and then I would work the register. I worked it all. But they’d put me in drive-through because I cared so much, they wanted to make sure everything was going really smoothly. That was hard, but it was fun. You saw some entertaining things. It’s like being on the subway.”
CC: Would you ever want to be on one of the cooking competition shows that are so big right now?
“No. They asked me. I said no.”
CC: Which show asked you?
“’Top Chef: Just Desserts.’ Before I won James Beard, they asked me to be a contestant on it. I was like, why would I want to be a contestant on there? I work here [at Eleven Madison Park]. I think that’s good enough.”
Interview by Laurie Ulster
Photo by Kara Chin
Visit Eleven Madison Park
See Angela Pinkerton’s recipe for Caramel Popcorn Sandwiches with Dark Chocolate and Amagansett Sea Salt
Watch Angela Pinkerton’s
Watch Angela Pinkerton’s interview with Jamie Otis about the icy cold love given to departing kitchen staff.