It was a real challenge to interview Spice Market’s talented pastry chef, Christina Kaelberer, but only because we started off by devouring the dessert she’d made for Battman’s upcoming book, “Crossing Borders.” After the photo shoot – completed in the usual Batt-time — she offered us the dish to taste, and even though it was 10 a.m, we happily accepted. Talk about breakfast of champions! The textures and the flavors combined to thrill my taste buds and make me completely forgo talking in favor of eating and savoring each morsel. Eventually I found my voice again, and got to ask Christina about her passions, her upbringing, and the closet eating we have in common.
CC: Tell me about where you grew up, and how you knew that this was something that you wanted to do.
“I grew up in St. Louis Park, which is a smallish suburb right outside of Minneapolis, in Minnesota. I had a single mom, three kids type situation and she hated to cook. Last thing she wanted to do after a long day was come home and cook for us rugrats, and me and my brothers were like terrors, so just the stress of us alone …”
CC: Were you the oldest?
“Middle. I’m the overachieving middle child who wants to please everybody. So actually, my grandma I think it was, when I was probably around 10 years old, she gave me these “Betty Crocker For Kids” cookbooks. And they were like, super thin, and there’s probably like 10 recipes in it, but it was Cornflake Baked Chicken, and these cutesy little sandwiches you could do for a picnic or something, and spaghetti and meatballs. So I started cooking. My mom would make me write the grocery lists of what I needed based on the recipe, and I would cook dinner. I probably did that once a week or something like that, you know, not all the time.”
CC: You’d cook for the whole family?
“Yeah! Me, my brothers, my mom. And I just got into it by default that way, and then every project in school, I would always integrate food into it. I remember this project I did in sixth grade, where it was like, pick a country, and you have to research it, and give a presentation. I was always kind of a shy kid, so I wanted it to be something that could be interactive instead of having to give a speech. So I did jerk chicken and fruit punch for the class. So then it was interactive. It was more like, talking about the food, and stuff like that.”
CC: How’d it go over?
“Oh, it was awesome. We didn’t do it as spicy as [is] traditional, because we were sixth graders. And then I remember in high school, in poetry class, I made scones to do a presentation on a poet to make it more interesting for myself. And then when it came time for looking at colleges, we didn’t have a lot of money anyway, so it was like, where can I go that I’m going to have a job no matter what I do? And I liked cooking, so it was really easy for me to get into something that I was very passionate about. I loved cooking, I loved baking, I always made cookies. And it’s really funny because before I knew anything about the science of baking, I tried all kinds of different fats in cookies, to see which would be the softest. And this was in high school, when I didn’t know anything about it.”
CC: Did you document what you were doing, or did you just try different things?
“No. Just Criscos, or margarines, or different butters and stuff.”
CC: So what does make the softest cookie?
“I think just butter and under baking it slightly. And then I just went to culinary school, I went to the Art Institute in Minneapolis. I really wanted to go to CIA [Culinary Institute of America], but unfortunately we just couldn’t afford it, even at that time. It was 11 years ago now. [shudders] Even to think how long I’ve been in this business, ‘cause I’ve always been in a kitchen.”
CC (Battman): Everything I’ve done is now 40 years ago. Everything. I started playing the flute 56 years ago.
“Oh my god.” [Laughs]
“So yeah, I went to culinary school, and just loved it. It was a breeze. Back when I went to culinary school, baking and pastry chefs – in America – weren’t really all that celebrated just yet. Especially in the student world, you know? There weren’t pastry-specific programs, at least where I was going to school. When I graduated, two years later, they were starting off a pastry certificate program, and now they have a pastry Bachelor’s program. So I went back after I graduated to do a three-semester long pastry thing. [It] was really great; there were a couple of classes where I really felt like I was teaching the other students. But there was one class I really learned a lot from, which was, again, taking off from when I was little and doing that cookie experiment. My instructor set us up into four groups and we all had the same recipe, but it was: you’re going to use baking soda, I’m going to use baking powder, and we’re going to see the different interactions of the same exact recipe. If you ever mess something up later in life, like if you forgot to add the baking soda, or you put too much baking soda, then you would realize, ‘Well now I know, because I had learned that reaction back then.’ And then I’ve just been in restaurants ever since.
“I worked all through culinary school, which, for me at the time, was mostly just being financially stable. And then it was one of those things that really made sense, because you’re being able to apply what you’re learning in school in the job and you’re just propelled that much faster, you have that much more experience.”
CC: So what drew you to pastries and desserts over savory cooking?
“It’s less hot!” [laughs]
CC: I’ve heard that before!
“I don’t know, I think the biggest thing is: I have an enormous sweet tooth. My biggest weakness is that I cannot stop eating cookies, or cupcakes, or what have you. Ice cream. You know. So it’s like, ‘Oh, I can make this now!’ And it kind of keeps it in check, too, at the same time, because I think if I were to just have a regular job, I would just load up at the grocery store with all this other stuff, and now, at least I know where it comes from. And I don’t have to buy cookies for home or anything like that.”
CC: Since you have such a big sweet tooth, are there crappy, junky things that you love to eat?
“The biggest thing, I think, is maybe not sweets-related, but kind of … this is so embarrassing … kind of being a closet eater. Because I grew up with two brothers, and a mom with a very limited paycheck, right? So, she went grocery shopping every two weeks, and that was it. On her paycheck, she got groceries, and it had to last. Well, I had two brothers that would literally eat everything in the house, unless you, you know, went for it. So it’s one of those things where I hid things. Thankfully I don’t have an eating disorder or anything like that, but it’s definitely that, like, survival technique. [laughs]
“Cinnamon-sugar toast. Have you ever had just the really crappy white bread, and then margarine (my mom bought margarine), and then cinnamon sugar? Looking back, it’s so bad for you! [laughs]”
CC: We had a British housekeeper who used to call them “sugar buttie sandwiches,” and it was just sugar, without the cinnamon, but everything else you described.
“Yeah! [laughs] White bread, margarine, and refined white sugar. I think most moms these days would have a coronary thinking about their kid eating that.”
CC: So when you’re creating desserts for Spice Market, which is a broad type of cuisine, but it’s a specific type of cuisine, how does that influence your dessert-making? How do you make desserts with that Southeast Asian influence?
“Well, I’ve been with Jean-Georges in his other restaurants, twice before, in Minneapolis and in Boston. So early on, when I first got promoted to pastry chef with Jean-Georges, I was only 24, and you know, pretty impressionable, as far as your style goes. And we used a lot of Asian influences in that. And it wasn’t like [Spice Market], where it’s very region-specific, but was a lot of, you know, being first introduced to passion fruit, and yuzu, and stuff like that. It really made an impact. And then coming here, it’s almost easier because I have that knowledge of those ingredients, and then taking my style, which I think is, taking recognizable dishes, and then adding tweaks to them or kind of reinventing them. You know, like a classic: say we have a banana cream pie like we have on the menu right now. It’s in a profiterole shell, which is pretty big, and then the French crust that’s on top has a togarashi spice, so being able to take those really classic pieces and then adding in those fun ingredients. I’ve never been to Singapore yet, so it’s just a lot of Googling, and reading a lot of books and stuff like that.”
CC: What’s your favorite dessert that you have on the current menu?
“Uh … I like them all. But I think right now it’s the puff, because it’s just banana pudding deliciousness and I get to like, break apart the puff into little pieces, and I’m like, I’ll just going to have a little bite of this, and before I know it, it’s just gone.” [laughs]
CC (Battman): Yeah, uh, we don’t have that on the menu anymore … the chef, uh …
“Yeah, the chef got hungry. [laughs] But that was actually on our Restaurant Week menu, so it was kind of fun, being able to show people something new.”
CC: What gets ordered the most, off the current menu?
“I would say probably the kulfi, because that’s been a staple since the beginning of the restaurant’s inception. That was one of Pichet Ong’s dishes. [Ong was the former pastry chef at Spice Market.] And it’s the main chocolate item on the menu and everybody loves chocolate. But outside of that, I think the Mallowmar is a pretty big seller.”
CC: And do you have a process for creating a new dessert dish?
“Usually it goes with … it goes season, and then what is IN season in that season, and taking those flavors, and then creating a dish. Like, take flavors, and then think of a concept that might go with those, and then, the dish kind of unfolds from there.”
CC: Have you made any mistakes, where you’re just kind of like, “Eewwww”?
“Oh yeah. Nothing that pops to mind, but there is definitely, sometimes, when I’m like, ‘Ooh, that was pretty bad.’ You know, Rome wasn’t built in a day. That’s what I like to say sometimes, when my pastry cooks see me practicing a dish and I feel like they’re judging me slightly. And you know what? You have no idea. Because some of the younger cooks these days just think it happens the first time you plate something. And that’s really never the case, unless it’s something tried and true.
“Sometimes it’s really pretty terrible! Or just ugly! You know, the first time you really plate something, you have a very specific vision in your mind, and for a lot of artists that don’t necessarily work with food, it just doesn’t come out onto your canvas right, so you kind of have to work through it.”
CC: I saw you did an episode of “Iron Chef America” as a sous chef. What was that like?
“It was pretty awesome. So I was with Michael Chiarello at Bottega [Ristorante] for about a year and a half, and we did “Iron Chef [America],” and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I mean, I’ve done the StarChefs Pastry Competition. I’ve done that twice now, but being filmed in a very specific manner was very interesting, because it’s actually a true hour that they film you, it’s not just that TV hour. Yeah, they stop the filming for a commercial, but you’re still going in the kitchen.
“There are cameras above you, there are cameras on the side of you, there are some that are doing this [indicates circling], but it’s very cool.”
CC: Was it scary?
“Yeah. I remember me and my sous chef, we were doing jumping jacks in the green room, ‘cause we had so much pent-up nerves, and anxiety; we were just super excited to be there.”
CC: Do you remember what you made? What was the big ingredient?
“Our secret ingredient was Scotch. And for Italian cooking, Michael Chiarello is from Calabria, so his Southern Italian cuisine doesn’t really incorporate a lot of booze unless it’s Galliano, or Marsala and wines. So it was kind of hard to integrate that, but I think we did pretty well. We did a lamb dish, with cherries, and then his classic polenta. And then we did this Scotch egg, a play on the [Scotch]. He was very playful with some of his dishes, and how he comes about a dish, so we did the Scotch egg. And then we did this rye gnudi. So, he kind of thought about what goes into a Scotch, and so we played from that, like rye, and barley, and we used some of those in our dishes. And so for me, being a pastry chef, I don’t cook, per se, much. But I got to do the gnudi, and I did the eggs, and of course I did the dessert, so it was very interesting to get to be a part of all of the dishes that went to final plate. And then we did malted butterscotch zeppole, which are donuts, and a Scotch and soda drink. So we foamed it, it was pretty good.
“Neil Patrick Harris and his husband were some of our judges. That was pretty exciting. It was cool to watch afterwards. We obviously had a viewing party; it was very interesting to watch yourself on TV.”
CC: Did it freak you out?
“A little bit. You’re like, you have butterflies, making sure you don’t do something stupid, and they catch it on camera. It’s amazing the things you say, when you’re under the gun.
“I remember there was this bakery that I worked at, it was in the Mall of America, and it was opening day. We were doing a little film spot for the local television show. And I was supposed to just be way in the background, doing a sample dish, but my boss, who was doing the interview, was super excited to have everybody try the dish. So she walked out into the crowd, but the interview wasn’t over, and so, this was Rick Kupchella, he goes to me. And literally, I was 19, super green, just had no idea about anything about anything. And he [says], ‘So, what are we making today?’ And I was like [makes frozen funny face]. And I was explaining the apple crisp, because that was the dish we were making, and I was talking about putting the streusel on top, and for some reason, I said, ‘Oh yeah, and then I put these globules on.’ Literally, I’d never said ‘globules’ in my entire life. [laughs] It was like, where did that word come from?”
CC: It’s a lot of pressure when the camera’s on.
CC: Would you want to do more of those kinds of shows, though? Like “Iron Chef?” There are a lot of different shows out there.
“Yeah. I mean, I think it depends on the situation. But I think so. It’s fun. It’s fun when you’re in the moment, too. You know, like leading up to it you’re like “Aaah, yeuuu” [makes faces] but then when you’re actually in it, it’s, you know, pretty great.”
CC: So what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t in food?
“I have absolutely no idea. That’s actually something I’ve been really thinking about lately, because I think I probably have another 15 years. I don’t think I can do 12-, 14-hour days in the kitchen like I do now. Granted I do get two days off a week, but like this coming week, my sous chef’s out of town for a week, so I’ll work the next three weeks straight without a day off. When I’m 45, there’s no way I’ll be able to do that. My knees are already starting to give out.
But I’d really like to get into writing. I wrote a lot when I was younger, in grade school [and] junior high. I think I’d somehow get into that.”
CC: Were you a big reader, as a kid?
“Yeah. I remember being in second grade, reading chapter books, like full on chapter books. I think it was first grade.”
CC: Do you have memories, in the books you were reading as a kid, of books that had food in them, that stimulated your imagination?
“Uh … there was this one book called, “Mandy” that I’m pretty sure I read 17 times when I was little. And this was grade school, probably third or fourth grade. And it was about this orphan who climbed this wall, she was living in a children’s home I think, and she climbed this wall, and found this little cottage. And she would sneak food in to her little cottage, and have herself lunch. I think that’s maybe the first memory of food in a book.”
CC: Do you remember what the food was?
“I have no idea. I don’t have the best memory in the world.”
CC: Well you’ve had a big life, with a lot going on. You’ve had a career moving really quickly, right?
“Yeah! I got really, really lucky. I think for pastry chefs it’s a lot easier to propel yourself that much faster. And younger, just because you have less of a glass ceiling.”
CC (Battman): And less responsibility.
“Yeah, but the chefs that I’ve had though really put on me more responsibility, so that any job that I did get, I was more valuable to the operation. I know a little bit more about operations now; I actually look at the P&L. I do the inventory counts and I manage all of the invoices and stuff like that, which I don’t think a lot of pastry chefs necessarily do. A lot of my executive chefs have put a lot of their paperwork on me. But that’s just because I did have a chef, six years ago, [who] wanted to make sure that I knew more than just putting sugar on a plate. It wasn’t like, ‘Here, I’m lazy, do my work.’ It was, you know, ‘I want you to know about the business behind what you’re doing.’”
CC: So what do you think you’d like to do next, from a restaurant perspective? Where’s an ideal for you, where you’d like to be before you become a writer?
“Ideally, I’d like to be a pastry chef with more than one unit. I think I was hoping for that with [Michael] Chiarello. Unfortunately the situation around it just didn’t really manifest itself. So that’s kind of why I reattached myself to this company. There is more of that opportunity, with the culinary concepts, hospitality group, there are more restaurants, they’ve got [them] obviously, all over.”
CC: How many people do you manage?
“Well just my pastry staff; there are four, but days like today, I’ll just make sure that everybody’s keeping their fingers attached to their hands, you know, not burning the place down.”
CC: Have there been bad injuries here?
“Thankfully, no. The worst one that I saw, I was at Bottega, and one of the pasta guys got his finger stuck in the pasta machine. That was … extruding … it was really gross. And you can’t be, you have to be like a nurse in those situations, you can’t be grossed out. You have to man up. Thankfully I’m a woman, so I get that motherly instinct, and I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s go, let’s bandage this up.’ You can’t get freaked out, because you’re the one who has to deal with it!”
CC: Did he have to go to the hospital?
CC: And did everything get saved, and put back together?
“No.” [makes face]
CC: That’s a sad story.
“But, like, insurance, I think he got ten grand. If you lose a digit, you get a certain amount of money.”
CC (Battman): Was it a good finger? Or not a necessary one?
“I think it was one of the first ones, that’s why I think it was ten grand. But it was only, like, this much [indicates portion of finger]. But still it’s enough that you lost the primary use of a digit.”
CC: So aside from injuries, how are you as a manager of people? Do you think you’re a good manager?
“I think I’m pretty okay. It gets a little frustrating sometimes, because I see this crazy downward progression of cooks, that they’re less committed. You know, if they get the sniffles, they call out sick. And I have never called out sick. I think there was one time I called out sick, but I had to go to the emergency room. And so there’s this lack of passion, I think. They just … I don’t know. It’s really hard to explain. I mean, I remember, when I was a pastry cook, every little thing was filed away in my brain, you know what I mean? Like, okay, this dough acted up funny today, and I would figure out at what exact temperature out of the fridge it was malleable to get it into a tart shell. And maybe it was just me personally, that I was just meant to be in this field, but I think there’s this lack of attention to your actual product and what you’re doing every day.
“One of my first restaurant jobs, real line cook situation, was a French chef, and he yelled at me. Every single day. And every once in a while, we yell here, but it’s only because I care, and it’s only because I want you to be better. I want you to realize your mistake. And I’d just think to myself, ‘Man! This guy would tear me down.’ I didn’t cry. I never cried, but it was like, ‘Yes, chef.’ You just listened, and you did it. And you bettered yourself.”
CC: How do you think your team would describe you as a manager?
“Um, I would say they think I’m pretty easygoing. They think I’m mean, but I think they’re taking that as stern, but my sous chef and I are really close, which is nice.
“The girls I have now are straight out of culinary school, and so I think they have less demanded of them. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, but I think we’re definitely getting our stride now. Because they make stupid mistakes every day. I try to work with them with it, but when they make the same mistake six times, then I get frustrated. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of times when I can hold back that frustration, when you’ve burnt the cookies every day now since you’ve started, and you’ve been here nine months. [laughs] I start to get a little frustrated.
“But I think as much as I can, I try to show them new techniques, I’m always really impressing upon them writing things down and stuff like that, because I remember when I first started, I had one of those tiny little notebooks. And I don’t need that so much now, because I have my phone, and I can go back into the chef’s office and type things up really quickly. But really trying to impress upon them the importance of writing things down, and not trying to remember stuff.”
CC: Thank you so much. We covered a lot of stuff. Now I’m going to give you a muffin.
Below: Battman’s photo of the delicious, interview-impeding dessert.
“It’s a Pandan Mallowmar, and a twist on the traditional New England, New York Mallomar that they sell. So it’s a cake, [it] has pandan extract, which also makes it that color, the green, and that’s a toasted coconut marshmallow on top. And then the cake is actually dipped in the Valrhona dulce chocolate. It’s the caramelized white chocolate that they’ve developed, so it’s pretty new. Lots of pastry chefs are using it, it’s very exciting. And then ginger macarons on the side.”
Yuzu is a citrus fruit from East Asia.
Togarashi is a Japanese chili pepper, or a group of condiments that blend chili pepper with other ingredients.
Kulfi is a frozen dairy dessert from India.
Gnudi is a type of gnocchi made with ricotta cheese.
Interview and photos (final one excluded) by Laurie Ulster, who got the greatest compliment of her baking life when Christina called her Meyer Lemon Poppy Seed Muffin “delicious.”
Final photo by Battman
Visit Spice Market
Watch our interview with Christina Kaelberer
Watch Tales From The Kitchen with Anthony Ricco, Executive Chef at Spice Market