An Interview with Pastry Chef Sarah Malphrus at Rye Street Tavern by Marisa Dobson
Repeated failure is part of any endeavor, any achievement. When it’s an artistic goal — whether that’s writing or painting or pastry — repeated failure can be an especially difficult passage because of the feelings of self worth and self expression that are bound up in creating a piece that reflects your identity.
Like mastering a foreign language or a musical instrument, baking and pastry has always seemed equally alluring and seemingly impossible. I love to cook because it allows tweaking and endless flavor combinations (I also love to eat — surprise!). You get to serve it when it’s ready, when you think it’s perfect. This is in contrast to baking, which has universal ideals of crumb texture, icing aesthetics, proper lamination, smooth caramel, etc, etc. Anyone who’s binge-watched The Great British Bake Off would be able to rattle off a dozen elements! When I started working with Sarah Malphrus, the pastry chef at Rye Street Tavern (formerly of Magdalena and Woodberry Kitchen), my first thought was ,“Could she help me shortcut to that level of pastry perfection?”
Our conversations — over slices of black bottom pecan pie and pineapple upside-down cake — ranged far beyond pastry, touching chemistry, sculpture, class and gender, while exploring Sarah’s guiding philosophy that balances a need for perfection with teamwork and collaboration. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
When we’ve talked before, you’ve said “this is not my second career.” I think that is such a powerful statement! How did you come to the conclusion so early on in your life that pastry was your passion and your career?
Well, to be clear pastry wasn’t always my first choice. I graduated with a Sociology degree, specializing in Gender & Women’s studies. My original plan was to take the LSATs once I graduated and try to go to law school for women’s law or something along those lines. But the LSATs cost a lot of money so, right out of school I went full time into pastry to support myself and quickly realized that it was what I wanted to do for the foreseeable future. It brought me a sense of joy and fulfillment I hadn’t ever experienced before, so I stuck with it and it’s taken me to some pretty amazing places.
How do you feel pastry intersects with other art forms, like calligraphy, watercolor, or needlework?
The intersections are rampant I’d say, just from personal experience. Having a basic understanding of color and form is a crucial aspect of my job. In the extreme cake decorating world (sculpted figures, etc) the crossover to sculpture is almost unreal. That is a realm I don’t do more than dabble in because my ability to do that type of pastry work is minimal!
What’s your guesstimate as to the breakdown of natural ability vs practice in your pastry work?
Everyone is different, but for me I’d say it’s a 50/50 split. Even before I baked professionally I had a basic understanding of pastry from baking alongside my mother in the kitchen. I also love chemistry, so the basic idea that baking is just one chemical reaction after another… that’s really how it clicked for me. But a lot of it is practice practice practice, especially the more visual aspects of pastry. I would truly hate to see what my first 20 or so stacked cakes or pies looked like! I also love what I do and that deep seated enjoyment really pushes me to constantly be honing my craft and trying to be the best that I can be. It also drives me to learn new things and to be critical of my work.
Your work looks like it was produced by a perfectionist! Would you identify as one?
Hah! Yes and no. I have a type A personality. I’m also an only child. And an Aries for you astrology junkies! I’m very critical of my work/myself but also extremely competitive. And an organizational/control freak. I have a tendency to quietly micromanage my department. Lately my favorite thing we’ve been doing are these speciality drip/stack cakes. No two are the same and I get to use a multitude of different fun pastry skills in the decorating process. They’re all perfectly imperfect; I think that’s why I love doing them so much. I really have no preconceived notion of what they’re going to look like when they’re finished, at least not beyond a very basic outline, so in a way they kind of decorate themselves.
Why do you think perfectionists and/or high-strung individuals gravitate towards pastry?
I think it’s the level of control that is crucial for pastry work. Cooking in general is very fluid but pastry is extremely precise and calculated. Ingredient X has to be mixed at a specific temperature with Ingredient Y and then baked at another specific temperature for a set amount of time. It’s science. In my brain that translates to “okay if I do all of these things correctly this is how it should turn out. And if for some reason it doesn’t, I have all the tools to figure out what went wrong.”
What was one aspect of pastry that came easily to you? Another where you failed repeatedly and finally achieved?
Pies and ice cream. Those are two things I’ve always seemed to gravitate towards and have a knack for. But macarons — those are still the bane of my existence. I can kind of fudge my way through them now so that they’re delicious and presentable but in my opinion they still aren’t Laduree or Pierre Herme perfect and probably never will be.
Is there a recipe or process that’s so foolproof that I could trick my brain into thinking I’m good at this? (Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread almost did that for me. But a boule only does so much.)
Yes, Swiss Meringues! They require minimal ingredients and every stage of the method you can literally check with your hands (i.e when they egg whites/sugar is ready, when they’re done in the oven). They’re also a really nice blank slate for flavors and colors so you can get all cute and creative with them too.
What are you trying to perfect right now?
Right now I’m trying to perfect my cake game: coming up with new fun flavors, decorating ideas, how to make them delicious but also visually appealing. In a more long-term way, I’m really trying to become the best mentor/ manager I can be to those in my department and in the kitchen as a whole. I’m extremely lucky in this, as I have some pretty amazing individuals around me who are constantly pushing me to be the best I can be. Shout out to Ana Pino, my right hand!
Photos by Mary Neumann Photography
Top image of Sarah Malphrus with Ana Pino
Rye Street Tavern is Chef Andrew Carmellini and NoHo Hospitality Group’s newest American restaurant located in Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood, adjacent to the Sagamore Spirit Distillery.