It's a hard thing to tell your parents that you don't like school. It's even worse when they're both teachers. Bluestem's co-owner and pastry chef Megan Schultz Garrelts knew she wanted to be a chef at 15 years old. Her parents needed some convincing.
"They were worried that I wouldn't get a pension. And they wanted to know what I would do about retirement," Garrelts says.
They found middle ground 850 miles away from her hometown of Naperville, Illinois, when she enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in 1998 to study as a pastry chef.
Her CIA externship was in Manhattan at the Park Avenue Cafe with pastry chef Richard Leach, whom Garrelts called the "best pastry chef I've ever worked for." She credits Leach with teaching her the importance of cleanliness and organization. Working six shifts a week gave her plenty of time to learn.
"I didn't eat for six months. There was only time to move and bake," Garrelts says.
In 2000, she moved to Chicago to work for pastry chef Gale Gand at Tru. There, she was exposed to degustation menus and a young chef on the line, named Colby Garrelts.
"That was obviously life-changing," Garrelts says.
The pair moved together to Las Vegas, and Megan became the sous chef at Aureole Restaurant, cranking out pastry for both Aureole and Charlie Palmer's Steakhouse in the Mandalay Bay Resort. It was on the drive in to work that she realized that this was going to be a very different position.
"You drove up this long street into a parking garage, checked in and got your chef's whites from wardrobe -- it was like the dry cleaner's times 500. In this big casino, it was almost like going to see the great and powerful Oz," Garrelts says.
There was no yellow-brick road to guide her on the half-mile-long tunnel beneath the casino, where the walk-in freezer, a series of squares separated by chain-link fence, was located. It would take an hour in subzero temperatures just to organize the day's ingredients. In search of a shorter pastry-cart commute, the couple moved to Los Angeles, and Megan became the executive pastry chef at the Getty Center Restuarant.
But after two years, the now-married couple was ready to return to Colby's hometown of Kansas City. They opened Bluestem in 2004 -- March 15 of this year will mark the restaurant's seventh anniversary in Westport. And regulars at Bluestem will tell you that they hope she is a long way from retiring.
Over the next three days, Fat City will feature Megan Garrelts talking about where to find her eating out around town and what it takes to be a pastry chef. Today, she's discussing the ingredients and dishes that get her fired up in the kitchen.
What are you culinary inspirations? The seasons inspire me the most. The sights and the sounds and the smells. Every season has its own specific feel. In spring, things are green, bright and fresh. I want pure, clean flavors. In winter, I think of things that are warm like marshmallows and peppermint. Fall is my favorite time of year, I was an October baby, and I think of apples and spice.
What's your favorite ingredient? Chocolate. I love chocolate, pure, on its own. Chocolate desserts are the hardest for me to do because I don't want anything in them. I also love sarsaparilla and and cardamom. Cardamon is interesting. It pairs well with bright and light flavors. I love citrus, kumquats and blood oranges and Meyer lemons. Citrus is so versatile, but sometimes I wonder if people are, like, enough with the citrus. It's fun to pair it with chocolate or coffee.
One food you hate? A lot. [Laughs.] I'm very picky, and it drives Colby crazy. I don't like eggplant at all, even though purple is my favorite color. It's a very pretty vegetable. I don't like zucchini and don't particularly care for quail or softshell crab.
One food you love? My favorite thing in the world is lamb. I love mussels, lobster and shrimp. I like a lot of meat and potatoes. But Colorado lamb, medium rare with whipped or scalloped potatoes. A basic straightforward pot roast or casserole, that's what I grew up on. When I was pregnant, all I wanted was a casserole.
What's your guilty pleasure? Chocolate-chip cookies at home. I eat half the dough and bake half the dough. When it's snowing, it's fun to make cookies or brownies.
What's always in your kitchen? Fresh leveling agents. I don't
bake at home as much as I'd like, so I refresh my spices because they
get old and lose flavor. And Hershey's syrup, it makes the best
chocolate milk. And when I was pregnant, it was the only thing that
settled my stomach
What's never in your kitchen? I share it with Colby, and he's got a lot of weird stuff in there. I probably don't have eggplants or zucchini. I just don't like those vegetables.
What food trend are you over? Cupcakes. It's just a cupcake. I do think the new trend of macaroons is a lot more interesting. They're harder to make, the flavors are more straightforward and pure. It's a classic pastry. They're the equivalent of a dainty, pastel pretty girl -- that's why I love pastry. There are just so many places that do cupcakes, and I'd rather see more variety in a bake shop.
What dessert says I love you? Warm apple pie. It's warm and cinnamon-y. It reminds me of my mom, a warm cheery pie. That or s'mores. When we have family get-togethers around Halloween, I'm always the one with the s'mores ingredients.
What's the key to a great recipe? That it works. Some don't work, and you find that out as you're making it. I want it to be easy, and that depends on the way it's written. If it's too complicated, I won't want to read, teach or follow it.
One book that every chef should read? For pastry chefs, I'd say The Making of a Pastry Chef [by Andrew MacLauchlan] and The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. The desserts are easy. The recipes work. It's out of print, but you can probably get it on Amazon. I ate at Gramercy when Claudia Fleming [Last Course author and pastry chef] was there. I've always admired her for her straightforward approach. She's good, uses interesting flavors like cardamom.
A pastry chef is only as good as ... your softened butter. If your butter isn't soft, you're going to have a rough day.
[Image via Megan Garrelts]