#ChefColumns: Dana Cree, Part 2

Looking back, and releasing the death-grip on The Dream Job.

August 17, 2015 ● 3 min read

Pastry chef Dana Cree is making the leap from restaurants (and her post at Blackbird in Chicago) to the world of dairy, taking a position as Culinary Director for 1871 Dairy. She is documenting the process in a multi-part series, here on ChefsFeed.

People keep asking me how I can leave restaurants behind.

I usually smile, and say something about wanting a life, with vacations, and weekends. The truth is, it’s the same question that’s been drumming through my mind for months. I’m ready to leave, ready for more, but this was my dream job. How am I supposed to leave it behind?  

Blackbird has been open for 18 years now. For the first twelve, it was under direct management from its owners: Paul Kahan ran the kitchen, and Donnie Madia helmed the dining room with Eddie Seitan and Ricky Diarmit by his side. As they matured as restaurateurs, they continued to open new properties across Chicago, each place with its own unique charm and cuisine.  

Donnie calls Blackbird an incubator, a warm, protected arena for young talent to grow. I think this is only half true. An incubator evokes a certain level of containment; what they have created at Blackbird is wide open space. They have turned a seasoned restaurant into a legitimate creative platform for younger chefs and pastry chefs to stand on, with a full roster of supportive mentors and loyal, trusting guests.  

If you’ve ever set foot in Blackbird, you’ll notice the entire dining room is white. It’s a big, white box with almost no decoration. I’ve heard it called sterile, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather, the blank walls of the dining room allow the people who fill it to define the experience. Every evening is different, colored in by the energy of the guests, the service staff, the attire of the season. It’s this elastic quality that has allowed Blackbird to maintain its relevance after all these years. It’s rare for a restaurant. It’s rare for anywhere.  

Much like the dining room is left to be defined by the people in it, the kitchen is designed to be much the same. As Paul stepped back to focus on the growing number of kitchens he now oversees, he allowed new chefs to set the tone for the menu. Mike Sheerin, for example, brought the playful whimsy he experienced at wd~50. David Posey brought Scandanavian influences into the menu to reflect his own Danish heritage. Now Perry Hendrix leads the charge, with what he calls “modern Midwestern” touches. To contextualize my own growth in such a setting is exhilarating. My own cuisine has become simpler over time, shifting with the abstraction of Posey’s Scandy style to the comfort of Hendrix’s Midwestern favorites.

I was given the freedom to build the pastry department of my dreams. After three years, it’s a reality. It may not look like much—there are no shiny toys, the counters are a mismatched set of tables and work top refrigerators, the floor is the same scuffed turquoise that has been there for two decades. It’s the systems that have been built into the humanity of my department, a framework of clear expectation, education, team dynamics, and creative obligation, that are my dream realized.  

In a way, I’ve transformed the pastry department I’ve built at Blackbird into the same kind of creative platform my bosses nurtured their beloved first-born to be. I intentionally built the kitchen I wanted to find when I was young and hungry, aching for a place to pour myself into, to sponge up anything and everything about pastry I could. The few open positions in the department are reserved for those as hungry as I was then. It offers an education equal to the labor they exert on our behalf, and breeds a menu as creatively stimulating as it is technical.  

Creative obligation befalls every member of my staff, as it’s the only way to turn conceptual desserts into tangible ones. Our days run smoothly. We calmly respond, rather than react, to the inevitable shifts throughout the day. We never yell. As a firm believer not in teaching, but in orchestrating situations in which self-discovery is possible, I have experienced the greatest joy from helping guide pastry cooks towards their own goals, and watching their pride in their own work swell.  

As I move on to another challenge, it’s this I’m having the hardest time with. Leaving behind the department I’ve built, the staff that flourishes inside it...it was an honor to stand on that platform with them. They are the reason this was a dream for so long, they are the reason I can leave it.

By Dana Cree