#ChefColumns: Dana Cree, Part 3

Choosing a successor mostly means one thing: The Almighty Tasting.

September 10, 2015 ● 5 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. Catch up if you're just joining the party, with Parts One and Two.

A tasting, a series of dishes prepared according to the wishes of prospective employers, is by far the most important part of the interview process. No pressure. 

As my time at Blackbird dwindled, it became time to consider a successor. That meant a parade of tastings, which naturally conjured images of the ones I've presented over the years. My first pastry chef position was granted to me sans tasting, after a long distance phone call from my tiny bedroom in Bray, England, to Veil restaurant in Seattle. The chef had already put one of my desserts on his menu, borrowed from an event we worked together; in that instance, I didn’t have to wonder if they liked what I do. More often than not though, when trying for a new position, there I am: plating desserts in a foreign kitchen for a group of people I’ve never met, hoping, hoping, hoping they like it.

When I auditioned to be Sherry Yard’s sous chef at Spago, I executed a tasting for the position. We went to the Santa Monica farmer’s market together, and brought a king’s ransom of seasonal fruits back to the restaurant for me to play with. Four hours later, I was setting my dishes in front of Wolfgang Puck, my knees knocking and my heart pounding so loudly I could barely hear my own words over it.  

Once in her employ, I sat by Sherry's side as she had nearly every candidate who came through the doors, for any position, do a tasting. I learned so much about the tasting process watching candidates at every level put up dishes for us. The one word I heard her use over and over in her conversations with them was, “Why?” Why did you choose that component there? Why did you heat it? Why do you like tiramisu? The less experienced the cook, the less of an answer they could give. She extracted a dialogue from the candidates, opened them up and nudged them towards the place they tucked the answers away, often obscured by shadows cast from nerves. 

“Why did you make me this dessert?” Sherry would ask.  

“I don’t know, I guess I like it,” they might answer.  

“No, you do know. You could have made me anything, but you made me this. You didn’t make me a cake, you didn’t put this in a tart,” she’d say, her blonde pigtails and big smiles softening the direct blows. “So, I’ll ask again, why did you make me this dessert?”  
It made me realize the most important thing when executing a tasting is that the dishes you create open a dialogue about you. The desserts don’t have to be one-of-a-kind inventions you created just for the tasting. They should paint a picture of where you come from, and what you’ve experienced in previous positions, and how that shaped into what you are today. You should use components and techniques from previous chefs you’ve worked for, reshaped and recombined, old tales told anew in your voice. Once on the plate, these items give you an opportunity to speak positively about previous employers, and share what kinds of things resonate with you.  

It’s a curious situation. There are no right answers to the questions you are asked, no grading key sitting on the table, tallying up your score at the end. However, there are wrong answers, particularly when you have no answer. I’ve heard Paul Kahan tell people not to give him what they think he’d want to see. This is important: don’t give them the dishes they’ve already done. They know how to do that. Show them what makes you tick. When your dishes are in front of them, talk to them about how you see your work fitting in with what they’ve done in the past, what could be adapted, what your future together could look like.  

I’ve also heard some of the best reactions to tastings from the little personal details that come to a candidate from outside restaurants. Your authenticity will resonate loudest.  

Grandma always made cornbread so I made this cake to honor that

At my first job I ate ungodly amounts of peanuts after every shift washed down with a beer, so I’ve combined those two flavors in this pork belly dish.

I grew up in Trinidad and ate coconut so young it was jelly, so I went to Chinatown and found these jelly coconuts to pair with this fish.  

I grew up on Shake-n-bake so I coated this pork chop in herbs and dried sourdough crumbs I bought from your bakery. 

Also, don’t do anything you can’t execute perfectly. There is no second chance at a first impression. A low-brow technique executed perfectly will overshadow a highly difficult technique done moderately well, one hundred percent of the time. Delicious trumps interesting, everytime.  

This often requires you to consider the success rate of components without home court advantage. Tasting are often prepared in borrowed space, and without the same equipment success rates begin to drop. Anytime a recipe is moved out of the kitchen it was developed in, it starts to fail. Some recipes are better suited to relocation, and some are not. I’ve learned the hard way over the course of a career.  

The hardest way to learn this lesson is, yup, you guessed it, at a tasting. Nothing feels worse than having a recipe fail moments before a tasting is about to start. When I planned a tasting for a restaurant in Seattle called Zoe, I planned on using the ice cream maker they had in their basement. I walked in, sight unseen, to a tiny countertop model that took much much longer to churn than I anticipated. The ice cream I served was drippy and partially melted. It was devastating. I knew how much better my ice cream could be, and knew I had no proof. Sealing the deal is just as much show as it is tell in this moment.

One thing that works? A little something extra. Mari Katsumara, who prepared a tasting for Blackbird when auditioning for the pastry sous chef position, brought a “staff meal” course. I’ve seen candidates set the table, bringing in a tablecloth and flowers to set the mood. I’ve had candidates smuggle ingredients from their home states through airport security, to show us part of where they come from. I’ve seen printed menus with the day’s offerings, candy boxes with the restaurants logo printed and taped on them to hold mignardises, binders with written recipes and dishes costed out to show financial acumen. Once, I listened to a playlist created for the tasting, sharing the candidate’s passion for shaping the dining experience through music.  

I’ll leave you with one last piece of advice. Under no circumstances, ever, should you speak ill of previous employers. It’s a slippery slope when being asked your honest opinions about former positions, but nothing turns an employer off faster than hearing another company thrown under the bus. We all know restaurants are imperfect beasts. We all have complaints. Best keep those thoughts tucked tightly away.  

And, don’t forget to breathe. 

By Dana Cree |  Photo courtesy of Andrew Zimmerman