2020 has been a banner year for pastry and baking – from the emergence of quarantine home bakers and scores of sourdough supporters to the worldwide Bakers Against Racism bakes ale fighting for social and racial justice. We caught up with this year’s class of all-woman finalists for RAMMY Pastry Chef of the Year: Caitlin Dysart (executive pastry chef, Centrolina); Olivia Green (pastry chef, Rooster & Owl); Katherine Thompson (pastry chef, Thompson Italian); Meagan Tighe (executive pastry chef, Trummer’s Restaurant); and Paola Velez (former executive pastry chef, Kith/Kin and current executive pastry chef, Maydan). Read on to learn how they’re staying inspired throughout this challenging year for the restaurant industry and what they hope to see more of in 2021, and don’t forget to tune into this year’s RAMMYs on Sunday, September 20.
District Fray: The 2020 list of finalists for Pastry Chef of the Year is an all-woman affair. How does that speak to the pastry field and talent coming up in the DMV area?
Caitlin Dysart: It demonstrates that women are dominating in pastry. I feel there used to be this stigma that pastry was just a corner [that] women were relegated to in the culinary world. And yet in school and my early career, I was exposed almost entirely to male pastry chefs. I feel we’ve turned a corner in the pastry world – and the culinary world at large – where we are going to continue to see more women as leaders in their field.
Katherine Thompson: For so long, chef roles were always dominated by men. It is exciting that more and more women are interested in working in the restaurant industry and pursuing leadership roles. I am hopeful that our industry will strive to be more inclusive to anyone and everyone that is passionate about hospitality, food, wine, etc.
Paola Velez: I am grateful for the supportive pastry community here in Washington, D.C. To see so many strong, hardworking and powerful female leaders in our tightknit pastry community nominated this year is definitely a step in the right direction.
The RAMMY Award for Pastry Chef of the Year is given to a pastry chef who demonstrates a high standard of excellence and culinary artistry, while also serving as an inspiration to other food professionals. Who has inspired you throughout your culinary career?
Olivia Green: As I’ve grown in my career, my inspirations have grown beyond who is making pretty things to who is making a change with their pretty things. My first pastry memory was watching Jacques Torres’ “Dessert Circus” on PBS [on] Sunday afternoons. Since then, I’ve found that as long as people care about their craft, put in the work behind the scenes and are good people at [their] core, I am inspired by them. I am constantly inspired by my peers in this industry – not only through the delicious and beautiful food they create, but how they are leading activism. Food is a powerful tool, and it is amazing how much light you can shed on injustice through it.
Meagan Tighe: I believe the framework for my culinary career started at a very young age. Growing up alongside my grandmother, she sparked what would become my lifelong passion for working with food. Countless hours were spent absorbing her wisdom and knowledge as we huddled around the stove preparing for our weekly Sunday dinners. The tradition and connection I value so dearly has led me to dedicate my life to spreading love through the art of food.
In June, we saw thousands of bakers come together for the Bakers Against Racism initiative which started here in D.C. and quickly caught on worldwide. It was an incredible effort that led to over $1.8 million raised for racial justice organizations. How does this effort and the quick mobilization of supporters speak to the community of bakers and pastry chefs in general and here in D.C.?
Paolo Velez: Pastry is a small but mighty community. We are the first ones in the kitchen and often the last ones out. Pastry is often looked at as the outcast of the outcasts within the kitchen, and sadly we are often the first department cut when budgets get tight. Bakers Against Racism gave pastry professionals and amateurs alike a banner to mobilize under and the ability to weaponize our food to support causes we believe in.
Olivia Green: First, shoutout to Paola for leading this initiative. Through her leadership, she co-organized a worldwide movement. I was very excited to participate in Bakers Against Racism and I am grateful for the support we received at Rooster & Owl. We raised a total of $1,800 selling donuts for The Loveland Foundation, a charity providing financial assistance to Black women and girls seeking therapy. It was a beautiful moment to see how many pastry chefs, bakers and home cooks eagerly participated. It was incredibly inspiring to see how quickly our community leapt at the chance to use their skills to put good back into the world. I also became friends with so many pastry chefs in the city that I might
Caitlin Dysart: For pastry chefs, I feel that we are drawn to this profession not just for the creativity and technical challenges, but also because we want to take care of people, [and] bring joy and comfort through our food. I think it’s natural for us as a community to show our care and values through baking. It was so inspiring to see the effort spread all around the world. It shows that the pastry community has been able to form strong connections through social media.
With a lot of changes and challenges in the restaurant industry this year, how have you stayed motivated and inspired to create? Any particular ingredients that have been calling to you or especially exciting to utilize during this time?
Katherine Thompson: This is the most challenging year of my career: everything from opening a restaurant, managing a pandemic, and shifting to takeout only. None of these things were easy or expected. Thankfully, cooking is the best distraction from the stress of it all. Being inspired by seasonal ingredients and seeing what my peers are creating help keep me motivated and excited to keep going. In particular, I’m excited about apple season. It is such a luxury to have farms nearby with great seasonal produce.
Meagan Tighe: Sometimes, motivation comes from necessity. With so many uncontrollable [factors] presenting themselves at one time, the focus to stay healthy while continuing to produce high-quality dishes was inspiration enough. Sustainability had quickly become top priority, and I found myself revisiting working with bread. Its roots are so basic. What we needed was reassurance and security, and to me, bread is the foundation of that connection.
On that note, a lot of people – whether furloughed or working from home – are taking to some creative culinary outlets while in quarantine. From newly minted sourdough aficionados to the stress-induced, work-from-home crowd looking for a new hobby, what tips or recommendations would you offer to these quarantine bakers?
Caitlin Dysart: I hear a lot of people say they are intimidated or scared of baking. There’s nothing to be scared of. I understand it can be frustrating when you work hard on a baking project and it doesn’t turn out. That’s why I advise home bakers to work on building a foundation of skills. Start with easy projects and build up to the more elaborate. But my number one advice for home bakers is always to use a digital scale for measuring ingredients. Free yourself from measuring cups. It may take some getting used to, but it’s more efficient and accurate – and it means fewer dishes to wash.
Katherine Thompson: A scale is any home baker’s best friend. Measurements by volume can be inaccurate. Gravitate to recipes that include weight measurements. Using a scale will make everything faster, easier and more accurate.
Meagan Tighe: My advice to all of those that have been affected throughout this pandemic is to appreciate the moment. Being present while creating or learning a new craft may be one of the most beautiful experiences we encounter in this lifetime. These tough times will not last and we will prevail. What we can accomplish in trying circumstances can also lead us to the highest of fulfillment.
As we move through 2020 and into 2021, what are you excited for or hope to see more of from D.C.’s pastry and culinary scene?
Olivia Green: I am thankful for the pastry chefs in this city that openly support one another. I think we’re all getting sick of being pitted against each other in this profession, and it’s refreshing to genuinely be happy for one another. There’s plenty of room for badass women pastry chefs in this city. As far as the culinary scene in general, I think there is a long way to go, but change is inevitable. The restaurant industry is a resilient bunch, and I am hopeful for the future.
Paola Velez: For the rest of 2020, I hope that we all finally get the help we desperately need. Restaurants need government assistance to survive. There’s no skirting around this issue. I hope that chefs, restaurateurs and owner/operators can come to see ourselves less as competitors and more as allies. We can only get through this together. For 2021, I hope to see our industry move into a more equitable and staff-centric space. Specifically, I hope we can all move to prioritize some foundational basics like healthcare and fair and equitable wages for all – regardless of status. I also hope we can truly become a place that values and respects BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color] creatives.
The 38th annual RAMMY Awards will take place this Sunday, September 20. For more information, click here.
Centrolina: 974 Palmer Alley NW, DC; www.centrolinadc.com // @centrolinadc
Kith/Kin: 801 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.kithandkindc.com // @kithandkindc
Maydan: 1346 Florida Ave., NW, DC; www.maydandc.com // @maydandc
Rooster & Owl: 2436 14th St., NW, DC; www.roosterowl.com // @roosterandowl
Thompson Italian: 124 N Washington St., Falls Church, VA; www.thompsonitalian.com // @thompsonitalian
Trummer’s Restaurant: 7134 Main St., Clifton, VA; www.trummersrestaurant.com // @trummersva
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.