Austin Chantos: Olive and Ivy

Pastry Chef Austin Chantos grew up eating hearty midwestern meals in central Illinois. He still favors the flavors and kind of cooking his chef father provided for the family: biscuits with gravy and one- pot meals filled with meats, vegetables and potatoes. Austin glimpsed the restaurant world over his Dad's shoulder. Early in his career, baking and pastry held an allure and Austin was drawn into the romance of creating bread and desserts. We met up with Austin at Olive and Ivy, taking a break from his pastry and bread production for Fox Restaurant Concepts.    

Your father was a chef; did you always want to follow in his footsteps? My Dad was the executive chef at a country club, very old school, you know, boys club-with a men's only grill room, establishment. The menu was traditional Midwestern, filling and rich in flavor. That was my dad's cooking style; we used to say, "Fat is not a four letter word." When we moved to Arizona, my Dad saw a need for healthy cooking, especially in retirement and assisted living communities. I worked with my Dad in Sun City, learned the classics, and trained on the job. I eventually found my way to the bakeshop.

at The James Beard House, Austin's favorite dessert, and learning on the job after the jump

Were there any ah-ha moments in the kitchen with your Dad? Those moments were when I was traveling with him, on family trips in my teens. When I was seventeen, we went to Louisiana and stopped in Donaldsonville, about an hour northwest of New Orleans. John Folse, chef at Bittersweet Plantation LaFitte's Landing was a friend of my Dad's. We had a six, maybe seven coarse meal. After dinner, Chef Folse walked us through the kitchen, it was steeped in history, the history of that kitchen left an impression. Another moment was at a seminar on cheese-wine pairings at a National Culinary Federation meeting in San Antonio, it was intriguing. 

Other chef influences besides your Dad? I worked at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess for seven years. I entered as an extern and left as bakery supervisor. Chef Dave Blom was a great mentor. He was a true teacher willing to share his knowledge. Chef Charles (Chuck) Wiley at The Valley Ho was also influential. I was a part of one of the teams that went to James Beard House in New York with Chef Wiley, heady stuff for a pastry chef in his twenties. My Dad, Chef Blom, Chef Wiley, each of them taught me about ingredients, and not be afraid to starting with a classic dish and turn it into something new. What was it like to cook at The James Beard House? I was twenty-four, and it was one of the best moments of my life! I was humbled and honored to go, and I would love to go again. The theme was "homey", good food done well, reflecting what we were doing at The Valley Ho. We served a banana foster tart, truffles and tea cookies for dessert.

When we were in the Waldorff kitchen, I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was full of history; careers tied to the kitchen, state dinners served. There is a separate subway entrance for state dignitaries with direct accesses to the hotel.

Initially, what hooked you on baking and pastry?

I thought it was cool to come into work at 4:00 am (laugh) and leave by mid-afternoon, that's until I did it day after day! On cool winter days, there is a crisp, clear, snap to the air and you enter this room with warm ovens. Bakeries assault your senses, there is nothing like the aroma of freshly baked bread. Working with the dough, making everything from scratch-Danish, croissants, I love the artisan feel of working with dough.

The tools and equipment in the bakery tell a story. My favorite piece of equipment here is a Boos Block baker's table. It has history; it could tell a story, imagine listening to it. I think it adds character to our breads and pitas.

What is your favorite dessert?

Dobos Tort, I first learned to make it the Fairmont. It's thin layer upon layer of French style sponge, and each layer is covered in caramel butter cream. The top is a hard cracked caramel. It takes care to make and not squeeze out the butter cream as you stack the layers and finish the top with a torch.

How do you spend your time off?

I am definitely a homebody, home with the windows open. I read industry magazines, lately I started watching Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and I like the travel- food shows.
On weekends I might make a trip to Show Low, Prescott, or Flagstaff. Northern Arizona reminds me of Illinois. I interact with the public all day, so I like to keep it low key when I'm off.

Advice for aspiring pastry chefs and bakers?

School represents the ideal; it is a perfect but sterile environment, not the real world of a working kitchen. Working in the industry is the best education. Don't expect to start at the top, respect the chefs you work with, especially the boss; they earned their position by working hard. Learn and absorb information from everyone you work with.

You have to start somewhere when you begin in a professional kitchen, don't limit yourself, try and learn to do many things well. Professionalism is important, how you present yourself and your work ethic.

What chefs would you like to have dinner with?

Absolutely Thomas Keller (French Laundry), he is a pacesetter.
Deborah Racicot, Gotham Bar and Grill and John Doherty, The Waldorff Astoria. I respect the intellect, the hard work, commitment, and the discipline of these chefs.

Check in tomorrow, Austin shares a recipe for Sicilian Tiramisu

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