It feels unnatural to visit a closed steakhouse during the day. With the staff at Ocean 44 working quickly and quietly, occupied with the evening's prep work, I briefly feel my presence is an intrusion. But that fear disappears as soon as I meet Pastry Chef Christine Conner. She's warm. She tells me she got started in baking in an unexpected place: a college accounting class.
Conner was struggling in the class. Her teacher noticed her trouble with numbers and asked, "What do you love to do, Christine?" The answer was easy.
"I love to cook," Conner said.
She'd begun cooking when she was 8 years old; her mom, Conner says, let her loose in the kitchen. Later, Conner's aunt bought her a wok and she experimented with Asian cuisine. As a young girl, she skipped Saturday morning cartoons to watch cooking shows starring her idols — Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, and Graham Kerr.
So Conner abandoned accounting at Glendale Community College. At age 21, she enrolled in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
"It was a grueling schedule," she recalls. "I worked 10-hour days, six times a week, and even worked through Christmas." She didn't view it as a hardship, though. Conner was an A student. "This is where I was supposed to be," she says. "I didn't struggle with it."
Through much of her time in culinary school, she thought she would become a butcher. In one of her classes, the instructor required her to break down a fish. Conner embraced this challenge. "It was the one thing I loved," she says. "It was relatively easy. It was taking something down in its raw form and breaking it down with such precision, you don't lose any of the meat."
She confesses that she wasn't great at baking in culinary school. "It was all chemical reactions, and I found it confining. It was quite structured and there were lots of expectations."
After graduating, Conner worked at The Phoenician, a resort where she started at the bottom, working breakfast and lunch on the line. Before joining Ocean 44 in 2015, Conner worked as the chef garde manger (overseer of non-heated dishes) for several other resorts in Arizona, including The Wigwam and The Boulders Resort & Spa, as well as The Peaks Resort & Spa in Telluride, Colorado.
It was at The Boulders that Conner started to revisit baking. "I loved making chocolate chip cookies and biscuits," she says. "Especially when I was upset."
When Executive Pastry Chef Eric Marie needed help in the bakery, he relied on Conner to assist him — even though she confessed to having no formal pastry experience. On her first day in the bakery, Marie asked Conner to make a white chocolate mousse. Despite her trepidation, she says the mousse turned out well. This didn't surprise Marie. "I knew you could do this the whole time," he told her.
"In pastries, there are parameters you have to live in," Conner says, "and if you know those boundaries, you can put a little bit of yourself in the recipe."
Her rise to Head Pastry Chef at Ocean 44, Steak 44, and Dominick's Steakhouse (all under Prime Steak Concepts) wasn't linear. She took a hiatus of 13 years to raise kids. This break from baking only made her appreciate the position all the more.
"I love my job," she says. "I get to play with sugar, travel, and teach." One look at the tattoo on her arm confirms her deep affection for baking. She has the recipe of chocolate chip cookies ingredients broken down by its molecular structure.
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Over time, Conner has arrived at some personal rules, which she includes in her approach to baking. One is that a good dessert doesn't have to be overly sweet. Another is that chocolate doesn't have to be in every dessert. Her main concern is making a dessert with texture, crunch, and a little bit of a savory element as a twist.
Of course, there are certain questions every pastry chef must ask before baking. What are the ingredients? What is the science behind the pastry? How much water is in the air? Is the environment dry? The technical skills are important, but to Conner, a pastry chef must have certain personality traits to flourish in the baking world.
"The baker must love the recipe and the method, understand math," she says, "and be willing to make mistakes and evolve."