3/20/2013 12:16:00 PM

A Chat With Pastry Chef Laura Sawicki

The hip pastry chef at downtown staple La Condesa and new hot spot Sway has garnered awards like Food & Wine magazine’s best new pastry chef in 2012 and most recently a James Beard Award nomination. We caught up with the busy Sawicki at Sway recently to talk about ice cream for breakfast, stream-of-consciousness dessert creation and making her mother cry.

What’s it like to be nominated for a James Beard Award? 

It’s so cliché to say it’s an honor just to be nominated, but it is true. It never even crossed my mind that I’d be eligible, and I never thought I was under that kind of radar. I cook to cook. I don’t really think about trying to garner any accolades, so it definitely came as a shock. Rene [Ortiz, the executive chef at La Condesa and Sway] told me while I was spinning ice cream and making family meal, and he whispered in my ear, and I looked at him like, “No, you’re yanking my chain.” My parents were in town visiting that weekend, so they got to be part of my celebration, which was wonderful.

Do they have a favorite dessert that you make?

My mom licked the plate when she ate the dulce de leche pudding cake at La Condesa, and she was speechless when she had the jasmine tea panna cotta. I don’t get to sit at the tables often enough and see my friends and family eat. I’m embarrassed half the time. It was really special to be able to see my mom’s reaction. Of course she starts crying [Laughs].

I have a question that I’ve always wondered about pastry chefs. You guys talk about tasting all these decadent desserts all the time, so how do you stay so fit? 

I have to be thankful for good genes [Laughs]. I very much watch what I eat outside of work and at work. I’m constantly tasting, but I’m very mindful of everything else that I eat.

I’m usually that girl that finds the veg option or the salad sounds delicious or the fish sounds wonderful. Then I stop and think, “I’m at a barbecue restaurant. I should probably just eat brisket.” When I go out to eat, I like to find the items that I know would be the most successful, powerful, exciting items on the menu – well, I’m a Gemini, so part of me says, “Look for the healthier option,” and the other part says, “No, indulge yourself.”

I had tofu, pickled carrots, rice, cucumber, asparagus, Thai basil, cilantro and cashews for lunch. I just picked from all the stations at Sway. I eat strawberry ice cream for breakfast. This is strange, but I like to taste my ice cream first thing in the morning, when my palate is completely uninhibited. So I pull out all the ice creams and taste them at 7 o’clock in the morning. There’s that freshness, because I haven’t had anything else to eat yet, and there’s nothing getting in the way of sheer flavor.

Tell me about your concept for the desserts at Sway. 

I start with asking myself, “What would I want to eat?” And because of that, I need to eat Rene’s food. So I’m constantly tasting. But tasting is a different experience. Having a bite of one thing doesn’t really get the point across. You need to really experience the whole dish, followed by another dish. So I’ve been trying to eat at Sway a little more often in my free time, even if it’s just for a snack. And then I ask myself what I’d want to eat again. I take that and develop flavor profiles.

Really it’s a stream of consciousness. One idea leads to the next and the next and the next. It’s a springboard. It’s super important that there’s that continuity from the start of the meal to the end of the meal. So a lot of it is really exploring what the savory side is doing.

I’m trying to have this duality of La Condesa and Sway by creating dishes for both restaurants simultaneously but maintaining an identity at each one. That’s been the fun part and the challenge.

So what are some of the flavors and ingredients you’re excited about using at Sway? 

As we’re approaching spring, pandanus, or screwpine leaves, is something that’s really wonderful and complexly floral. Traditionally it will be used to tie up steamed fishes or wrapped, steamed rice cakes and also a lot of times in desserts, like steamed pudding or in infusions. It’s going to pair well with the spring and summer fruits.

I definitely have a strong ice cream program at Sway, and I’m going to be developing that even further.

What’s new at La Condesa? 

We’re looking for a menu change, probably before the Austin Food & Wine Festival starts [in late April]. We want to usher in a lot of change.

I want food to be about community coming together and sharing. I love what Sway has done with its community dining experience. I think it’s a wonderful experience to break bread with friends and strangers that are sitting beside you. It’s exciting to be part of the sounds and smells that are happening in the kitchen. The guests are really engaged, and it’s fun. It’s a tremendous space to be a part of.

Both La Condesa and Sway have incredible energy and have brought something really special to a city that has a lot of very special restaurants already opened or opening. It’s been fun to cultivate that food culture in Austin over these last four and a half years.


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