6/06/2013 11:34:00 AM

A Chat With Barley Swine's Pastry Chef, Kyle McKinney

Photo by Jody Horton
Pastry chef Kyle McKinney’s mohawk and punk rock tattoos make him come off a little hardcore, but the hard-working Barley Swine chef swears he’s a homebody. In fact, you’ll find him one of three places: at the South Lamar restaurant for 15 or 16 hours per day, a nearby bar after-hours or at home, cooking for friends. McKinney has been on the Food Network in a chocolate challenge and has competed in the U.S. Pastry Competition too.

At Barley Swine he creates off-the-wall desserts like beet cake with hay ice cream and chocolate soup with crispy rice, strawberries and malted barley. Among the interesting things he told us when we sat down with him: he draws his desserts on paper first and is experimenting with using natural sugars instead of the white stuff.

Zagat: You’ve been cooking since you were 16, right? What made you want to go to culinary school? 

Kyle McKinney: I was working at a Joe’s Crab Shack in San Antonio, and one of the kitchen aids said I was really good. He asked me to make something up for him. Whenever I’d go fishing with my dad, he’d use these cracker crumbs to bread the fish. I thought it was baller, so I made a redfish with crumbs like that for Joe’s. And they put it on the board as Kyle’s special. So then I decided to go to culinary school in Scottsdale.

Then eventually I transferred from the Hilton in Scottsdale to the one in Austin, because they had a sushi bar there. The original owner of Kyoto was the sushi chef, and it took a year of begging to get him to show me things. They don’t teach white boys sh*t. He showed me how to make tamago and a couple of other things.

Zagat: Have you always been interested in baking and sweets as well as sushi? 

KM: I didn’t mind it. I worked in this one resort in Tempe, and that was the first place where they had a badass pastry chef. When I worked at the Hilton, I really got along with our first pastry chef, Katherine Clapner, but it didn’t make me want to go be a pastry chef. But when I went to the Four Seasons, I really learned what pastry could be about, the science. They would bitch at me for taking time to make really good chocolate-covered strawberries, since I’d put piping in there and everything. They were like, “They’re just chocolate-covered strawberries.” But I wanted to make them look beautiful. I was the only guy at one point in the bake shop, and it could get rough in there. Six girls all at once, trying to gang up on me.

Zagat: There’s the science and baking side of you, and there’s the mohawk side of you. How do those coexist? 

KM: I don’t know [laughs]. It just happens. It comes with moving around so much. Getting a taste of everything. I love science, the precision of everything and knowing how it’s going to work out, not leaving anything to chance. It’s a breath of fresh air. I hate chance. Well, I take chances, but I hate not knowing if it’s going to come out the same way every time. Precision.

Zagat: I’m always curious with pastry chefs, do you have a sweet tooth? 

KM: I do, actually. I love sweets. Candy bars of course, ice cream. Fruits. I really like natural sweetness. That’s one thing I’m really trying to focus on: not using as much sugar and looking for natural sweeteners. It’s healthier for us and more sustainable for our environment. Honey, sorghum honey, molasses, things of that nature. And using ingredients that have natural sweetness in them already and heightening them.

Zagat: So not Stevia. 

KM: Hell, no. Nothing in a pink or yellow package. Stuff straight from the earth, that we’re intended to sweeten our food with.

Zagat: You mix savory and sweet in your desserts and, to use a cliché, think outside the box with your desserts. Where does all of that inspiration come from? 

KM: Sometimes I have a vision and draw it. I’m serious, I have a board on the wall. I’ll draw a picture and a week later you’ll see it on the plate. Other times we’ll get something in, and that will get me going. Like we have nectarines right now, and I’m thinking, “What’s going to go with nectarines?” A lot of times I have visions. I dream of pastry, like Jiro dreams of sushi.

Zagat: How do you feel like that fits in with Bryce [Gilmore, Barley Swine’s chef and owner]’s creativity? 

KM: It’s great. Our creativity elevates each other. I have an idea or he’ll have an idea, and we’ll spin it out. Sometimes it goes toward a savory dish and other times it will go for a sweet dish. At this point they’re all interchangeable, because we can pull off sweet and savory desserts.

Zagat: You told me a little while ago about wanting to do a sushi and dessert bar. Is that still a dream of yours?  

KM: I want it all. I want sushi as I perceive it, like cold preparations. I love fish. But I want to have a sushi case with raw fish and a sushi case with dessert preparations, where you can see panna cottas or gelees, all the colors and shapes. That’s my dream. Maybe someone will buy it for me.

Ultimately what I want in life is my own place. I have it drawn up in my head. I’m a real visual person. I have an idea, but I don’t have any money or investors yet. I will eventually. It’s been in the works for a very long time. It’s all about putting it on paper, and [laughs] the time frame is before I die.

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