Confession: As we worked late into the night bringing this story to life, there sat between us a small plate towering with Publican-made pastries. Inspiration
, we assured one another, while we nibbled and typed, interrupting the otherís work here and there with an mmmm
we could not restrain. Subtle in their decadence and with a simple, homespun elegance, the Publicanís pastries are often more than the closing taste of a meal. With a menu boasting peanut butter cream pies, cranberry cornmeal cookies, and almond and jam-bedecked brioche, these desserts are culinary time capsulesówhisking a delighted eater back to far simpler days of childhood.
So whoís the woman behind these impressive sweets? Pastry chef Anna Shovers. In the year sheís been churning out desserts at the Publican, Anna has been named best new pastry chef by Time Out Chicagoóa moniker she found both ďtotally surprisingĒ and surrealóand has had a recipe published with big name foodie magazine, Bon Appetit.
Recently, she invited us into the Publican kitchenóa tight space, we quickly learnedóbefore the restaurant sprung to life one weekday morning. In between rolling dough and whipping cream for a dayís worth of chocolate pies, Anna shared with us her story that led her out of art school and into the kitchen.
Q: Recently, Time Out Chicago named you the best pastry chef in the city. Thatís quite an accomplishment! Can you tell us how you got your start?
I started as a pastry intern, doing half my internship at the Publican and the other half at Blackbird. I have an art degree and I knew I always wanted to do pastry and nothing else. Brian [the Publicanís chef de cuisine] offered me a savory job on the line and initially I was like no way
. But [the Publican] is putting out amazing food; itís not super refined but itís so delicious and different. I did a lot of thinking on Brianís offer: Iíd never want to learn savory anywhere else and I would never have this chance again. So I took that job and ended up working on the line for 1.5 years. Eventually, I had to make the decision to leave savory and go back to pastry if I ever wanted to make it as a pastry chef.
So, from there I went to Everest in the South Loop area, a super classic French fine dining spot. Three months in, Iím shopping at the Container Store on my day off and Brian calls me. He says, ďAnna, we want you to come in to talk.Ē So I called my dad right away and I was shaking. I kept saying to him, ďWhat do they want? I havenít talked to them in months!Ē
It turns out that the pastry chef position had opened up and they wanted to offer it to me. They know I love this place. So of course I immediately was like ďYes, this is my dream job.Ē
Q: From art school to pastry chef, how did you make the jump?
Well, you graduate and you have this art degree and youíre kind of like ďcool, now what?Ē So I had this awesome art degree and I felt like I was only eligible for a job at Urban Outfitters. Thatís when I thought about cooking: Iíve always been a baker. Itís something that, until then, I had always taken for granted. It was the first time I realized that you can go into that for your career. So I staged, which is like interning, at this French restaurant in Philly. I was this girl who had no experience who was thrown into a restaurant kitchen. It was intense. But I liked the challenge of it. This is a career where you can always grow. Youíre always learning. So I was there for 1.5 months and then they recommended a French pastry school in Chicago.
Q: What do you mean by the pastry world being a place where you can always grow?
Well, I started out as an intern. That in itself is so exciting. Paul Kahan over there, heís always pushing himself. Heís James Beard Award-winning and heís so grounded. Heís always striving to be better. They say youíre only as good as the last dish you put out. Itís a hard career. Thereís a lot of perfectionism, especially in pastry. Weíre harder on ourselves than other people are. I never want to be a condescending chef, because Iíve worked for them. I can always get better as a chef and always grow my relationships as well.
Q: So, youíve talked a bit about the challenges. How about the biggest reward working in pastry?
There are times when [a diner] will want to talk to me, and Iíll come out [of the kitchen] and Iím so nervous. Iím thinking, was there something in the food? Was there something wrong with it?
There are times when [a diner] will want to talk to me, and Iíll come out [of the kitchen] and Iím so nervous. Iím thinking, was there something in the food? Was there something wrong with it? In the end, it will be someone whoís so excited about something theyíve just eaten that they want to talk to me. To have someone be so excited about your food is so rewarding because so often you lose focus of that. Youíre so involved in your food that you lose the big picture. Having someone just appreciate it for what it is, well thatís really rewarding.
Q: How many desserts do you have in rotation at any given time?
I shoot for changing the entire menu about once a month. The savory guys, they change more often, but itís a little bit harder for pastry because we have to prep so much beforehand. As fruit comes in, weíll change what we offer. Like right now, we have rhubarb, we just had green strawberries. I was cutting them and poaching them with a vanilla syrup. I had two different rhubarb desserts, now that strawberries are coming in, Iím phasing out the citrus. I also have to think about what people want, which is always going to be peanut butter, chocolate, and caramel. Iím learning to stay within what people wantóbut also push those boundaries into something more exciting. When I first started, I think I was overwhelming the fruit we had. It was wintertime, so not a whole lot was available. But now that fruit is coming in again, I just want to focus on the simplicity of it. Thatís what Iím going for.
Q: How much of your day-to-day is spent experimenting with different flavors and foods?
Iím always playing. This is a really hands-on kitchen, so Iíve really gotten to see how different ingredients affect different recipes. My job is the best. I just get to come in and play with food and come up with new ideas. Itís been a lot of experimentation. A lot of failure, but good stuff too, I hope.
Q: With all of this experimenting, how do you know when youíve stumbled upon something that absolutely must be on the Publicanís pastry menu? How do you know what works?
Itís a lot like art. You have that first response: itís not something you really have to think about. You just like
it. You canít force it. You have to keep experimenting until it clicks. Iíll have the cooks taste everything. Theyíll tell me straight up if something sucks. [laughs] Theyíre really good at that. As my best friends, theyíll tell me what I need to know. Iím more confident now, so if somethingís good and I know it, Iíll push for it. But Iíll always have others taste.
Q: Any advice for home bakers who may not be the most skilled in the kitchen?
You just have to follow that recipe! I have friends that say, ĎIím so terrible at baking.í And I always tell them, all you have to do is follow the recipe. Once you get comfortable, youíll notice how cookie recipes are all very similar, or how cake recipes are all very similar. Then you can start experimenting. It takes a certain amount of patience, but baking is really rewarding. It can also be very frustrating, I understand.
Can you take us through a typical day as the Publicanís pastry chef?
My job is the best. I just get to come in and play with food and come up with new ideas. Itís been a lot of experimentation. A lot of failure, but good stuff too, I hope.
Every day is very different. I try to take care of myself, which is so important. I go for a run, take care of errands, etc. Here, thereís always something that can happen. I can be at work for 10 hours or 16 hours, it just depends. Your life is kind of on hold. I think itís so important to keep your personal life. You can get sucked into the kitchen because youíre here for so long. But itís really important to keep other hobbies: I have my art, running, my boyfriend and I have a great relationship and thatís super important. You hear about chefs thatÖthis is all they do, this is all they care about, and there are other things to life. Itís a great job to have, but you canít lose yourself.
Once at the restaurant, thereís a lot of costing, writing out recipes for the girls, organizing, a lot more math than I would like to do [laughs]. A lot of poring over cookbooks and looking online at different recipesóand pictures too, even, because Iím such a visual person I love just seeing different ways you can plate something. Itís very helpful creatively.
Q: After being in the kitchen for ten plus hours a day, do you even want to cook again once you get home?
I actually do. My boyfriend and I both. He usually cooks and Iíll bake. I try to keep it healthy though. Thatís something that Iím very conscience of, when Iím putting so much sugar into my body just tasting [at work] every day. My sweet tooth has definitely decreased. I rarely eat my desserts here. Of course, Iíll taste them to make sure theyíre good.
At home, weíll cook: heíll usually make a chicken and Iíll make a pie or something. Itís nice to indulge every once in a while. Baking at home is so relaxing compared to baking at work. I think Iíll always love it.
Q: When youíre out on the town, do you sample other chefís pastries?
Yes, I definitely do. Itís so exciting to see what others are doing. Itís such a reflection of that person. A piece of chocolate cake or apple pie done really well is just so impressive to me.
Q: Do you ever find yourself unwittingly judging your work against the pastries youíre sampling?
Yes, itís hard. But at the same time, seeing some really experimental things helps me grow and push my boundaries as a chef. I think a lot of chefs are like this. Youíll go to dinner with people in the industry and youíll see them try all the elements [laughs]. Itís the same with desserts. I want to soak it all in. And I also want to see how I can improve.
Q: So, when you first started out, you were thrown into a busy kitchen unprepared. When did you finally feel like you came into your own?
That was so scary, entering the kitchen with people who were so confident in what they do. It was a French chef and two girls who were so mean to me. I get it now, youíre in a busy kitchen and they had work to do, but they had to train me. But I donít thinkÖI think it wasnít until I was a line cook at the Publican and for a good three monthsÖI was on oysters for a long time. They wouldnít let me do anything but shuck oysters! [laughs] I came in knowing nothing about savory and cooking, but after a while I would notice that I was actually very quick. When I realized I could hold down a busy station at the Publican, thatís when I felt like I really made it. All I was doing was salads, but it felt really good.
Q: You tried on several different cities for size before settling down in Chicago. What is it you love most about this city?
I love the lakefront. Weíre so lucky to have it so accessible. Itís such a great thing for our city to have. During the summer, Chicago is such a different city. The galleries here are amazing, too. I just heard about a folk art gallery that I want to check out in Logan. The little ones have such amazing artists. We love the farmers market, Big Star, Maudeís, and Au Cheval. My friend just took me to Club Foot! There are so many good dive bars here. Itís such a fun city.