Pastry chefs are sweetening Detroit’s dining deal

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The baked goods at Astro Coffee have won a loyal following.
The baked goods at Astro Coffee have won a loyal following.

The "New American" boom in Detroit restaurants isn't limited to such newfangled trends as shareable small plates, modern spins on popular comfort foods, emphasis on local ingredients, and the requisite duck fat fries on every menu. Consider the venerable pastry chef: Pay close attention and you'll find that in this increasingly demanding market they're also blazing new culinary trails.

For years, pastries were limited to cheesecakes and chocolate cakes, maybe an occasional carrot cake to shake things up. But as chefs continue to experiment in Detroit, so too, do the pastry chefs, playing with ingredients beyond the typical fare.

"To come into Detroit now, you have to listen to what people want," says Angela Foster, owner of Coffee and (___) in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. "People no longer want to eat all sorts of pastries. People are more health-minded now."

So what do Detroiters want? More vegan options, more savory options, more gluten-free options. And more of the fine-dining flourishes they want on the main menu.

"Everything is crossing the line in our industry," says Shannon Kellett, pastry chef at Roast. "Searing a scallop is no different than caramelizing a banana."

Chamile Ashton, who works at the Clean Plate vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Shelby Township and Cacao Tree Café, another vegetarian and vegan hangout in Royal Oak, knows firsthand about the challenge of making desserts without eggs and other dietary restrictions.

"Vegan and gluten-free cupcakes was not an easy task to complete," she says. "I felt like a scientist at moments trying to find the right combinations to make wonderful cakes." Now, she specializes in "raw" desserts — pastries made with honey, maple sugar, coconut nectar, palm sugar, and agave as sweeteners.

For Ajisa Selimagic, pastry chef at Inn Season Café in Royal Oak, the challenge with vegan pastry is striking a balance with making something "tasty" while using fully organic ingredients.

"All of my ingredients come from organic farms or organic supermarkets," Selimagic says. "I like to have fun with my creations and that always turns out great."

In some ways, Detroit is playing catch-up with other major markets when it comes to diversifying its pastry offerings. But Detroit is getting there quickly, some chefs say.

"Detroit is just starting to blossom with its culinary atmosphere," says Ben Robison, pastry chef at Local Kitchen and Bar in Ferndale. "It's OK to be a little more adventurous and try new things. And it's becoming easier to sell that kind of stuff to discerning customers. There's not anything too far out there."

With the culinary scene growing, the path to a pastry-chef position is a little bit easier to travel than in years past. The region is fortunate to have Schoolcraft College, where many chefs have learned their craft, even if sticking around has traditionally been a challenge.

Foster, a Schoolcraft alum, says, "I had to leave Detroit in 2005. But there's been a complete turnaround in the six years I was gone."

That's because restaurateurs started banking on the potential in Detroit. The well-worn tales of empty storefronts waiting for revival aside, there was a need to stock kitchens with talent so they could feed an increasingly hungry audience. Luckily, expatriates who'd been honing their skills elsewhere were happy to answer the call.

"I had moved to D.C.," Foster says, "but Detroit needed good pastries. People were saying, 'We need you.' I've never been told I was needed. I see things a little differently than most people do now. It's been a lot of fun asking people what they want and creating it."

It can still be a difficult choice to stay in Detroit. Many restaurants have a dozen or so chefs, but only one pastry chef. "It's a hard position to get, because there's only one position," Kellett says.

But Kellett urges patience. "A lot of people feel like they want to leave Detroit and go to Chicago. But look at Gold Cash Gold, Selden Standard... all these great restaurants popping up. Aren't there 40 new restaurants opening next year?"

Ashton agrees. "I feel like I hear about another new restaurant opening all the time, so I definitely think there should be many positions available," she says.

One thing local pastry chefs are split on is the idea of standalone pastry restaurants, and whether the Detroit market can support a wave of those kinds of stations. Foster's Coffee and (___) is certainly an exception, but the road to the grand opening included many years of pop-up work and securing a space from a development corporation.

"It's something I've been contemplating for the last couple years," Robison says. "It's kind of difficult where we are now just because I don't think there's a huge market for specialty pastry shops. There's a handful around the city. It's hard to make money when you're doing a high-quality product" because of the costs associated with it.

Selimagic is a little more optimistic.

"I can see myself opening a standalone shop in the future, and I believe that I will be successful in doing so," she says. "But it's better right now to work in a larger kitchen because there is a larger variety of sources available. Overall, you have a better outlook on what customers admire the most by the large amount of sales for that particular dish."