Who: Amanda Rockman, a Katy, Texas, native whose mother’s lavish meals and most notably Sacher torte inspired her to attend The Culinary Institute of America, and embark a sweet career. With posh kitchen stints, including one at TRU and The Peninsula Chicago, she now oversees The Bristol’s pastry program as Executive Pastry Chef, while also working on developing a standout dessert menu inspired by the American Sundae at the highly anticipated, yet-to-open Italian-inspired Balena. You can see her in action on the second season of Top Chef’s “Just Desserts” premiering Aug. 24 on Bravo.
Years in Chicago: 7
Current Neighborhood: Roscoe Village
When were you first inspired to become a pastry chef? Was there one event that sparked your interest and made you say, “This is what I want to do!”?
The moment I became interested in pastries was when my mom, especially for Thanksgiving, would have this whole dessert buffet and she would make a few different types of pie. So it would either be pecan pie or pumpkin or it would be an apple pie and she would have a cranberry upside-down cake. But one in particular that I remember vividly: my mom would have this Russian dinner (my mom is actually Russian and she’s an immigrant to the United States) for all of her friends and different types of caviar and vodkas and she made this Sacher torte, which is not traditionally Russian, but she made it with kind of a flair. She printed out this template of what the Kremlin looks like, like the profile, and she cut it out and she took powdered sugar, so when she lifted off the cake, it had this motif of the Kremlin. I thought it was like the coolest thing ever, and that’s what sparked by interest to pay attention to what was going on in the kitchen.
What do you like best about being a pastry chef in Chicago?
I like how Chicago really embraces local restaurants. They [locals] really support restaurants that are mom and pop or embrace the Chicago markets and things of that nature. There’s a lot of talent here and on top of it, Midwesterners are incredibly polite, so you don’t have to deal with as much ego as you get perhaps in maybe New York or LA or San Francisco either. We like to keep it a little more down to earth.
What was your biggest kitchen disaster?
It’s funny now, I can laugh at it. Working at The Peninsula Chicago, you have banquets that are like 300 or 400 people and a lot of the plated desserts are pretty intricate. So basically the kitchen that we have is on the floor above the Grand Ballroom, so you have to take an elevator and then there’s this slight ramp that you have to go up to before you hit the area in which you’re going to start plating. So myself and another cook were going up this ramp and sometimes if you have to turn, you roll the rack a certain way and she kind of tripped over her own feet, which then, the rolling rack toppled over her and 200 pieces of the cheesecake went falling all over the floor. She was trying so hard to catch the rack and sacrifice herself for it, but basically she got smothered with 200 pieces of cheesecake, and on top of it, we still have to plate this up. Fortunately for a hotel of this size, you have something similar. We had cheesecake, but it wasn’t necessarily the same cheesecake and we still had to cut in into pieces and we had to make it all happen within 15 minutes. It sucked really badly, but you couldn’t help but laugh because of the whole situation and because this girl’s running around covered in cheesecake and we’re trying to make this happen. That has to be one of the most vivid kitchen disasters ever, at least for my career.
Aside from the The Bristol, where can we find some of your personal favorite desserts?
Ooh, that’s a hard one. I have to say my favorite pastry chef in the city is Kady Yon (new executive pastry chef of Public Hotel, formerly of Boka Restaurant Group). Anything she makes I’m a big fan of. I just ate at Perennial Virant, which is very similar to The Bristol. But she had, it was a really simple baked chocolate mousse, but the texture was just [amazing]. I couldn’t stop eating it. It was just like ‘Stop it, Amanda, stop eating this,’ It was just so good and she had this peppermint ice cream so it was just incredibly refreshing and kind of like ventilated on your tongue and then you have this rich chocolate. I’m a big fan of Mindy Segal. Her milkshakes! Even during the wintertime I drink them and it’s probably not appropriate because it’s freezing outside. And then Molly’s Cupcakes. I’m a little over the cupcake craze, but if I am going to get one, I would go to Molly’s cupcakes because it’s local (they’re from Chicago) and I think it’s far superior than More or Sprinkles or anything that’s around these days.
What was the experience like on "Top Chef Just Desserts"?
It was amazing. Surprisingly amazing. In any situation that you put yourself in where you are unable to control any element is pretty terrifying, at least for me. But to kind of let that all go was probably the hardest hurdle for me. Just the mental aspect of ‘Ok, I can’t control any of this’ and basically you’re just part of this game. Essentially, it’s a competition; it’s a game. So, just the mental aspect of it was probably the hardest for me to kind of initially contemplate, understand and then just get over it and do what I had to do to continue forward.
How much drama? Give us a little hint.
To be honest, I will have to say with full sincerity that everyone was incredibly professional. In these extreme environments obviously I don’t know everything that people said either. Some things will be new to me. As far as you know, when you’re cooking you don’t get to hear everything. I have a tendency to just shut everything out and not acknowledge things going on in the kitchen, so I’m going to be honest, I didn’t really pay attention to my surroundings as much as perhaps I should have. The funny thing is that my boyfriend always tells me ‘Amanda, I just told you that’ and I’m like ‘really?’ because when I'm working on something. I have the amazing ability to shut things out. So we’ll see what happens.
I read that there were quite the challenges this second season. From fairytale showpieces and edible room décor to gingerbread houses and carnival delights. Can you tell me about them?
I think you’re going to have to watch and find out.
"Top Chef Just Desserts" Season 2 premieres on Bravo, August 24 at 9 p.m. CST