Favorite

Part Artist, Part Scientist, All Female 

In Tucson and in the restaurant world in general, women rule when it comes to pastries

Anyone who watches Bravo's popular cooking show Top Chef knows that pastry has been the downfall of many great chefs. Even last season's winner, Stephanie Izard--the first woman champion on the show--created a lackluster dessert in the finale that nearly cost her the title.

It takes a certain kind of person to be a pastry chef--and for some reason, a large number of them are women.

A recent survey by starchefs.com shows that among female respondents, "most are pastry chefs, followed by executive chefs, pastry cooks and executive pastry chefs."

Tucson anecdotally reflects the same: A large number of Tucson's top kitchens have women working with desserts.

One of these local top chefs is a 30-year veteran with a full slate of restaurant experience. Another is a newcomer who gave up a successful law practice to bake. Others include a long-time local favorite who runs pastry operations at several restaurants, one who has made her mark at a tiny French bakery, and another who spent years working at America's finest island resorts before settling in at a desert bistro.

They're a mixed bag, for sure, but these women do have at least one thing besides gender in common: They all share a passion for their craft.

Marianne Banes worked in local kitchens long before some of the other local pastry chefs even donned their first apron (see "The Birth of Tucson Cuisine," July 27, 2006).

"I started baking at the Blue Willow when it first opened in the late 1970s: a little dabbling, not much," she says from the private dining room at Kingfisher, where she now is the pastry chef. "Then when I went to Garland's Lodge (in Sedona), that's when I really started baking. Everyday, we made breads and a dessert. That's when I really got my hands into it. It was a rough introduction to baking at high altitudes."

When she returned to Tucson and the Blue Willow, she began to perfect her art. She experimented, with hits and misses, but then found a mentor.

"The gentleman who sold us our flour was a Frenchman, a former patissier. Every time he came to take our flour order, he'd give me a little lesson. He'd answer all my questions."

Banes has since worked on both sides of the kitchen at Tucson and San Francisco restaurants. She also began teaching baking, which she still does today.

At the other end of the spectrum is Zora Shaw, who until recently was a successful litigator in Chicago. Today, she's the pastry chef at Janos and J Bar, at the Westin La Paloma.

"My hobby, to get away from the stress of being a trial attorney, was baking. It was just last summer when I realized I was baking more and enjoying my job less. And a light bulb went off in my head: Maybe I should do something I enjoy for a change."

She took a chance and got a job as an assistant pastry chef at the B Line on Fourth Avenue, while her husband was going to school here.

"It was a great foundation: pies, scones, cakes, whatever," she says. But after a while, she no longer felt challenged, so when she saw an ad seeking an assistant pastry chef at Janos, she went for it.

But why would Janos Wilder--someone who helped put Tucson on the culinary map--take a relative novice into his kitchen?

"Assistants are hard to come by. It was summer, and we had a little bit of a cushion," Janos says with a smile. "Zora came with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, not a lot of experience, but decent experience at the B Line. She auditioned really well."

He adds, "I'm always willing to take a chance with someone who has what I think it takes." This includes Banes, who did two stints at Janos, the second after her return from San Francisco.

When the pastry chef left, Shaw took over the top position.

The creator of one of Tucson's most famous desserts, the Bars of Zin, executive pastry chef Karen "Spike" Ames was the first employee at Fox Restaurant Concepts a little more than 10 years ago. She came to the company with a strong foundation.

"I did an apprenticeship with Alan Zeman," one of Tucson's early top chefs. "I worked with him at El Conquistador and at Anthony's. I opened Fuego." There, she started making the daily bread, and as time progressed, she learned other aspects of the kitchen.

"Mostly, when I was an apprentice, it seemed to me that women were kind of pushed toward going toward pastry. So I naturally was inclined to not go that direction," she says with a laugh.

As time passed, she realized that pastry was the way she wanted to go. "Most of the time, you're working by yourself. There's no struggle with the pecking order. You just know what you have to do, and do it. There's not a lot of time for chitchat. That's what I wanted to do."

Ames oversees pastry all of the Fox restaurants in Tucson.

Alicia Fraire has been both a sweet and a savory chef in restaurants all over the country. Hailing from the Bay Area, she now works at La Baguette Bakery at Campbell Avenue and Prince Road. In working at this tiny gem, one might say Fraire has returned to her roots.

"I actually started (baking) in high school. I was a student, of course, and worked evenings in a bakery. I was bored, and most people don't come in that late, so I just picked up the bags and taught myself.

"Then I lied on my first job (application) and said I knew how to do it. It worked. They didn't know."

Fraire is known for her amazing cakes, but she doesn't make any of the bread at La Baguette. That's left in the experienced hands of owner Norbert Satta. Breakfast pastries are made by a third person. (Bread-baking is whole other ball of dough. With the exception of Banes, who occasionally makes some specialty breads at Kingfisher, none of these women are responsible for bread.)

Fraire also has a successful catering company, Sweet and Savory.

Pastiche Modern Eatery's Kristie Guest is another kitchen latecomer. She started at a couple of places here in Tucson; then, for several years, she split her time between resorts on charming Nantucket Island and in the lush tropics of Hawaii, where she mainly worked in the front of the house.

Baking was a hobby, but at the Kapalua Resort, she began to bake a little and split her time between the front and back of the house.

"I created a job for myself," she says. She eventually returned to the mainland and went to school at Johnson and Wales in Denver. She did a stint on yet another island: Ireland, this time under a French chef, before returning to Hawaii. There, she worked with Steve Arakaki, one of the islands' top pastry chefs.

"I worked under him for a year. I learned a lot. I liked it a lot," she says.

She still loves baking with tropical flavors. "Pat (Connors, Pastiche's owner) gives me a lot of freedom. I get to make whatever I want."

Guest also helps out at Kingfisher, in the front of the house as a hostess.

The big question remains unanswered: Why are there so many woman pastry chefs? The chefs we talked to didn't have any definitive answers, though schedule may play a part.

"This is a nice pace," says Guest. "I work six or seven hours a day, five days a week. It depends on business."

Banes echoes the same idea. "It may have something to do with being able to have a life, and if you want to have kids, a family. Is doing the baking shift more conducive to that? It certainly was for me. After working nights for 30 years, I was really happy to work days." However, she emphasizes, "That's not the reason why I went into it."

But for those who work or have worked dining hours, like Ames, Shaw and Fraire, that theory doesn't hold water.

Women also tend to be more detail-oriented. "Everything is a work in progress," says Ames. "The things that have gone through the process--the tweaking, tweaking, tweaking--are really good."

Shaw agrees. "I like the little details. I'm very patient. ... Baking is very precise scientific formulas and chemical reactions."

Banes says that as a teacher, she loves it when a student has that "a ha!" moment when they realize what's happening in the bowl. "I'm fascinated by the science of it," she says.

In any case, Shaw perhaps says it the best, leaving the big question unanswered.

"I don't see it along gender lines," she says.

"A lot has to do with who you are as an individual."


OTHER TOP PASTRY CHEFS

We talked to several more local female pastry chefs. Note that many of the following chefs had a tough time answering the question about their favorite dessert. A standard response: "I don't eat a lot of desserts."

Violetta Rodriguez
Pastry chef, Acacia at St. Philip's
Time at restaurant: One year
Training: Italy
Favorite dessert: Mousses

Terri La Chance
Pastry chef, the B Line
Time at restaurant: Eight months
Training: San Francisco, Beyond Bread
Favorite dessert: Raspberry linzer torte

Wendy Nagengast
Pastry chef, Beyond Bread
Time at restaurant: 18 months
Training: Community college
Favorite dessert: Mousse

Lora Quarrella
Pastry chef, Café a la C'art
Time at restaurant: Six years
Training: On the job
Favorite dessert: Ice Cream

Lena Steinbrenner
Pastry chef, Dakota Café and Catering
Time at restaurant: Seven months
Training: Westin La Paloma
Favorite dessert: Little French things

Sabrina Metherell
Pastry chef, The Grill at Hacienda del Sol
Time at restaurant: Seven months
Training: Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago
Favorite dessert: Anything chocolate

Rachel Boocks
Pastry chef, Zona 78
Time at restaurant: Four months
Training: On the job
Favorite dessert: Carrot cake

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