Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez was putting pastry all over the New York map long before Johnny Iuzzini made it sexy or Sam Mason made it space-aged. After getting her start at Mondrian, she became the pastry chef at the Union Square Cafe, and then proceeded to spend the next 15 years creating three-star desserts at L’Impero, Veritas, and Judson Grill. This week, Carlucci-Rodriguez stepped into the pastry kitchen at Print, Adam Block’s new restaurant in the Ink48 hotel. Print, whose savory kitchen is run by Carlucci-Rodriguez’s husband, Charles Rodriguez, is the latest example of the upward mobilization of hotel dining — think Wegner Wishbone chairs and an in-house forager. It marks a return to form for Carlucci-Rodriguez, who five years ago ventured into more savory territory with Lassi, a Lilliputian Indian take-out counter in the West Village that built a devoted fan base before closing last August.
Check back in tomorrow for the second part of our interview with Carlucci-Rodriguez, in which she talks about the pastry chef community, what’s in her refrigerator, and why she’s a fan of lunch at Pearl Oyster Bar.
So how did you get involved with Print?
I had previously worked with Adam Block. He asked us if we’d be interested the project; it was already well on its way when he started speaking to us in May of 2009. I already had been dealing with my lease and my landlord and knew that Lassi would prob go into hibernation for a little while. So this seemed a good fit for us.
A lot of it was the mission of the restaurant: as much as possible, we’re local and doing a lot of work with Farm to Table. As far as I know we have the only on-staff forager that goes to farms and finds us really amazing things. We just really appreciate that. And we’re composting, starting right now. I wish there was more availability for that — it’s tricky to get it going, because people pick it up and you don’t know where it goes. We’re still not in a place where we’re really happy with it; it’s one of our many projects to get off the ground. But this is really the sort of food that my husband always did, and I was sort of in between projects.
What’s it been like going from Lassi to Print?
It’s all been — I hate to use the word organic, but a very organic process. There was a two-week window between Lassi and Print where Indian food was at the forefront of my brain. It took a minute to wash that out. Part of my job was setting up the front of the house and hiring managers, and to get a feel for what we were building. Obviously, [the menu] changed a lot; we did tastings for Adam and he liked everything, but a lot of it was ‘I’m just not feeling that dessert here.’ As we’re going, we’re getting some phenomenal things from our forager. Like, I was going to do something with bananas and then she came in with these amazing chestnuts and I was like, forget it, I just got these amazing chestnuts, who needs bananas when you have these?
Your first pastry gig was working with Tom Colicchio at Mondrian — has it been weird to watch him get so famous?
He was always pretty prominent in my life because he was first fine dining experience I had. I think it’s pretty funny. He’s definitely the most talented of all the chefs that have become that famous. I learned volumes from him, and I think it’s great. If someone’s going to be that famous, it might as well be someone good — everyone else seems to be just personality, not really a chef. So I think it’s a riot. But the Coke commercial is a little startling.
It seems that within the past few years, people have started taking pastry chefs a lot more seriously.
I believe that a lot. I mean, I’ve been really lucky. I’ve always worked in better restaurants. Right around the time I opened Lassi, about five years ago, things changed for pastry chefs more than ever. They were coming to the forefront more, starting to get respect that they didn’t before. I think also a lot of it it started a little bit with me, and before me was Chika [Tillman, the owner of ChikaLicious and Dessert Club], and right after me was Sam Mason and Pichet [Ong]. As we started to own our own businesses, people started to take us more seriously.
When you opened Lassi, did people still want your desserts?
People requested it day in and day out. The menu changed from very traditional Indian to chocolate pudding to something over the top.
You were able to put out quite a variety from a very small kitchen.
It still startles me. I think I could probably put eight Lassis into my pastry kitchen.
Growing up, were there any foods that inspired you to become a chef or go to culinary school?
I went to art school before I went to culinary school — one very often leads to the next. My influences came from being part of a big family of great cooks and great bakers. My mom made a Sicilian cassata with bitter chocolate frosting on holidays and for special dinners. I never got over that.