Siobhan DeCarlo wasn’t always plotting a pastry chef career. “I was planning to get my PhD in English, and I couldn’t get into any of the programs,” she explains. “So I said, ‘You know what — I really love baking. I think I’m going to go to culinary school.'”
In DeCarlo’s case, when one door closed, many doors to some of the most highly praised NYC kitchens opened — starting with Hearth (403 East 12th Street, 646-602-1300), chef Marco Canora’s Tuscany-inspired East Village eatery. It was here that she landed an externship-turned-pastry cook role in 2005; she worked there until she ventured over to Michael White’s now shuttered Alto and Marea in 2008. When a pastry chef opportunity arose at Hearth two and a half years ago, DeCarlo rejoined Canora, and together, they celebrated the restaurant’s 10-year anniversary this past November. In this interview, DeCarlo emphasizes the importance of simplicity on the plate, her love for textural variation in a dish, and how she really — really — cannot wait until summer.
How does it feel to be a part of a team that just celebrated the 10 year mark?
It’s special to be here for that because I feel very connected to the restaurant and the people who work here. In total, I’ve worked here for about half the time that the restaurant has been open — so that’s pretty cool.
How have the desserts at Hearth evolved over 10 years?
The one thing that has not changed — and I don’t think it will ever change — is the apple cider doughnuts, which are a classic dessert at Hearth. I’ve known all of the pastry chefs that have worked here, from the original one to the one who was here right before me. Everyone has had their own style of desserts, but they all are simple and rustic desserts that taste delicious; they’re not really about show.
Have the apple cider doughnuts changed at all since the restaurant’s opening?
Not really — it’s the same exact recipe. It’s a very temperamental recipe, and I’ve learned that mixing it to the point where you think you’re overmixing makes them come out perfectly — so I feel like I’ve maybe figured out a way to make them these perfectly round doughnuts. When I first worked here we did a glaze with regular cider, and now I use a reduced cider, so it’s an even more intense flavor.
What do you think it is about dishes like the doughnuts that make them staples and menu placeholders?
I just think that it’s a really amazing recipe; it’s delicious. They have that same warmth and hominess to them that the restaurant does — and they give off that feeling that you’re being taken care of. People love them.
How would you define your culinary style?
I am not into showy desserts — at all. It’s more important to me that they taste absolutely delicious. I just want them to be simple, I want them to taste good, and I want people to eat dessert and to have it remind them of home. I always have three components — it’s always going to be three different flavors. I’ll have a sauce, a crunchy aspect, and then I like to do different things with hot and cold, with different temperatures. But it’s always simple; that’s what I strongly believe in. I’m not into the showy, tuille-y things. If someone tastes your dessert and it tastes amazing, they won’t remember what it looks like — they’ll remember what it tasted like and how it made them feel.
Texture seems to play a big role in your desserts — is this intentional?
I like [texture]. You want to have something creamy, something crunchy, something chewy. I try not to have one-dimensional desserts, where it’s just cake and a scoop of ice cream, for example — I like to have another aspect to the dessert, but in a very simple way.
Can you remember specific moments during your time in the pastry world that have shaped your approach in the kitchen?
I can remember the first pastry chef here at Hearth and talking with her about her style and the importance of making [the dish] taste good — that they don’t always have to look pretty, but they have to taste good. I’ll always remember her saying that to me and thinking about how important that is. The second pastry chef that I worked for was Heather Bertinetti at Alto and Marea, and she emphasized the importance of having the texture and the sauces; having three elements on one plate. I always remember her saying that. So I think I’ve just kind of combined the two things. I keep thinking about different desserts that are my favorites, and they pretty much combine something I’ve learned, or they’re recipes I got from each chef that I worked with.
What are your favorite desserts?
I have a chocolate cake with milk chocolate mousse that I do — it’s just so good, I love it. It’s dark chocolate Valrhona cake with chocolate mousse, fior di latte (sweet milk ice cream), and candied cocoa nibs. I feel like I try to change [my desserts] a lot, but that cake is the only item I’ve ever repeated.
So you’ve never repeated a dessert at Hearth besides this cake (and the apple cider doughnuts)?
It’s so easy not to because Hearth is very greenmarket-focused. We’ll go to the greenmarket, and there are so many different things to work with. I’ll repeat a tatin, but it’ll be a different fruit with a different ice cream. For instance, last year I did a banana tarte tatin with chocolate ice cream and crème fraiche, and this year I want to do a pineapple one with rosemary ice cream.
Have there been any flavor combinations that work so well that you’re inclined to do them again?
I almost always pair cardamom with pears — that’s a combo I repeat in various ways. I did a pear tarte tatin with cardamom ice cream once, and the chocolate element I added was actually chef Marco’s idea — he loves the idea of pear with chocolate, which I had never really thought of until he was obsessed with it. I actually really liked it together.
Is it difficult to find inspiration in the dreary winter months?
This time of year is the hardest because there’s not that much to work with. It’s the worst in March, right when the savory kitchen is getting the peas, the morels, the fava beans — and all the pastry kitchen is getting is rhubarb. This time of year is more chocolate heavy — also tropical fruits and citrus. George [Kaden], the chef de cuisine here, is talking about bringing in blood oranges. But yes, it’s harder in the wintertime. In March and April you’re just dying for the summer to get here.
Is summer your favorite season to work with?
Yes, for sure. I like summer more than the fall, even, because of all of the berries and stone fruits. I love using corn in desserts, like a corn ice cream or a corn pudding. I did a sweet corn sundae this year that was really good. The summer is definitely my favorite season for desserts.
Do you have a method for developing your desserts?
I kind of do have a method. I’ll go, “Alright, I want to do something with pineapple because that’s available right now.” And then I think about what flavors pair well with pineapple and come up with the three flavors I want to do together. That’s where I’ll begin, then I’ll start thinking about where I’m going to be adding the textures. So I’ll think, “What goes well with pineapple? Rosemary would be good; how should I incorporate the rosemary? Should I do a rosemary cookie or a rosemary ice cream?” That kind of thing.
What inspires you?
Definitely ingredients. The Greenmarket is very inspirational. You just walk in there, and there’s so much — that’s where you start building your ideas. And definitely the people I work with directly inspire me — they help me come up with ideas. One time, a front of house manager tasted a hazelnut pudding I was planning on adding to the menu. It came with whipped cream and a chocolate wafer. After he ate it, he said he liked it, but felt like he wanted more chocolate. So I decided to add a warm dark chocolate sauce under the wafer, and I really feel like that small addition made that dessert.
What is your favorite thing about being a pastry chef?
It’s always so hard to know what I like best about being a pastry chef. I suppose the amount of creativity involved in it plays a major factor into why I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. From the composition of a plate to the pairings of flavors and textures, the possibilities are endless if you use your imagination.