The daughter of James Beard Award-winning chef Robert Marcelli, Christina Rakitze spent much of her childhood playing in a professional kitchen. “My first memories are of sneaking chocolate chips out of his kitchen pantry with my brothers,” she says. And it was during culinary event outings in the city with her father when she met Marc Forgione, whose father Larry had worked with Marcelli for several years.
While Rakitze was studying fine art at the time, she expressed an interest in pastry to Forgione, who invited her in to trail at BLT Prime. Rakitze had no experience in the kitchen — “I didn’t even know how to cube butter,” she says — but she was a fast learner, working her way up to pastry sous chef within two years. After leaving the restaurant to pursue a pastry arts degree at the Culinary Institute of America, she went back to Forgione for the opening of his eponymous Tribeca restaurant in 2008. In 2011, Rakitze joined the Sugar and Plumm (377 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-787-8778) team as director of pastry relations, where she contributes to menu development, directs the opening of new locations, and oversees the pastry programs. In the interview that follows, Rakitze discusses why the customer always comes first, the glories of sparkles in desserts, and why her family gatherings are comparable to an episode of Top Chef.
What was it like growing up with a James Beard Award-winning chef for a father?
My brothers and I grew up observing his work and eating the fruits of his passion. The apple definitely didn’t fall far from the tree; my brother and I are both chefs, and my other brother is a food buyer for Eataly. Plus, we all married chefs! It’s a whole family thing.
What’s the first thing you consider when creating a dessert?
The first thing that we think of, definitely, are our customers. That’s where we start. Everything at Sugar and Plumm is about whimsy. The great thing about desserts is that they’re really meant to celebrate moments — whether it’s a promotion, a birthday, or a sundae shared between a mother and daughter after a dance recital — it’s about these moments. We love to create fun, new things to celebrate those times.
Speaking of whimsy — tell me more about this large format “Earthquake in a Fishbowl” offering.
We love that menu item — it’s so out-there. The dessert becomes the experience, which was our reason for doing it. There’s also something in there for everybody — it has three cakes, puddings, some key lime pie, three ice creams. We just wanted to create that staple menu item that would be the go-to option for folks looking for something fun.
What is your personal go-to dessert order when you’re dining out?
I love ice cream sundaes because there’s so much you can do with them, and there are so many different directions you can take them in. You can stay classical and familiar or go really crazy and creative. They’re great, too, because you can use whatever you have on hand. I love to see what other chefs are doing.
Is there an offering on your menu that might surprise guests as being a far cry from what they might know as a traditional dessert?
Our Fluffernutter milkshake is awesome. I’ve never personally come across one elsewhere. It’s taking something familiar, like a Fluffernutter sandwich, and reinterpreting and presenting it in a different way. We also have a Mish Mosh sundae, which is over the top with six toppings, including potato chips for that salt and crunch aspect.
How does food play into your family dynamic?
It’s a huge part of my family. It’s something that you really see during holidays and occasions. For my parent’s anniversary, for example, we all went over to their house and brought our own course. My brother rolled his own tortellini, and my other brother made his favorite dish. My husband made the main course, and my sister-in-law and I — we’re both pastry chefs — collaborated on something. We all understand the work that goes into food; it’s our way of showing love and celebrating. It’s funny, too, because it’s very much like an actual restaurant kitchen. We’re all on each other and yelling at each other when someone is not out of the oven. It becomes very entertaining.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I draw inspiration from other chefs and the risks they’re taking with food and pairings. I also personally draw a lot of inspiration from the guest. Desserts are all about happiness and making people feel good, whether they’ve had a hard day and need a little pick-me-up, or whether it’s playing some small part in their birthday. It’s really about how can we wow them? Or how can we come up with something that will really make them smile? That’s what is so great about pastry: We get to have fun and play around with the flavors, combinations — even sparkles.
Do family gatherings ever turn into brainstorming sessions?
Absolutely. We bounce ideas and dishes off of each other all of the time. There’ll be times when someone will say, “What are you, crazy? Don’t try that, do you know how hard that’s going to be?” And the other will realize, “Oh, you’re right,” because they’ve actually tried that before. Or it’ll be, “That’s a great idea, but maybe try this to make it a little bit different.” It’s a very unique situation to have so much combined experience. Especially my dad — he’s the one with the most knowledge. It’s a great way to keep everyone grounded and, at the same time, challenge each other.
Any tricks of the family trade that have stayed with you?
My sister-in-law [Jane Tseng] is the pastry chef at The Breslin. I learn a lot from her — she’s very good at balancing flavors. As a rule, she’ll use about one third less sugar than a recipe will call for. A lot of times with desserts, you can’t even finish them because they’re too sweet. So that’s something I learned a lot about from her, and something that I’ve incorporated at Sugar and Plumm.