Pastry chef Tracy Obolsky gets up at 4:45 each morning. She subways into Manhattan from her home in the Rockaways, landing at Cookshop (156 Tenth Avenue; 212-924-4440) before 7 a.m. Then she starts “shopping.” Obolsky takes plates from around the kitchen she’ll want to use later, her arms loaded before she’s even taken off her thick winter coat. For the next twelve hours, she’ll work alongside her sous chef and three pastry cooks assembling layer cakes, plating apple pie with funky melted cheese, and building sundaes. She’ll bake dozens of breakfast pastries and freeze batches of ice cream, sorbet, and granita. Then Obolsky will head back by subway for dinner and few beers with by the beach with her husband before she wakes up to do it all over again.
Obolsky left her two-year position at North End Grill to take over the Cookshop pastry kitchen a few months ago. “The biggest adjustment I had to make [at Cookshop] was with volume,” Obolsky says. “We sell so much dessert and so many pastries here, which is great. You put all this hard work into something, and so you want people to buy it and eat it and enjoy it.”
Obolsky’s enthusiasm for approachable desserts that people really want to eat has taken her far. She worked as pastry chef at Borough Food and Drink, was hailed for her ice-cream work at the General Greene in Brooklyn, and then took over the pastry program at Esca. There, she worked alongside chef Dave Pasternack, who ordered seasonal fruit she’d never worked with before, “because it was cool and he wanted me to taste it.” Under Pasternack’s tutelage, she realized that there are “really eight seasons, how short they are, and how you need to take advantage of them when they’re here.” A similar appreciation followed at North End Grill, but it was the supreme seasonality at Cookshop that lured her from high-end kitchens into a more casual realm.
“I was in a kitchen in November for a tasting, and they were cutting raspberries to level them out,” she says. “In November. The day I start cutting my blueberries in half, that’s it! Send me to a lab.”
At Cookshop, Obolsky combines her playful, nostalgic style with the hyper-seasonal relationships chefs Marc Meyer and Andrew Corrigan have established with local farmers. Most of her desserts have some sort of familiar, inviting component — be it a pie or a base of cheesecake brightened with honeycomb candy, pink grapefruit, and ginger crisps, or dark chocolate mousse with blood orange, Earl Grey, and hazelnuts.
Though she has only been at Cookshop for a few months, she is proud to note that every dessert she crafts is a new one for both her and the restaurant. “I have this personal rule that I won’t repeat a dessert,” she says before stopping to correct herself. “With the exception of the New York Rangers sundae,” she amends. “If they make the finals, that comes back!” If there’s a flavor combination or theme Obolsky wants to revisit, she changes the core component or makes sure complementary elements have been improved upon: “There’s always something that can be made better.”
The seasonal Creamsicle sundae on the menu is a riff on a Creamsicle pie she’s done before. Now, it features layers of vanilla ice cream, tangerine sorbet, blood orange granita, orange-scented caramel, vanilla whipped cream, and orange candy. “It looks like this massive, tall sundae…but it eats super light,” she says. “It’s zippy and bright.”
And then there are desserts that are completely, 100 percent new — like the towering seven-layer devil’s food cake with peanut butter buttercream, chocolate glaze, Butterfinger crunch, candied peanuts, and chocolate fudge sauce. “It’s an impressive, towering cake, and it gets attention in the dining room,” she says. Which, of course, contributes to that fast-paced, high-volume equation: “We sell three or four full cakes in one day. By the time we’re done assembling them, we’re slicing and plating them to bring out to a table.”
Obolsky’s latest job seems to require constant movement. When she arrived at Cookshop, she inherited two pastry cooks and added two new ones, along with a sous chef. In her first days there, she learned how to make the eatery’s established desserts, and the pizza dough and focaccia her team is responsible for making. Slowly, she turned over the menu, making sure her staff was fully trained on each new dessert before adding another.
She eagerly awaits the coming of spring, anticipating which of her many recipes that play on one ingredient will ultimately make it onto Cookshop’s menu. She also hopes to start a full bread program, using the kitchen’s pizza oven overnight to fully support the restaurant throughout their daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner spreads.
“Here, I don’t sweat the small stuff,” she says. “I think I’ve calmed down a bit. There are more important things for diners than we sometimes believe to be true in high-end restaurants. I’m not up at night obsessing about whether a spoon was on one side of the table setting or another when the dessert was dropped. Here, it’s all about the food, the customers who are eating, and if my employees are learning and having a good time.”
And dessert. It’s also all about dessert at Cookshop — sweets like Obolsky’s pistachio semifreddo with cardamom honey crisps, candied kumquats, candied pistachio, and fresh lemon segments. That’s a plate that’s worth waking up at 4:45 a.m. for.