Photo: Laura Metzler
Photo: Laura Metzler

Sugar Rush: DC Pastry Chefs Chat Holiday Sweets

With the recent openings of bakeries and the growing profiles of local pastry chefs, DC’s bakery game is on the rise – literally. Spinning sugar into showpieces, whipping meringue into mini mountain peaks and constructing cakes into literal works of art, DC dessert masterminds are showing how their craft is a vital part of the food scene in the nation’s capital.

So what’s the buzz behind DC’s sugar rush? It’s no secret that in recent years, the food scene in the District has exploded. In 2016, Bon Appetit named it the Restaurant City of the Year, and in the same year, Michelin awarded DC with its first-ever guidebook. What does that mean for pastry chefs and the bakery niche?

“It’s definitely an exciting time for food in general in DC, and it’s nice to see that pastries have kind of caught on to the wave of openings and young chefs becoming owners of businesses,” notes Buttercream Bakeshop’s owner and pastry chef, Tiffany MacIsaac. “There’s a lot of great places to get pastries now.”

For pastry chefs who double as business owners, part of the draw to open their own storefronts is the opportunity to create on a whim. MacIsaac’s menu of treats includes addictive cinnascones, savory breakfast bombs and custom cake orders dreamed up in her Shaw bakery.

“That was one of the reasons why I wanted to open a bakery,” she continues. “I wanted to be able to cook whatever I wanted – when I wanted – and put it out on the shelf.”

For Foreign National Pastry Director Pichet Ong – the culinary talent behind LINE Hotel eateries Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English, as well as H Street’s Maketto and a handful of other local spots – the environment in DC has encouraged a new wave of chefs and restaurant openings.

“I think it’s just part of the growth of the restaurant industry here,” says Ong, who is known for signature desserts highlighting fruit, Asian flavors and herbs, and savory ingredients. “DC is unique in that way, in that it has always boasted a huge pool of local talent – and from that, they each have their own unique experience.”

Beyond the burgeoning culinary environment in the DC area, Schlow Restaurant Group’s Alex Levin says it’s about chefs evolving and elevating their game. From managing the pastry program at Osteria Morini to his current position as executive pastry chef for all Schlow Restaurant Group’s eateries, he’s created new businesses within those concepts such as his popular pop-up bakeries.

“[I] have this amazing platform to be creative and make desserts, but also be a business mind about it and think about how we can create new experiences within our concepts so that we’re constantly challenging ourselves,” Levin says. “I can have the best of both worlds, where suddenly being a pastry chef is a real benefit for a company to have. I believe that’s what a lot of other people are doing too. They’re showing their value in ways that go far beyond what they do on the menu.”

With so much talent on the rise, it would be easy to assume competition is stiff. But amongst DC chefs, it seems to be all about community over competition. MacIsaac notes that just in Shaw alone, there’s a number of bakeries and restaurants with pastry offerings beyond Buttercream Bakeshop.

“Right around the corner is Seylou [Bakery], and then across the street is Unconventional Diner,” she says. “It just really goes to show there’s lots of people that want good pastries in this city and there’s plenty of business to go around. I think we all rise together, so I think it’s good that there’s more things opening.”

With the holidays right around the corner, bakeries and pastry kitchens have shifted gears toward seasonal treats. Expect fun DIY cake kits from MacIsaac’s shop outfitted with all the decorating accoutrements including piping bag, piping tip, buttercream, sprinkles and paper toppers.

“They’re little four-inch cakes, so it’s enough for one or two people to eat. We’re kind of reinventing the whole ‘leave a cookie for Santa.’ We’re thinking people might want to leave a cake for Santa.”

The kits also double as a gift for holiday soirées.

“It’s a fun thing for people to get for parties because it can be an activity, the dessert and the gift – all rolled up into one,” MacIsaac says of her kits.

Buttercream Bakeshop patrons can enjoy holiday cookie lattes with “cookie butter spread, molasses and all of the spice.” Essentially, they’re gingerbread cookies in latte form.

Although Ong didn’t grow up with traditional American holiday flavors and ingredients, he’ll be putting his spin on winter favorites over at the LINE including a salted caramel apple pie with a smoky flavor and a persimmon dessert featuring jasmine tea for Spoken English.

Schlow Restaurant Group’s eateries will also highlight seasonal desserts. Indulge in the triple chocolate s’mores budino or the apple tart with almond frangipane at Alta Strada. Levin is also running a December pop-up, located at Casolare Ristorante + Bar in Glover Park and Alta Strada’s DC and Mosaic locations, where guests can order winter treats like a classic linzer cookie filled with raspberry jam. Levin will be hosting his second annual People’s Hanukkah Party at Casolare on December 6 where he’ll be slinging sufganiyot – the traditional donuts typically only found during Hanukkah – as well as latkes and other savory bites.

After the holiday season is over and DC denizens transition into the new year, what can be expected from the bakery scene? Ong predicts an even greater rise for pastry chefs.

“I think for sure there’s going to be more openings of restaurants in DC,” he says. “We’re going to hopefully see more pastry chefs coming to the scene. There’s a lot of really great pastry chefs already in DC, but you’re going to see more of them coming into prominence.”

Learn more about the delectable items offered at the spots below. 

Alta Strada: 2911 District Ave. #150, Fairfax, VA; www.altastradarestaurant.com
Brothers and Sisters: 1770 Euclid St. NW, DC; www.brothersandsistersdc.com
Buttercream Bakeshop: 1250 9th St. NW, DC; www.buttercreamdc.com
Casolare Ristorante + Bar: 2505 Wisconsin Ave. NW, DC; www.casolare.com
Osteria Morini: 301 Water St. SE, DC; www.osteriamorini.com
Spoken English: 1770 Euclid St. NW, DC; www.thelinehotel.com/dc