Chris Kujala: The Sweet Smell of Success
The Rammy-winning pastry chef creates desserts with a child-like sensibility.
There's a lot of swooning over desserts at Kinkead's restaurant in DC's Foggy Bottom, where pastry chef Chris Kujala whips up confections such as a pecan carrot-cake roulade with rum-and-golden-raisin ice cream. The local restaurant association likes his work, too—it just gave him the Rammy Award for Best Pastry Chef. Here he dishes about extravagant fruits, childhood desserts, and humble beginnings.
How did you get your start?
Growing up in Mississippi there wasn't a whole lot to choose from. I started as a cook at McDonald's. I eventually went up to kitchen manager, which isn't a big deal even though they say it is. Then I went to culinary school in Baltimore, and my first venture into high-class cooking was with the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner.
Any mentors along the way?
I've always learned on the job and done a lot of reading, but I didn't really work with anybody that I'd consider a first-class pastry chef. I wish I had. I'm thinking about going back to school just to expand my knowledge.
What are your favorite books?
I like Emily Luchetti's Stars Desserts and Sweet Seasons by Richard Leach—I like his presentations. To me, it's a simple approach, but to a lot of people it's probably pretty high-tech.
Describe your desserts.
Something that you're comfortable with, with almost a childhood feeling. I don't get outrageous or weird. The Mississippi mud pie is something I grew up with. As for the carrot cake—I just changed the presentation of it. I like simple flavors. You can always make something look good, but if it doesn't taste good you won't remember it.
Do you eat on the job?
I do have a sweet tooth, and I love pastries. People can't figure out why I'm so skinny.
What do you ask for on your birthday?
Probably some nice fresh strawberries with whipped cream inside a crepe.
What's the best season for desserts?
I like spring and summer because there's more to choose from—peaches and plums and berries are in peak. In the wintertime you just have pears or tropical fruits. I'm not personally a big chocolate guy, though I do like to work with it.
Any favorite culinary extravagances?
Champagne mangoes are really good—they have an incredible flavor and come up only a few times a year. The perfume is just incredible. I really like lychee nuts, but they're hard to work with—there's not a whole lot to them when you peel the skin off. I poach them with Chambord and serve them with a light lemon sabayon.
It's your last meal. What are you having?
I'd start off with a fresh tomato-and-mozzarella salad with a balsamic vinaigrette. Then a grilled rib-eye steak with corn on the cob and some really good homemade potato salad. For dessert, a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Hey, you might as well.