Pastry Chef Katie McAllister Balances Flavor at Lure, El Toro Blanco, and B&B
Responsible for the dessert offerings at three downtown dining destinations -- Lure (142 Mercer Street, 212-431-7676), B&B (25 West Houston Street, 212-334-7320), and El Toro Blanco (257 Sixth Avenue, 212-645-0193) -- pastry chef Katie McAllister has learned to balance her minutes in the kitchen as much as her classically-driven flavor combinations, and her desserts reflect the definitive character driving their respective restaurants. We chatted with McAllister about baked Alaska cravings, not playing favorites, and what candy bar always makes it into her grocery bag.
How would you define your culinary philosophy?
I think food should be delicious, fun, and simple. I don't think it should be contrived. I really appreciate keeping food friendly to the diner; something they know they can relate to and something they can't wait to eat again.
How do you come up with your flavor profiles?
I plan my inspiration for flavors with seasonal ingredients and classic combinations. I don't find its necessary to change a classic. Take chocolate and peanut butter, for example -- it's delicious. I like to start with what's in season, then think about what the menu item is going to be. Then I like to work with classic combinations. I try to keep it simple -- I don't like to make my flavor combinations on a plate too crazy.
Are there any flavor combinations that you've always been crazy about?
I have a lot of favorite flavor combinations. I'm a real chocolate lover, so anything from white chocolate and raspberry to chocolate and peanut butter to dark chocolate and hazelnut. Many things pair really well with chocolate. Right now at Lure, for example, I'm working on a chocolate peppermint dessert for the holidays -- a play on a classic s'mores.
How would you describe the dessert menus at each of the three restaurants?
El Toro Blanco is easy to separate into its own category because of its cuisine: very defined Mexican. People don't always go out for Mexican food and think they're going to order dessert, so I really try to keep the offerings there very fun and very simple. At B&B I try to focus on things that your grandma or your mom might have made -- very simple, two elements per plate, less on the garnish because it's more of a pub atmosphere -- and I just really make sure the desserts are very American. At Lure, dessert is a real part of the meal. The desserts there often have several different components, and I can put a more whimsical spin on them.
Do you ever riff on a classic dessert so that a variant can be served at more than one restaurant?
I try hard to keep the menus different at each space because we have clientele who come to all three restaurants, and I want them to have unique experiences. But I do put twists on a couple of things: We have a molten chocolate cake at Lure with caramel popcorn and caramel ice cream. It's just that classic chocolate and caramel combination that everyone loves for a sweet fix. At El Toro Blanco I do something similar but with a Mexican chocolate -- so it has really earthy flavors and a little bit of spice to it -- and we serve it with mini churros. I've also done something with the whole ice cream shop idea. We have a chocolate taco at El Toro Blanco with chocolate ice cream and peanuts. At Lure, we have the ice cream sandwiches that are a staple on the menu, and at B&B, we have the chocolate-dipped mini ice cream cones.
What was your favorite childhood dessert?
My favorite dessert when I growing up was a pavlova. My aunt and my mom would make it for holidays. I just love them. Between the crispy meringue and fresh fruit, you can't really beat it. I've definitely brought it into many menus. I did a cranberry orange pavlova a couple of years ago at Lure, and once I did a summer berry pavlova with a lime pavlova base.
What dessert do you order at a restaurant?
I like anything that is ice cream based. Or chocolate. I especially love creative ice creams -- if there's a baked Alaska on the menu, I'll order it.
What three ingredients could you never work without?
I think fresh fruit -- pretty much of any type. Also, chocolate and salt.
Who or what inspires you?
I get a lot inspiration from people. My fiancé -- who's also a chef -- and I, we talk about food a lot at home. And right now I have a great assistant who is eager to work a lot. I'm really inspired by working with her. So much inspiration really comes from people and talking about ideas.
What's the first thing you want to eat and drink after a shift?
Mac and cheese and a gin and tonic. I'm a big fan of Plymouth Gin. I also recently tried Greenhook Ginsmiths -- it's really good.
You incorporate alcohol into a couple of different desserts at the restaurants. What does booze lend to desserts?
I like to use booze as an ingredient, but I like to keep it minimal. For the Spiked Shake at B&B, booze is prominent because that's what you're ordering -- a milkshake with a shot of bourbon in it. You can't go too light on it with that one. I recently had a pumpkin mousse cake on the menu that had a little bit of bourbon in it, but it was more of a background flavor. I think that really nice alcohol can provide really nice background flavors, and I just like to make sure it's playful.
Are there any menu items that haven't changed in the four years you've been with the team?
When I started at Lure, I put the double chocolate peanut butter pie with peanut brittle ice cream and chocolate covered pretzel on the menu, and it's still there. It's definitely a favorite. It's just that classic chocolate and peanut butter mousse combination -- can't go wrong.
What candy bar do you reach for at the checkout line?
A Heath Bar, for the buttery crunch of caramel with chocolate -- I like crunchy.
What are you currently working on?
At El Toro Blanco I recently put on a chocolate flan, and I'm using coffee tequila liqueur to make the caramel sauce. I'm excited for that, it's something different and new that I haven't really done before. I'm excited for gingerbread, in general. At Lure we're going to have two different items going on for the holidays: a gingerbread and peppermint s'mores and an eggnog mousse with a gingerbread cake.
What's your favorite thing about being a pastry chef?
I like that I can be creative, and that I work with great people. I just feel lucky to be doing what I really enjoy.