Food Forethought: A Q&A with Ashley Auer, Pastry Chef at Cooks & Soldiers

Ashley Auer (Photo by Heidi Geldhauser)

Food Forethought is a new Q&A feature with local chefs, mixologists, servers and restaurateurs. 

Most people think pastry chefs just make dessert. What else to do they contribute?
I began my culinary career on the savory side of things – five years in the industry were spent slinging sandwiches, rolling burritos, and making far more salads than I want to ever relive. Those experiences are what constantly drive me to “be more than just a pastry chef.” Pastry chefs are often underestimated, and sometimes expected to just produce the desserts. However, we still come to work every day to the very same kitchen as our fellow savory cooks, and still observe everything that everyone is creating around us. In culinary school, if you want to study to be a pastry chef, you still must learn the savory stuff, too. The characteristic pastry chefs possess that contributes to the rest of the restaurant? My most simple answer would be patience, because following a recipe requires a lot of it.

What’s the difference between how you cook at home versus at work? Are there things you’d never cook for yourself at home? Do you use your own kitchen as a lab, or save experiments for the restaurant’s kitchen?
Most chefs might be a little ashamed to admit it, but I guarantee that after spending upwards of 80 hours a week of doing so for the love of the game, sometimes you just want someone else to cook for you. I spend a lot of my free time trying new restaurants and meeting fellow chefs. When I do cook for myself at home, it’s for personal comfort. My most favorite dish is a humble and hearty pot pie. The irresistible combination of flaky crust and silky gravy, full of meat and vegetables, just does something for my head and my heart. It reminds me of home. On using the kitchen versus home for experiments, it’s always at the restaurant. The rewards are greater.

Do you ever make pastries for your dogs at home?
I have certainly considered pampering my pooches with home-baked goods, but in all reality, they will always prefer cat poop over any biscuit I could ever make them, so what’s the point?

Kitchens are an intense atmosphere. What does your kitchen sound like? Is it deadly silent, does somebody pick a radio station or playlist, or do you just fling witty banter?
The sound of the kitchen depends on the time of the day; it goes through many different moods. The early morning is mostly silent, with my prep team working diligently together to start the day off on the right foot. When the cooks start to trickle in, the noise begins to grow with every story told of the crazy night before; then comes the witty banter. It is also understood that to efficiently tackle your tasks, you must be focused. Say hello to everyone, but carry on. Then comes the moment when the dining room begins to fill, and the line begins to hum with sizzling pans, crackling fire, and the clinking of plating spoons. That is my most favorite moment of the day, my most favorite sounds. Sometimes I wonder if it’s what marching into battle might sound like, in its own way.

Are aprons really a necessary thing? A lot of aprons look cool, but if your chef’s jacket has enough pockets, is an apron just fashionable overkill?
Aprons are very necessary. Take it from me, a chef who works with flour and chocolate all day: you can only imagine how unattractive my presentation would be without it (think Jackson Pollock, but with food). Also, I don’t tend to keep anything in the pockets of my apron due to my baggy, pocket-riddled chef pants fulfilling that need. Sexy.

Where do you get pastry inspiration? Do you study other restaurants or particular chefs, certain books or magazines?
In this world of intense social media and the need to show everyone, everywhere, what’s happening in your life, there’s a large pool of like-minded individuals that feed my creativity. I also have fellow pastry chefs here in Atlanta that I drool over from time to time; they know who they are. Most of what I do is self-taught. My own curiosity and desire to know everything bends the limitations of pastry, and keeps me thirsty for more information.

Chocolate lava cake has been the standard go-to for many boring moons now. What would you like to see it replaced with for your less adventurous diners?
Where most would see boring, I see consistency and comfort. I value the “tale as old as time” desserts, the ones you can order in any restaurant anywhere, anytime, and it will be exactly what you’re looking for—even it’s not the most stellar version of itself. I will always choose a well-made cheesecake over anything chocolate. There’s just nothing else that compares to the rich, creamy flair of this classic, filled and topped with anything your heart desires. It also happens to be my favorite dessert to prepare.

Are you freaked out that some industry experts say there may be a worldwide absence of cacao plants sometime in the next few decades? What other flavors should chocolate-lovers look into?
Yes, there will be an increase in demand over supply of the product, but no actual world-wide extinction of it. It’s all a bunch of economics reserved for the professionals, but I do believe that this overindulgent world of ours would find a way to manufacture it, come hell or high water. I encourage others to consider using fruits and nuts (and even vegetables) as alternative flavors. It’s far more sustainable to be able to grow your own flavors in your own backyard, and so very good for the environment.

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