Interview With Pastry Chef Crystal Cullison of Altamare, Part One

Categories: Chef Interviews
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Paula Niño
If you haven't heard of pastry chef Crystal Cullison, you might begin hearing more about her now. Her milk chocolate and salted caramel semifreddo and other desserts on the menu of the recently opened AltaMare are already gaining fans.

Cullison, a 27-year-old Orlando native, got her start young at Emeril's in Orlando and traveled to Europe, New Zealand, and New York before landing in Miami, where she worked for the Ritz-Carlton before joining AltaMare.

She's largely self-taught and once had a moment where she though she wouldn't cook again. "I was so young when I started cooking," she said. "I was 17, so I wanted to see what else was out there."

But after taking a few interior design classes in New York, she decided it wasn't for her and -- thankfully for us -- returned to pastry.

Cullison recently took a break from the kitchen to talk to Short Order about her new job, being a pastry chef, and how she got to where she is.

New Times: You were working at the Ritz before coming here...

Crystal Cullison: I worked at the Ritz for a year and nine months. I worked for the one in Coconut Grove for about ten months and then I transferred to South Beach. Before that I was in New Zealand, and before that I lived in New York City, where I worked for a couple of restaurants.

Such as?

Public was the last restaurant I worked at. The pastry chef, her name was Ellen [Mirsky], she was a huge inspiration for me. We're still very good friends with her and executive chef Brad Farmerie. Since they have opened, they've gotten a Michelin star since I left. I worked at Bond Street before that, and I worked at a small brasserie for a short period of time, but that's pretty much my whole history. I started in pastry at Emeril's in Orlando. That was my first pastry job. I was 18 years old, and I hadn't been cooking that long. I'd only been cooking for about a year and a half when I started working there, and I decided that pastry was where I wanted to go.

What made you decide that?

I didn't like touching meat. [Laughs] I didn't like touching meat and I didn't like smelling like onions and garlic all the time. You know, I grew up baking with my mom, and my dad was always making pizza and bread, so I grew up around that, so it was more friendly to me.

Were you going to school?

While I was in high school, I went to a dual-enrollment program at a technical school. I grew up in a town called St. Cloud, which is right outside of Orlando, so I got a two-year culinary arts degree there. At that time, they had coincided with Johnson & Wales so that once you got your course completion, you would move on to Johnson & Wales to finish your degree. I just never moved on. I decided that instead of spending the money, I'd rather work. And to be quite honest, a lot of people that I've come in contact with agree -- you learn the same amount of stuff whether you go to school or not. You learn everything through work. That goes for everything really. And I don't have debt, so it works out really well.

What made you decide to leave the Ritz to come to AltaMare?


[AltaMare's executive chef] Simon [Stojanovic] is a friend of mine, and the opportunity arose and I was ready to try to do something on my own, so it was really a very simple decision. Taking a leap, I guess, like really do it on my own and not under another chef.

Are all the desserts on the menu yours?

Pretty much all of them except one.

Are you a dessert person?

Absolutely. I am in moderation, though. I am not someone that goes around needing to eat sweets all the time or large amounts of it. After I eat a meal, I want something sweet or there's certain times of the day when I want something sweet. So yeah, I am, but in moderation. I don't get sugar cravings, but I like it.

What's your favorite dessert?

Ice cream is my favorite thing to eat. I am a sucker for ice cream. And more on the lighter things like angel food cake and cupcakes. I like cake. I like, you know, fancy desserts. And I don't like to think that my desserts are extremely overkill as far as, like, too many elements and too many things happening. I like classic things and I like to eat the same, you know.

What are the most challenging aspects of being a pastry chef?

It's always an afterthought, like no one ever does interviews with pastry chefs. You don't see that a lot 'cause we're always stuck in the back, we're in our little cave, and we do our little thing. We're known for being a little bit crazy, a little bit obsessive, a little bit demanding, so in that respect we get pushed aside a little bit, and I would say that's definitely a challenge to make your voice heard.

Other than that: technique. Mastering technique is very challenging. I haven't done it yet, you know, and I would say if you asked any pastry chef aside from a master that they haven't done it yet. It's very difficult. It's very challenging to come up with a consistent result all the time, especially when you're trying to teach someone else that.

The rest of it is cooking. A lot of people think our job is really easy, but we work very hard. We stand on our feet 15 hours a day, six, seven days a week, constantly in motion. That's challenging in itself.

You touched on this a little, but do you think pastry chefs get enough recognition?

Nowadays -- I would say in the past five, maybe ten years -- there's been a little bit more spotlight on pastry chefs -- slightly. But we're still in the shadow of the executive chef. I think some of us are OK with that because then they'll leave us alone, but some of us want more recognition. I don't necessarily want be in the spotlight because I don't want to be famous -- I don't want to be on TV or anything like that -- but validation is nice.

Tomorrow, in Part Two, Cullison talks about her influences, what frustrates her about diners, and who has good ice cream in Miami.

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