Interview With Pastry Chef Crystal Cullison of Altamare, Part One
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.
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.