Interview with Pastry Chef Crystal Cullison of Altamare, Part Two

Categories: Chef Interviews
Paula Niño
This is Part Two of our interview with Altamare pastry chef Crystal Cullison. You can read part one here.

What's your favorite dessert to make?

My favorite thing to make is my favorite thing to eat is ice cream, it is, ice cream and sorbet and really all frozen desserts. I guess it's because I grew up in Florida. You're always looking for that cooling effect They're so versatile, you can do anything. You can take a pie and turn it into ice cream or you can make an ice cream pie. You can do anything with it and everybody likes it. It's not something that you're like ooh, I don't know if I want to try that. I love it. I would love to have my own ice cream shop. I would be so happy.

So who has good ice cream in Miami?

Hopefully we will soon, we don't have a machine yet. As far as restaurants, I would say Michael's Genuine. Hedy [Goldsmith] makes amazing ice creams. Her coconut sorbet, I would love to figure out how she does it because you would think it's something so simple but she makes it so good. There's also -- it's a chain -- and I don't really like going to chains, but Dolce Vita, the gelato place. Ooh, pistachio gelato. And there's also one  in Mary Brickell Village. It's a little organic ice cream place.


Is that what it's called? I don't know what it's called but I go in there when I'm over there. It's really, really good.

Who's your biggest influence?

Of all the chefs and pastry chefs that I've worked with - and I didn't work with [her] for that long, about four or five months - she's been a huge influence on me and a really big supporter of me as well. We still communicate and when I go up to New York. Her creative force is very strong and we get along really well. We're both a little kooky and we both have the same palate and that's really important in a creative way. It's like seeing color; no one sees green the same way and it's the same way with sugars, everyone tastes it differently so when you find someone you're in tune with, it's huge.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned in your time as a pastry chef?

I would say I'm still learning it and it's patience. Patience with myself, patience with people I work with, patience with the customer. Being a pastry chef, the one thing that you need more than anything is patience. We usually come in earlier than anyone else and leave after everything else because the things that we do take a long time. We can't just through a fish in a pan and five minutes it's cooked. If you're making bread it's a four-hour process. So that is number one.

What frustrations come from the customers?

It's a general thing; I wouldn't say it's only at this restaurant or any specific restaurant. It's just, you know, people order what they know. And like I said before I'm not really into making crazy desserts or doing crazy flavor combinations. I like to do classic things that people know but still if there's something that people are not 100 percent familiar with, they don't order it, so they're going to stick with the same thing over and over. So, you know, when you have a list of seven or eight desserts on the menu and you constantly see two that come up all the time, it gets a little irritating. It's like come on people. But then at the same time you see the plates that come back clean and you can't complain. It's a catch 22 really.

Which are the most popular here?

The most popular desserts here are the milk chocolate semifreddo, the almonde tarte and the one dessert that is not mine, which is a deconstructed tiramisu - that's Simon's baby, his dessert contribution. It's very popular, though. People see tiramisu on the menu and have to have it. I have a cheesecake flan on the menu that people seem to enjoy as well.

What inspires you?

Nature, temperature, the way I'm feeling that day, a lot. And you know because I didn't go to culinary school or I don't really have what you would say is a mentor. Ellen was the closest thing I've ever had to a mentor professionally and I have taught myself a lot of things. I have a bookcase full of not just pastry books but all kinds of books so I teach myself certain techniques. So I go back to an old Escoffier and I'll go through and say, what's the oldest thing I can find? Something that people haven't done in a while, you know. And I try and do that.

Also, I like to work seasonally. I don't necessarily like to use ingredients that come from really far away but there are some things that we can't really get away from, it's just the way we live nowadays. I try to go with what's readily available and if I run out of something, I'll change it. Simon's really cool about that. He'll go to the market and if he sees something that he thinks we can use, he'll bring it so that's a surprise for me and I'm like oh, what can I do with this. So that's a good kick for me, is when I get something unexpected. It's cool; it's exciting.

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