If Mary Rodriguez told you one thing about being a pastry chef, it would be that the sweet tooth that gets you into the business never actually goes away. At least that’s the case for this Austin campus graduate, who can’t keep her hands off her creations. Finishing the program over three years ago, Mary has made some incredible strides in that time: she’s already working as an executive pastry chef at an upscale steakhouse in the city. With a menu and staff she could build on her own, she is confident her career is leading her to great things. With her next stop the Windy City, Mary is ready to play ball in the big leagues and fine-tune her craft as a gastro-artist.
Escoffier caught up with this busy graduate to talk about why she chose Escoffier, what lessons she remembers the most and her plans for being a James Beard Award recipient in five years time.
Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts: Why did you choose Escoffier for your pastry education?
Mary Rodriguez: At the time, it was a newer school and from what I could tell, it seemed like a good fit. I didn’t take long deciding. I think it was something I already knew I wanted to do, and I took it as a sign. I had just turned 21, taken a couple years off from school and I always knew this was what I would be doing. I was online, browsing, and Escoffier popped up. I felt like it was a moment where I knew it was the right time, the right choice, and I liked the location of the school. Also, it’s a short program. At 8 months, it’s a good amount of time for someone who is eager to learn.
AESCA: Why did you want to go to pastry school?
MR: Like I said, I’ve always known that’s what I would be doing. In high school, we had a special culinary program. It was for two years, and it took up two hours of your day, every day. You got to do competitions, and I did a couple dessert competitions. It was very rewarding, and I had never felt as passionate about anything as that. I could spend every day of my life doing it. It makes me completely happy. I knew I would never wake up one day and hate being a pastry chef. I felt really good about it.
AESCA: What are some of the highlights of the program that jump out at you?
MR: I really enjoyed that it was a concentrated program. But in general, I just really enjoyed learning and taking in as much knowledge as I could. It was all really amazing for me. I got to learn so much, and it still stays with me today. There are times where I’m like, yeah, Chef Pavla said this or Chef Tami said that.
AESCA: You’re currently working as the executive pastry chef at Vince Young Steakhouse. Can you talk a little about your daily job responsibilities?
MR: I was the sous chef of a couple places here in Austin, and then I was offered the head pastry chef position at Vince Young’s. It couldn’t have been at a more perfect time for the restaurant and myself. I am very into modern gastro-art type of plating and the restaurant at the time was doing a lot of very old school, traditional cheesecakes and chocolate cakes, etc., and they were looking for a change. I’ve been here a few weeks, and it’s been a great experience being able to experiment. It’s been a lot of me spending time creating new dishes, hiring people and testing out new products. There’s a lot going on at the moment, I guess, because I’m changing everything about the pastry program here. My day-to-day from here on out is like daily ordering or creating schedules.
AESCA: Do you feel like your education at Escoffier helped prepare you for this position?
MR: Yes! I think school, for me, was a very wise decision because I’m one of those people who loves to learn, especially when it’s a shorter amount of time. There are still days now where I think about a certain instructor or a lesson. Or there are times when you work on a recipe and I go back to a time where I remember an instructor specifically telling me something. It’s incredible how much your brain really soaks in. Obviously, it’s individual for each student. But you really learn every aspect of the pastry arts: the bread, the chocolate, the pate a choux. It’s really amazing how much Escoffier Schools is able to fit in such a short amount of time.
AESCA: What was your favorite lesson in school?
MR: Honestly, the gastro-art. There were a few days where we got to do gastro art and that’s where a lot of my inspiration is from now. Especially plating. I fully believe food is art, and that it should be plated like so. It’s really beautiful what you can do with food.
AESCA: From when you graduated from Escoffier to today, how do you feel you’ve grown as a chef?
MR: I think in school I was kind of annoying because I know what I like, and I can be pretty picky. In school, I was like “No, this has to be like this,” or “No, this has to be like that.” And I still am like that but they really taught me to take in other opinions and see from a different point of view. I think that has really helped me be a chef now. Obviously, you hear things about chefs being really rude, and I feel like I could have been like that. But the instructors really helped me take that down and be more humble.
AESCA: Where would you like to see yourself in the next 5 years in your career?
MR: I am actually going to move to Chicago in the next year. So, I want to be one of the best, and I am willing to work for that. Like, I would love to be getting awards for the James Beard Awards in five years. Not sure if that’s realistic (laughs) but it would be ideal.
AESCA: Why Chicago?
MR: It’s one of the main food cities. You hear almost everything new and great is coming out of Chicago. There are so many amazing chefs there. It’s a great learning ground.
AESCA: So, your dream job at a Chicago restaurant would be…
MR: That’s a really good question. It’s something I have been thinking about for a while. Obviously ,there’s Alinea and Grace. And it would be amazing to work at a restaurant of that scale. Just to be able to work with tools like liquid nitrogen or whatever.
AESCA: What is your favorite dessert to make?
MR: I honestly can’t answer that question only because it’s really difficult for me to have a favorite of anything. But with dessert especially, there’s so many things I’ve done, and I can’t just pick one!
AESCA: What is your favorite sweet to eat?
MR: Funnily enough as a pastry chef, I still have the biggest sweet tooth. So, even here at the restaurant I am constantly eating anything that has sugar in it. Like, anything from gummy candies to cookies and ice cream. I’m a big fan of anything sweet!