From a very early age we are mesmerized by the smell and appearance of pastries. It would be very difficult to walk into a well-stocked bakery without a smile on your face. It is not just the intoxicating smell of sugar and butter, but even more so – the memories that go along with holding a warm pastry in your hands, peeling back the paper on a cup cake, or stabbing your fork into a light as a feather piece of cake. We can all close our eyes and stir up our aroma memory of fresh baked apple pie or a loaf of crusty artisan bread right from the oven, sliced and lathered with creamy butter.
This time of year, in particular, seems to focus on baked goods in the home, on the street, in the shopping center, and at the restaurant table. We celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah and the New Year with gingerbread houses, decorated sugar cookies, sculptured breads, lightly iced cupcakes with coconut snow, petite fours, chocolate truffles, black forest cake, and stollen. It is a right of passage that each of us over-consumes those things without guilt at a time of the year that allows this to be “the exception to the rule”. We can’t resist – we must have it.
I am not, by any stretch of the imagination – pastry proficient. As a property chef I always sought out talented bakers to fill in those gaps in my resume. Now, I know great baking when I see it and taste it, but a pastry chef I am not. It always amazes me how much can be done with so few ingredients. Flour, sugar, eggs, butter, milk and a leavening agent and a whole world of options open up. Unlike savory cooking (my area) where there is significant poetic license in how ingredients are combined, in what order, and using what method; in baking it is all about process, timing, and temperature. There is a science to baking that I guess I never had the patience or aptitude for – just an appreciation for the end products.
Pastry work, like some types of cooking, attracts many frustrated artists. People who have an innate talent for structure, detail, color and texture. There are many pastry chefs who could find a home for their sculpture and pastry painting skills using museum mediums, but choose to work with materials that can be appreciated for short periods of time and then consumed. They prefer their art lovers to press their noses against the pastry case rather than stand behind a velvet rope and simply admire, but don’t touch.
As a chef, knowing that your pastry department is under the wings of a passionate, talented, smiling artist is parallel to a quarterback knowing that his wide receivers are always ready for that catch that puts the game in the bag. Great bread and desserts in a restaurant can put that dining experience over the top. The guest will likely remember that fabulous dessert much longer than the entrée.
I know many great bakers and pastry chefs, those individuals who set the olfactory tempo in a kitchen and push everyone else to keep up with plate presentations and finishing touches. Sometimes these stars of the kitchen knew what they wanted to do from a very early age and sometimes they fell into that role. One of those fabulous pastry chefs that I call “friend” is Jennifer (Bennett) Beach. Jenn is now the Director of Baking for “Popovers on the Square” with another one of my pastry hero’s: Certified Master Baker, Steve James. My connections with Jennifer go back many years when she started as a student enrolled in Culinary Arts at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks and then later as the number 2-pastry person at the Balsam’s Resort in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire.
Jennifer has agreed to this interview as an opportunity to share parts of her story and maybe inspire others to pursue a career in the bakeshop.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in the kitchen or bakeshop?
When I was freshman in high school I signed up to take Spanish, but was bumped to Culinary Arts, as the Spanish class was full…. I was really upset, until I found out what Culinary Arts actually was.
At first I did not like the class as the instructor was tough, demanding and made us learn about knife skills, sanitation, ingredients and was all book work, etc.
It took me a bit to realize why she didn’t let us in the kitchen for a few months. The class size dropped by more than half, as many dropped it thinking the class was ‘lame’. I’m really glad I stuck with it because once we had the fundamentals down, she allowed us in the kitchen to cook and bake based on the unit we were studying. This was her way of weeding out those that thought it would be an easy credit. She wanted serious students. By the end of the school year, I knew that I wanted to be a chef.
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
At Paul Smith’s I had the opportunity to learn from the instructor’s there. Paul Sorgule was instrumental in helping me secure an internship at The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, NH. I had hoped to work as a line cook, but the only open spots they had were in the hotels Bakeshop.
I worked under Master Baker Chef Stephen James for one winter season and realized the bakeshop was where I wanted to be, not the hot line. I worked at the hotel for 14 years, honing my pastry skills and had the opportunity to travel the country during the ‘off seasons’ to work in other large resorts and clubs during their busy time. It was the best learning experience ever, almost like an apprenticeship.
I have been working with Steve James now for over 20 years.
What style of cooking or baking best portrays your passion?
Our style, at Popovers on the Square is simply food that tastes good, presentation is important, but if it doesn’t taste good, what was the point of the fancy garnish? To me there is nothing worse than a beautifully stunning wedding cake that is dry without flavor.
Do you have a food philosophy that drives your menu decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
We try to bring in the best possible ingredients, follow proper procedures and fundamentals to produce a product that is of high quality and consistent. If it is not right, “DON’T SERVE IT”. We all make mistakes, but we cannot sell or serve them. The loss in food cost is not worth the loss in customer loyalty. We also need to be aware of what our customers want.
3. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do.
I’m not really sure there is one experience or event…. it was more about things just falling into place… ending up in the culinary class in high school, ending up working in the bakery instead of the hot line…it almost seems like it was fate….
4. What is your pet peeve about working in restaurants?
It would have to be the amount of time spent away from family and friends over the years. Our families really pay a price for our career choice. I’m lucky that my immediate family understands and since my husband is also in the industry, our kids know nothing else….
5. Who are your most valuable players in the restaurant or bakery where you currently work?
In our company (Popovers on the Square) we have 18 pastry chefs and bakers in three different locations. I am so proud to lead them all.
I cannot name one as an MVP, as I believe I have an MVT, most valuable team. It takes everyone to run the day-to-day production and deliveries. They each have job to do and I hold each of them accountable for that job. My team leaders are Katie Green, Hannah Joy Waechter and Jason Perry.
6. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks and bakers looking to make their mark in kitchens, what would you tell them?
First, learn the basic fundamentals of baking. Mixing methods, time and temperature controls and measurements. Know your ingredients-where do they come from and how do they work in a formula. Be humble and find a mentor. Find someone willing to teach and train, this needs to continue long after schooling. Keep your head down, but your eyes and ears open. Watch what others are doing around you. Taste everything and use your sense of smell. Each time you bake that pan of brownies, really take in the smell and aroma when they are finished baking. If you are in tune to that, you will be amazed at how many things you ‘save’ when a timer was not set.
7. When you hire people to work in your kitchen what traits are you looking for?
I hire people that I like. I need people on my team who want to be there to better themselves, not just someone looking for a “job”. I hire people that have a ‘whatever it takes attitude’. I’m looking for maturity, responsibility, punctuality and professionalism. I have a zero tolerance for profanity in the bakeshop. I expect my team to be respectful of the bakeshop, the ingredients and each other. I tell everyone I hire: “if you do your job and work hard each day, I will teach you all that I know”.
8. If you were not cooking or baking, what would you choose to do for a career?
I have often thought of this question and I’m not really sure how to answer it. I always thought it would be fun to work in a greenhouse or garden center, which is funny because I can’t keep a houseplant alive for more than a year. Ha, ha.
9. What would you like people to know about your current restaurant/bakery and the food that you produce?
The original Popovers opened in 2006. We took over the commissary facility in 2010 from a sister company and in August just opened our second Popovers location. In September we began an extensive renovation of our wholesale facility. The owners John Tinios and Steve James are committed to hospitality at its best. They have built a great company and I’m proud to help them run it.
A few words about popovers (the product): Unlike other baked goods, the only leavening agent in popovers is steam. Making sure that you do not over-mix your simple ingredients of eggs, milk, salt, oil and flour and insuring that your pans and oil are very hot will allow this magical concoction to seal and immediately begin to rise in the pan forming a crust while growing to 2-3 times the height of the muffin or popover pan. Making sure to not prematurely open the oven, giving a small poke to the top of the popover, allowing steam to escape and finishing in the oven until they are set and dry will leave you with one of the most incredible treats.
Serving them hot with lots of butter and jam or if you prefer to use them for savory applications- drippings from a roast beef, will typically leave the consumer speechless.
Popovers are actually an America version of the English Yorkshire pudding. American settlers referred to Popovers and Yorkshire Pudding in the following fashion:
“Yorkshire Pudding, a fortunate blunder: It’s a sort of popover that turned and popped under.”
I vividly remember the numerous times that I dined at Anthony’s Pier IV in Boston (seats something like 1,000 people), home to the famous restaurateur Anthony Athanas (worked in the restaurant until he was in his 90’s), and enjoying more than anything else the popover server who walked the dining room with a warmer, freely passing out popovers to diners. This was New England hospitality in full motion.
With regards to the importance of pastry, I find this quote most appropriate:
Brillat-Savarin’s great aunt, on her deathbed stated how important pastry chefs were to her when she said: “I feel the end is approaching. Quick bring me my dessert, coffee and liqueur.”
What has always impressed me about pastry chef Jennifer Beach is not just her talent and passion but the fact that she has always seemed perpetually happy. She truly loves what she does and the impact that her products have on others.
If you would like to view more about Popovers on the Square, visit their website at:
or better yet, visit their bakeries in the following towns:
Popovers on the Square – Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Popovers at Brickyard Square – Epping, New Hampshire
Ask for Jennifer!
*The picture is of the pastry case at Popovers on the Square. Jennifer wanted their work to speak for itself.