Tracy Dempsey, An Original Entrepreneur
At a recent culinary student competition, a chef-instructor lamented that students seeking pastry degrees were one egg white short of a souffle. He meant they were headed for disappointment because there aren't many – if any – plum pastry positions in the industry like there were 20, or even 10, years ago.
Everybody loves dessert, but many restaurants are making do with their savory cooks, churning out homey comfort desserts such as simple cakes, cobblers, puddings and pies.
There's evidence that the pastry field hasn't completely withered. Food & Wine magazine just honored five "best new pastry chefs" – albeit a much shorter list than their annual 10 best new chefs, and Bravo TV has produced two seasons, so far, of "Just Desserts," a pastry spinoff from their popular "Top Chef" series.
But maybe there aren't as many ripe positions as there were before, and perhaps wannabe pastry chefs should rethink their career path. Or reinvent themselves. Like one Valley pastry chef, Tracey Dempsey, who's become a confection and pastry entrepreneur.
Tracy Dempsey started Tracy Dempsey Originals (TDO) out of pure necessity – she needed to work after she'd left a steady paycheck behind.
After graduating from culinary school in 1999, Dempsey began her career by dazzling diners with desserts at Lon's at the Hermosa Inn and Gregory's World Bistro. She later found her groove at Peter Kasperski's "restaurant row," including Cowboy Ciao, Kazimierz Wine Bar, See Saw and Digestif.
In early 2009, Dempsey decided to leave her job of five years at Cowboy Ciao and company to open Galette Dessert Bar. By mid-year, with the recession worsening, her investors got cold feet. She says she has no regrets leaving Kasperski's group because she felt with her salary out of the way, the jobs of the cooks working under her would be spared.
Pastry positions were already hard to come by, but Dempsey had a trick up her chef 's coat sleeve: her famous bacon brittle. She developed the confection at Cowboy Ciao and it has its own following to this day. In fact, others have copied it. She also mastered gourmet marshmallows as they were trending – perhaps even before that – just as she pioneered bacon-as-dessert in 2004.
So a new venture, TDO, was born with a handful of confections, and cookies, brownies and other sweets soon followed. Her first clients were small retail shops in Old Town Scottsdale and the Urban Grocery at the Phoenix Public Market.
Have Whisk, Will Travel
By the fall of 2009, Dempsey was getting good at packing up her plastic tubs of whisks and spatulas and pots and pans, and traveling around town like a gypsy pastry chef, working on TDO in the kitchens of her industry friends.
In February 2010, Dempsey was relieved to find a commercial kitchen to call home. She rented the kitchen at Arcadia Farms, Carolyn Ellis's award-winning breakfast and lunch restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale. But there was a catch: She couldn't access the kitchen until after 4pm. Despite the hours, she says it felt right.
At the Arcadia Farms kitchen Dempsey has dedicated shelves and her own refrigerator. She does her own shopping, too – no deliveries for her – often tapping local farmer friends for herbs, and other friends for dates and citrus. Her tools are still in storage tubs, where they sit on shelves until the magic hour of 4, when they sneak out to dance with Dempsey and her small band of cooks until the wee hours of the morning. Then they slink back, freshly scrubbed, into the sterile tubs, patiently planning their escape the next evening.
Contract Pastry Chef for Hire
In late 2009, as Dempsey's confection business was just getting started, a new restaurant tucked into a corner of a salon in Old Scottsdale called Crudo was just opening. The chef/owners, pinched for space and strapped for payroll cash, approached Dempsey about making desserts. She created whimsical ice creams, like lavender honey and one flavored with soy sauce, plus desserts served in jars, like vanilla poached pear tiramisu, a rustic spin on the Italian classic designed to enhance the playful modern Italian dishes of Crudo.
At Crudo, Dempsey met Lisa Giungo, the dynamo behind the former Lisa G's on Seventh Street in Phoenix. Giungo brought organization skills to Crudo (not to mention her famous "bowl of balls" meatballs), and she took Dempsey by the hand and started knocking on doors, saying, "Have you met Tracy? You gotta try her (fill-in-the-blank-confection)."
In early 2010 Dempsey was contacted by Pat Christofolo of Santa Barbara Catering and her son, Dustin, who were planning the opening of The House at Secret Garden for later that year. Dempsey, who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in French language and literature, had actually worked for Christofolo's catering company for a while in the late 1990s. She was hired to work in the office, but Christofolo couldn't keep Dempsey out of the kitchen. That was when Christofolo encouraged Dempsey to enroll in Scottsdale Community College to pursue her pastry passion.
Ten years later, the Christofolos asked Dempsey to create the restaurant's opening desserts. She studied Chef Dustin's menu and cooking style, and then whipped up ricotta fritters with syrup made from Queen Creek Olive Mill's fig balsamic vinegar, and a pecan tart with a side of sweet potato pudding topped with toasted coconut marshmallows.
"Tracy has inspired desserts all over the Valley," Christofolo says, "and she continues to influence the market here, with interesting interpretations of the classics as well as contemporary concepts using local, seasonal ingredients, all presented in a style uniquely hers."
When Bernie Kantak, former chef of Cowboy Ciao, was designing the menu for his wildly successful gastropub Citizen Public House (recently named Best New Restaurant by the Arizona Republic), he knew exactly who he wanted to do the desserts: his old colleague Tracy Dempsey.
"Tracy is really amazing," he says. "She's so creative and inspiring, but more important, she is a good, good person. She really cares about people and that translates to her business style. She cares as much as we do about our customers' dining experience. She gets what we are trying to do. I just let her have at it – always have."
Whenever Kantak changes the menu, he gives Dempsey free rein to design the desserts. She might do a chocolate, coffee and whiskey (it is a pub, after all) pot de crème, or make a bread pudding from bourbon-glazed donuts, served with café au lait ice cream, and call it "donuts & coffee."
Carving a Niche with a Spatula
Dempsey still sells her confections (Kantak offers a bag of her original bacon brittle as a dessert option on his menu), but restaurants and resorts now account for the bulk of TDO sales. This past Easter, Dempsey and crew worked until 3am several nights in a row making 200 individual coconut cakes topped with Peeps, 100 bunny-shaped cookies, and close to 1,000 other various pastries for two local resorts.
Dempsey has carved out a sweet niche in the rocky road of today's culinary field, and she feels a sense of freedom being her own boss. Is it easy? No, especially for someone who would rather play with bacon than count beans. But she has proven that with hard work and fortitude – not to mention butter – there is more than one way to put icing on the cake.
TLC FARM TABLE DINNERS
Tracy Dempsey, Lisa Giungo (who Dempsey met at Crudo and credits with getting TDO off the ground) and Arcadia Farms founder Carolyn Ellis have just announced TLC Farm Table Dinners. The monthly dinners, a collaborative effort among the three women (hence the TLC moniker), will feature rustic Mediterranean-inspired cuisine served family-style at Arcadia Farms. The communal dinners, offered the third Thursday of each month, kick off May 17 with ingredients sourced from local farmers and handpicked boutique wines.
At press time, the May menu included Lisa G.'s meatballs, panzanella salad with local produce and MJ Bread, wild striped bass over grilled corn and charred tomato succotash and a Fossil Creek Creamery chevre and peach galette with Maya's Farm basil ice cream. For details, call 480-947-2596 x 100.