Made from Scratch

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Named 2016 Outstanding Pastry Chef by the James Beard Foundation, Dahlia Narvaez shares her recipe for sweet success.

Following simple directions on the backside of food packaging—and finding success with those recipes—was the impetus for what would become Dahlia Narvaez’s extraordinary culinary career.

While cooking meals for her family as a young teenager, Narvaez never dreamed that she would someday be named the 2016 Outstanding Pastry Chef by the James Beard Foundation. But after a handful of nominations throughout her career, that’s exactly what happened.

“I’ve cooked professionally for years, but it was a great honor to be recognized by my peers,” says Narvaez. “I’ve never won anything else in my life, and I’ve worked really hard to get where I am today.”

Indeed, Narvaez is no stranger to hard work, and she doesn’t sugar coat the extreme amount of dedication and focus that it takes to rise to her level. The self-proclaimed workaholic says she loves problem-solving and feels she has found success by being a bit of a perfectionist. “And I love food,” she laughs. “You just have to be hungry for food in so many different ways.”

With no formal training, the Los Angeles native got her start when a chef at the L.A.-based Conga Room, a Latin nightclub, decided to take a chance on a 22-year-old culinary newbie. “Five minutes into my first shift, he realized I knew nothing about true cooking,” Narvaez recalls. For the next two years, however, she went to work learning as much as possible from all the chefs that she could talk to.

Ready for a new challenge, Narvaez’s next stop was at nearby La Brea Bakery, where she was willing to work the front counter just to get in the door. The bakery was located inside the storied Campanile restaurant, which was founded in 1989 and was credited for its farmers market ingredients and influence on L.A. dining trends. Then, a chance meeting with owner Nancy Silverton— who was named the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef in 2014—landed her with yet another opportunity that she never saw coming. “[Silverton] hired me on the spot, and I began plating desserts at Campanile,” says Narvaez. After six months, she was promoted to pastry souschef, a position she held for three years before rising to pastry chef.

Narvaez stayed at Campanile until 2006, when she stepped into her current position as executive pastry chef for Silverton’s Mozza Restaurant Group—co-owned by Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich— which includes Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, with locations in Los Angeles and Singapore.

“I was always told that I should keep learning, work with different ingredients and be a seasonal chef,” she says. “From mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall places to the high-end, white-tablecloth establishments; you really have to know everything, from their service to the different types of cuisines they make.

“That’s such a big part of my world. I love the food industry as a whole, and that’s what makes me who I am.”

Narvaez describes her approach to food as organic. “I always like the focus flavor of the dish to come out without manipulating it too much,” she says. “I always build my desserts by incorporating contrasting flavors, temperatures and textures.” She also incorporates influences, techniques and flavors from other parts of the world, which blends thoughtfully with Osteria Mozza’s award-winning Italian cuisine.

“Although they’re not all traditionally Italian, they have an American spin on Italian classics.” Within the kitchens of the Mozza Group, it’s Butterscotch Budino that is hands-down the best-seller. “I think people like it because it’s really comforting,” Narvaez says, noting that all desserts are made with thoughtfully sourced ingredients, including locally grown fruits.

Staying on-trend while also offering the customer favorites is a bit of a balancing act, she admits. “There are those customers who want something familiar and comforting, and then there’s guests who want to try what is exciting us at the time,” she notes. “While I have a responsibility to introduce new things to my staff, it should be a conversation and something we work on together to keep them excited and involved.”

Narvaez’s personal top choice when it comes to dessert, however, is simply ice cream or gelato. “There are so many artisans, chefs and pastry chefs making such interesting flavors,” she says. “Seeing all the small scoop shops and boutique ice cream lines in retail that are opening across the country is amazing.”

Her second top choice: doughnuts. “They’re having a huge moment right now.” A simple bowl of in-season fresh fruit lands in third.

While Narvaez is enjoying the fruits of her labor at this point in her career, she’s well aware of the younger generations who are banging at the kitchen door, eager to get in on the action. Her advice to them: Try your hat in the kitchen before you commit to a career in culinary. You don’t necessarily need a degree from a culinary school on your side, but there’s no way around the immense amount of hard work and long hours that it takes to succeed in this industry.

“I’ve worked with many great chefs and pastry chefs. Half of them have gone to school and half haven’t,” she says. “My advice to young cooks who are weighing their options is this: Tough it out in a kitchen for a year, and then decide if that’s something you want to do.”

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