Jason Lebeau, pastry chef at Coohills: "I mean, who doesn't like chocolate?"
This is part one of my chat with Jason Lebeau, pastry chef at Coohills; part two of my interview with Lebeau will run tomorrow.
I came from the era of one-pot wonders," says Jason Lebeau, who grew up in Maryland in the '70s, when Betty Crocker cookbooks doubled as culinary bibles, Julia Child was dropping chickens on TV, and pineapple ambrosia was the dessert du jour. Lebeau wasn't particularly interested in those diversions, although he was enthralled with "wanting my hands in bloody red meat," he remembers. There was something about steak and burgers that "fascinated" him.
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But in junior high school, when he first started playing around with recipes, it wasn't a steak or a burger that inspired him; it was the apples that dangled in the nearby orchards. He grabbed a bushel, made an apple pie that he entered in the state fair and waltzed away with a third-place ribbon. "I was pretty stoked about that, and the girls at school totally dug it -- they couldn't believe I could bake a pie," says Lebeau, who today is the pastry chef at Coohills.
Lebeau attended culinary school at Baltimore International Culinary College, graduating with a pastry and baking degree in 1987, and while he had aspirations of being a baseball star and a rock-and-roller -- he played in a band for years -- he's spent the majority of his career baking bread and burying his hands in chocolate, meringue and sugar.
He landed his first gig as the "cookie bastard" at the JW Marriott in Washington, D.C. "I was green, a grunt and wet behind the ears, so I spent all my time baking cookies, especially tons of elephant and donkey cookies for George Bush Sr.'s inauguration," he remembers. "And that's when I realized that, shit, this is a lot of work. But I liked it and I was hungry and wanted to learn, so I put all my energy into those cookies."
And then an opportunity to move to Los Angeles convinced him that there might be life after chocolate chips and snickerdoodles -- and, with any luck, his rock-and-roll band might allow him to retire with millions. No such luck. "Luckily, I had the brains and sense to know that the band thing might not work out -- it didn't -- but I knew I had a degree and some good experience and could always find a job in pastry," he says.
The pastry part worked out, and Lebeau spent five years in L.A. doing pastry stints at Universal Studios and the Hotel Bellaire, creating desserts for major Hollywood film stars, before an earthquake rattled his crust. "After the Northridge earthquake, I said, 'Screw it, I'm out of here,' and my girlfriend -- now my wife -- wanted to move to Colorado, and that was fine with me, because I don't have any problem dealing with four feet of snow," he quips.