20 Questions - Amanda Rockman, Pastry Chef at Balena & The Bristol

20 Questions - Amanda Rockman, Pastry Chef at Balena & The Bristol
Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman - Balena and The Bristol

 Amanda Rockman is one of those chefs I’ve had commonalities with - places we’ve worked but just missed each other at as well as friends in the industry – but we’ve never really met and had a conversation. You’ll see her at events or in the kitchen at Balena or The Bristol and the focus she exudes can be a bit intimidating. That steely resolve allows her to produce desserts that make you want to fight others at the table for the last bite. They are that good and worth ordering every time.

She’s been on Top Chef and cooked with the A list of Chicago pastry chefs but she’s not one to “jump up and down” to be noticed when you run in to her at an event. She’s from Texas and a no bullshit kind of girl and I think that comes through in her pastry – straight forward, clean dishes that are about the flavor and texture and not some sideshow thrill. Her counterpart in the kitchen chef Chris Pandel is a good partner not only for culinary reasons but they both make me laugh, a lot.

Amanda and I sat down just before Thanksgiving and played 20 questions. I learned she laughs a lot and at herself. Her sense of humor is very dark and you best be quick on your feet when you do chat so you’re not left behind. She prizes honesty above all not only from others but herself. Once you get past that hard, candy coating shell, you quickly realize she isn’t as intimidating as you think and there’s a little Liz Lemon that might pop out.

Name                          Amanda Rockman
Restaurant               Balena and The Bristol  - Pastry Chef
Married                     no
Kids                            None that she knows of
Age                             30, very much a Taurus
From                          Katy, Texas
University               Emerson College for Film and Writing - left to pursue Culinary School
Culinary School    Culinary Institute of America
Wisk Hand               Left
Twitter Handle     @bitterchickchef

1. What did you have for dinner last night?
AR: Lentils with Grilled Chicken and Feta - Mushrooms with Soy, Rice Vinegar, Spinach
CFS: Cook for yourself?
AR: I did. I try to cook healthy things at least once a week.

2. Place you eat most often on days off?
AR: Bristol
CFS: Really?
AR: Really, and that’s not Bullshit.

3. Favorite ingredient to work with?
AR: Salt

4. If you got $5,000 how would you spend it?
AR: Travel to either Greece or Montreal or both.

5. First word that comes to mind when I say Foodie?
AR: Pretentious

6. Favorite Charity Event that you do?
AR: This is a hard one – Longevity which benefits Lung Cancer.

7. Last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in?
AR: San Francisco

8. If you weren’t a pastry chef, what would you do for a living?
AR: Writing – editorial a little bit of everything – whatever puts a bee in my bonnet

9. What did you want to be when you were growing up?
AR: Doctor
CFS: What Kind?
AR: A Plastic Surgeon
CFS: (we both laugh) really? Helping small children in the third world with cleft palates?
AR: No for skin, re-grafting burn victims. Wow I haven’t thought about that in a while.

10. Most exotic vacation destination that you’ve been to?
AR: Ko Pha Ngan in the Gulf of Thailand, near the Gulf of Samui
CFS: Because most people will know where that is…
AR: They will…they have the Full Moon party.

11. If you left Chicago to work somewhere else, where would you go?
AR: Can I get a few choices?
CFS: Sure
AR: Austin, Boston or San Francisco
CFS: Why?
AR: My family is in Texas. I think SF is the best food city in America. Boston just has a special place in my heart.

12. Person you would most like to bake for?
AR: Ayn Rand
CFS: Why her?
AR: I love her and I have so many questions for her.

13. Do you have any pet peeves?
AR: Many…um, in the kitchen I hate the person who is the “burrower.” They burrow in to the bag of raisins but don’t put it in a container and leave it.
CFS: It’s as if a squirrel is in the kitchen.
AR: Exactly, and I hate whistling in the kitchen. Mainly because I can’t whistle so it’s a reminder.
CFS: So its jealousy.
AR: (laughing) Yes, and in real life hypocrites…just be honest.

14. What is new on your DVR?
AR: Revenge
CFS: There seems to be a theme here?
AR: I hate reality TV. It killed writing in TV. Oh and, my roommates and I are in to Chicago Fire mainly for the cute boys.

15. Dish on the menu at The Bristol or Balena you eat the most?
AR: Hmm, Balena the Bavette Pomodoro. It’s so simple and good.

16. What was it like to bake in an easy bake oven?
AR: (Laughing) Frustrating, such uneven baking and everything was doughy. Why was it bright pink? So rude. What if I wanted racing stripes or grey.
CFS: It was sexist.
AR: Oh my god, yes… it’s like Lady Bic Pens. Have you seen these?
CFS: No, lady pens?
AR: I’ve been waiting for Lady pens because man pens are so heavy. How do I write with it?
CFS: The script is so dark and unruly.
AR: Of course, I had to give the wrapper to a man to explain it to me.
CFS: (laughing)
AR: I’m so glad they have lady pens. It’s what’s my staff is getting for Christmas. They fit our delicate hands better.

17. Thing about pastry most novices get wrong?
AR: That it’s easy. You just put a cake in the oven and think “see ya later.” You have to be a planner and be detailed with your ingredients and equipment. It’s not an easy sport.

18. As a pastry chef you seem to have a thing/obsession for bitter things – Your beer - Bitter Love, the blog Bitter Chick…why?
AR: Well, I don’t like sweet desserts. I like acid and vinegar a lot. I think it’s a good representation of me since I’m a sarcastic person. I’m not malicious, it’s just honest. It’s all very much tongue in cheek. I remember when we did Bitter Love I texted chef Pandel.
CFS: Do you call him chef Pandel?
AR: (laughing) Yes, I’ve known him too long. If I call him Chris, he thinks something’s wrong.

19. Do you think Pastry Chefs have a stigma? Chefs are seen as Alpha types screaming with their hair on fire at times. But Pastry chefs don’t have that feel. 
AR: I’m not so sure about that.
CFS: I got it from your blog on the Souffle post.
AR: Did you read that one?
CFS: I read them all. I told you I do my research
AR: (Laughing) Oh god. So Michael, pastry chef at Le Bernardin, wrote a piece Killed by Dessert. It’s not a poem but it’s for pastry chefs. We’re the red head step-child of the kitchen. We have to fight for our space and we’re the last course. During a recession we’re the first to go and the last to get cooks or equipment. We’re very territorial. Many of us are women and this industry has a lot of men and it’s a bit of a boys club. So as a woman, it can get frustrating. I’m lucky to be with a chef who understands how I’m important and we’re not misfits. I don’t feel alone in the corner.

20. You’ve worked in a variety of environments from hotels, fine dining and now at Balena/The Bristol which is more upscale causal. Do you have a preference?
AR: To be honest, No. As long as good food is being made, I don’t care.

21. You’ve often said your mom inspired your cooking with the lavish dinners she would make. What are you excited to eat on Thanksgiving when your mom cooks?
AR: She’s such a great cook. I could make a great cheesecake and she’ll smile and say I have a great recipe for cheesecake.
CFS: Is it better?
AR: Of course, its mom. She makes amazing gravy and stuffing. It’s a secret recipe for the stuffing but she builds the flavors to make it great.

22. In reading your blog, you have a dark sense of humor with references to – suburban wife caramel, using a blowtorch on unwanted boyfriends, bouts of bulimia(in joking reference to her thinness and not trusting a thin chef), the Scarlet T, entitlitis – where does it come from?
AR: Not having a lot of friends in High School (laughing). I was the popular kid and then I wasn’t.
CFS: Did you move?
AR: No. I think it was because I grew up in Katy, TX and my mom was an immigrant and Dad was from Brooklyn and being Jewish in a not so Jewish area. I didn’t fit in. I was in to the arts and theatre. I trust people but when something happens I use sarcasm as a coping mechanism. Life is hard, it just is, what are you going to do about it. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t and be coy about it.

23. What are you reading now?
AR: I just got two books from my friend Mike, my only college friend from Emerson. “Imagine” about the process imagining and the other is about short stories and essays. I think it’s called, “A List of Fun things I’ll Never Do.”

24. You’ve written about pastry chefs having the same dreams and wants as the hot line soldiers. Have you found/achieved your American dream yet?
AR: Not yet. I’m still trying to figure out how to attain that. I’ve got my ideas

25. What was your nickname at Tru?
AR: You already know this. (laughing)
CFS: I don’t.
AR: You wouldn’t of asked if you didn’t know this.
CFS: (laughing) I don’t. I asked someone what I should ask you and they gave me this.
AR: Who was it Pandel or Geitzen?
CFS: You tell me the name and I’ll tell you who.
AR: Ice Queen
CFS: Ice Queen? Why?
AR: So I moved to Chicago and worked at Tru during its height. I barely talked to anyone for the first six months.
CFS: No one?
AR: Barely?
CFS: New pastry girl won’t talk to anyone? Every guy flirting with you trying to get you to go out for drinks after work?
AR: Haha, there was one guy who always flirted and tried so that makes me think it’s him, who?

Thanks again for taking the time to play 20 questions chef. 

If you liked these 20 questions, check out the how Ryan Poli, Francis Brenna, Giuseppe Tentori, Charlie McKenna, Chris Pandel , Michael Muser, Curtis Duffy , Rob Katz/Kevin Boehm, Michael Taus, Chris Curren, Patricio Sandoval, Bill Terlato, Matthias Merges , Vic Perdue, Sheila O'Grady, Adam Rapoport, Andrew Knowlton, Jeff Kauck, Nicole Pederson, Ce Bian, Seth Zurer, Revae Schneider, Ina Pinkney  and Rachel Lowe answered.

Joe is a Chicago based food blogger and his blog is called the Chicago Food Snob. Joe also contributes to Eater Chicago. You can find him on twitter at @chifoodsnob.

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