Karen DeMasco '91

Pastry Perfection

When Karen DeMasco '91 gets in touch with her inner child, it has nothing to do with psychology. We're not talking about therapists and doctors' offices-we're talking dessert.

DeMasco, the award-winning pastry chef for the Craft restaurants in Manhattan, says one of her inspirations has always been what she carried in her lunchbox as a child growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

"I get lots of ideas from the foods that made me happy as a kid," she says.

For example, she has developed a twist on that childhood favorite, the Hostess cupcake. Her version is a devil's food cake filled with vanilla-flavored whipped cream and topped with a high-quality chocolate ganache.

Whatever dessert you order at Craft comes with a side of DeMasco's childlike enthusiasm for foods that are sweet and fun to eat.

"Desserts are something that really make people happy," she explains. "It is not something you need, it's a bonus, just something nice. I love the opportunity to do this every day."

DeMasco says she has always been interested in the food industry; every one of her summer and part-time jobs since she was growing up involved restaurants in some way, mostly as a waitress. These jobs helped her develop a taste for the fast-paced environment of restaurants, a trait she enjoys to this day.

Her experience at Kenyon played a key role in leading to her life as a chef, but not in the way you would expect. DeMasco was an English major, and her first job out of college was working for the publishing giant Simon and Schuster in New York.

She moved to New York with her Kenyon roommate Nellie Kurtzman, who was a native of the city. While DeMasco toiled away in publishing, Kurtzman worked in theater on Broadway, where one of her jobs was to find caterers for cast parties. At one point, the two roommates decided they could do a better job than the caterers Kurtzman had been hiring. And a new career was born.

"We would be working the night before these parties in our tiny New York apartment kitchen," DeMasco remembers with a laugh. "We would make cookies and brownies and anything that could be done very simply. We did the best we could with what we had."

That experience-coupled with the realization that she "didn't like the whole office thing"-inspired DeMasco to enter a nine-month night and weekend program at the now-defunct New York Restaurant School in 1994. After graduation, she left Simon and Schuster and began her new life in the restaurant industry.

She worked at several New York restaurants, including a stint at Gramercy Tavern, where she learned the craft of pastry.

DeMasco and her husband moved briefly to Portland, Maine, but returned four years ago when she helped open the new Craft restaurants under her former Gramercy Tavern boss, Tom Colicchio.

She leads a staff of six in the pastry department, who provide treats for three related restaurants, all located next door to one another: Craft (fine dining); Craft Bar (casual), and 'Wichcraft (sandwiches). Each has its own personality, which allows DeMasco to show her creativity in different ways, from formal pastries to peanut-butter cookies. And she's not afraid to try some things that are unconventional for desserts.

"I love breakfast, so a lot of my desserts are based on breakfast foods. For example, you'll find doughnuts on our menu."

One of her most popular dishes at Craft is the brioche pain perdu, "which is like French Toast for dessert." Craft serves this with roasted banana and caramel ice cream, a combination that provides a spectacular end to a meal.

The desserts are not complex, and that's the way DeMasco likes it. It fits in with the philosophy of Craft, she says.

"It's all about simplicity and coaxing the best out of great ingredients."

The philosophy has served DeMasco well: For the past three years, she has been nominated for the prestigious "Outstanding Pastry Chef Award" given by the James Beard Foundation. In 2003, she was named one of New York's "Best Chefs" by New York magazine. Some of her recipes are featured in the book Craft of Cooking: Notes and Recipes from a Restaurant Kitchen, written by her boss, Colicchio. And she is now working on her own cookbook.

Her already busy life just got busier with the birth of her first child, a daughter, four months ago. So it's no wonder you won't find her cooking at home very often.

"After being in the kitchen all day, I'm the first to want to order takeout," she says. Luckily, her husband enjoys cooking, so he spends more time in front of the stove at home.

Meanwhile, it's the patrons of Craft who get to enjoy DeMasco's time in the kitchen.

"It's long hours and it is very demanding but I find it so rewarding," she says. "You come in and you start with nothing and you make these desserts with your own hands that people will enjoy the same day. It's a great job."

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