Pastry Profile: Isla Vargas
The rotating pinnacle of Reunion Tower is indeed an elegant place to practice the art of pastry, but just because she’s practicing her art at 560 feet in the air, Wolfgang Puck Executive Pastry Chef Isla Vargas takes little time to relish in the luxe of her surroundings. Yes, she’s in charge of the pastries and desserts at Puck’s Five-Sixty, but she also handles the same role for Wolfgang Puck Catering. And while the two jobs hold similar standards for quality, they’re worlds apart in terms of preparation, planning, execution and logistics, leaving little downtime for this Pastry Chef from California. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
We chatted with Isla about working for a culinary legend, keeping up and exceeding expectations, and what kind of desserts Dallas seems to prefer these days.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Isla. Between the restaurant and the catering, you’ve probably got your hands pretty full – what does the workload entail for you?
Well, I do all the pastries for catering Union Station, The Nasher Sculpture Center, Perot Museum, The Winspear and the Wylie, and the desserts for 560 the Restaurant.
Okay. That seems like a lot of responsibility – how exactly does a pastry chef move up in the ranks like that?
After my externship at Spago in Las Vegas, I went to Hollywood and started with Wolfgang Puck Catering in Hollywood. I was there for a little over three years before I transferred to the Georgia Aquarium and became Executive Pastry Chef there for two and a half years. Then, when we opened Dallas, I came here. That was about two and a half years ago.
Spago for an externship? I would imagine that’s a bit of a culture change from culinary school.
It was intimidating. I was very green – right out of culinary school, but there were some great chefs there that taught me a lot and understood that I was an extern and didn’t really know what I was doing. They had a lot of patience (laughs).
But I think the biggest shock for me was the hours. In culinary school they don’t really prepare you for the hours you’re going to work. They were long hours and it would change – every day it was different. It was so new to me. It’s at least 12-13 hours a day.
Especially when you’re catering for big crowds – what’s that aspect of it like here in Dallas?
Here we do a lot of buffets, so we have to specialize in the mini desserts a little bit. We do plated desserts, as well, but buffets is mainly what we do for the catering. It depends on how many people there are. If there are 100 people, and it’s four different desserts, I’ll typically try to do two and a half to three desserts per person – it’s a lot, but I’ve been doing it awhile, and I’ve kind of got the hang of it now.
I actually find the experience in Dallas similar to California – not necessarily in the palates of the customers, but in the whole atmosphere – friendly people, even with how busy we are. Atlanta was busy, but it was … very different. We did a lot of 2,000 and 4,000 or 10,000-people parties there, so it was max production. Here the parties are generally more intimate. We do have a lot of 400 and 500-people parties, but we still get to pay a lot more attention to detail with the desserts and things.
You mentioned that the palates are different here – in what respect would you say they differ?
I think Dallas is more into comfort foods. Desserts that they recognize, which is pretty much what I’m into anyway. Sometimes I’ll try to do different things, but I stay with what I want to eat, and I think that’s pretty much how the Dallas crowd is: comforting foods, warm souffles and hot apple crumbles, and I’m totally okay with that.
What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve served at 560, and what was the response?
I did a deconstructed carrot cake which I thought was pretty good – it was a carrot spice cake that we did with cream cheese ice cream, coconut gelee and carrot paper.
And we do like to play with savory aspects a little bit in our desserts – sweet corn or bacon. We did have a chocolate chip-bacon cookie that got mixed reviews. I loved it – I thought it was awesome.
What are some of your customer’s favorites?
We have a really great vanilla creme brulee, but it’s more like a brulee custard – we don’t really brulee it. Instead of serving it in a vehicle, it sits on its own; the custard sits on a coconut-almond tart shell and we put fresh strawberries and rhubarb on it. It’s really delicious. Everybody comes into the restaurant and asks for creme brulee – the restaurant that was there before us had one that was apparently very popular, so whenever I put it on the menu our customers get really excited.
What about some of your favorites?
I’m really into childhood desserts – we do a lot of push-up pops and stuff with pop rocks and pop-tart-kind of things. Almost comfort foods from when I was young – the things that put a smile on my face.
So what’s your checklist when you’re coming up with a new dessert menu?
I don’t really have a checklist, but I always start with what’s in season. Then I’ll say, “I need a chocolate, I need a fruit, I need a citrus dessert …” Basically I need a variety for all of our guests; when somebody comes in who doesn’t like chocolate, they don’t want to see five out of six desserts made with chocolate. So I just try to stick to that. I write down everything that’s seasonal and go from there.
People often associate seasonality with savory applications – is it equally important from a pastry aspect?
Definitely. In winter I couldn’t put a peach crumble on the menu; you have to use them at their peak, when it’s delicious. It makes all the difference in desserts. For instance, I’ve got a peach upside-down cake that I’m making for a tasting today, and this is the perfect time to do it – peaches are awesome right now – but I wouldn’t be able to do that in the winter. In winter, you’re looking at apples, citrus, definitely pears; I do pineapple desserts, too because you can compress them and add flavors to them and stuff like that.
Thanks again for talking with us, Isla. Let us know the next time that bacon and chocolate chip cookie’s on the menu. We’ll give it the respect it deserves.
(laughs) I definitely will!
by Rich Vana