Table Talk with Chef Colleen Grapes

Current Gig
Pastry Chef, The Harrison and The Red Cat

About the Chef
While attending culinary school at Johnson and Wales, Chef Colleen Grapes got her first cooking job at Al Forno in Providence, RI.  After graduating, she worked at Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange, NJ, before moving on to work in Manhattan at Rue 57Time Café (all three of them), The Metropolitan Opera House, and Irving Mill.  Chef Colleen also spent some time in Brooklyn at DresslerDumont, and Dumont Burger.  Currently, she is the Pastry Chef at The Harrison and The Red Cat with Chef & Owner Jimmy Bradley, where she has been creating delicious desserts for a total of eight years.

The Harrison: 355 Greenwich Street (at Harrison Street)
The Red Cat: 227 Tenth Avenue (between West 23rd and 24th Street)

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Chef Colleen Grapes at The Harrison

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Caldwell, New Jersey. It’s a great location because it’s about half an hour from the city, from skiing, from the beach, and from the mountains. I got to experience a little bit of everything – I thought it was pretty perfect. (Smiling)

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
As a kid, I did a lot of cooking and baking with my grandmother, my mom, and my great-grandmother. We always made sweets, cookies, puddings, etc.  Butterscotch pudding was my favorite when I was growing up, and I always got it as a special treat when I was sick. Tapioca was also a huge favorite, as well as cheesecake. To me, when I was little, cheesecake was fancy. (Laughing) To this day, I absolutely love cheesecake.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
Late spring, summer, and early fall are a pastry chef’s dream – stone fruits are out, berries are out. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I would say right now I’m really into plums. They are absolutely beautiful. I also recently got some mesquite flour so I’m starting to fool around with that, it’s got some great chocolate and nut undertones to it. And it’s gluten free. I like to keep things interesting. (Laughing)

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
The internet. Google! I don’t know what I would do without it! (Laughing) I would say get a good range of cookbooks. Even though I’m a vegetarian, I have good meat cookbooks at home and good savory cookbooks, too. I don’t always look at things from a pastry point of view – there are always techniques and other things that I can learn and incorporate into my pastries. Another item I’d suggest is a toaster oven.  At home I do EVERYTHING in my toaster oven. I’ve lived in my apartment for 2 years and I’ve never turned on my oven. In my last apartment, I lived there for 5 years and I only turned my oven on twice. I live and die by my toaster oven!

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
That’s so hard because I’m all over the place with music. My favorite band in the world is Clutch, but I’m also a huge fan of Beethoven.  I believe in mixing it up a bit. I never have just one favorite thing – to me, that’s no fun. My food style ranges from classical music all the way to rock (Clutch) and heavy metal (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest) and even some Jamiroquai. (Smiling)

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I recently got back from Cambodia and Laos – that trip was AMAZING. The cuisine is incredible and the people are just beautiful. When I travel, I try to go to places that I’m not familiar with, where I don’t speak the language, and where I’m out of my comfort zone. It’s challenging and it allows me to open myself up to discovering a whole new world. I like to go to more of the street vendors and the local spots rather than fancy places.  When I travel, it’s all about the fruits. The coconuts, mangos, and banana flowers in Cambodia and Laos were just amazing.  I also had some great fruits in Costa Rica. I didn’t even know what guanabana or a soursop was until I went there and had a shake. When I asked the guy what it was, he put his hand up and walked away. Then he came back with this guanabana milkshake. It was incredible!  After I returned to NY, I was inspired and made a key lime tart with guanababa sorbet and fresh raspberries and mint.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
One of two things – because you know there can never be just one! (Laughing)  I would either like to arrange flowers for a living or I would want to be a brew master. Flowers and beer! I love them both.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
That’s a tough one! I’d have to pick a few of my friends because I know them very well and can see how their personalities are reflected in their food.  Chef Sue Torres (Suenos) cooks real Mexican food – it’s incredible. She sources out her own corn and they hand make all of their tortillas. Chef Anita Lo (Annisa) – her food is amazing, and Chef Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter) – her food is to die for. Also, I have to mention Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. Chef Justin Smillie is a ham! His food is off the hook.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I try to go somewhere new each time I have the chance to eat out. Some of my old standbys are Blue Ribbon, Rai Rai Ramen, Ippudo, and Di Fara Pizza. Di Fara is like a temple. He makes each pie to order, so you wait up to an hour for each pie. It’s so good that you WAIT. (Laughing) He’s a craftsman. He pulls out the pies with his bare hands, he hand cranks the cheese, he cuts fresh marjoram and basil from a plant and puts it on the pizza. There’s nowhere else in the city that does that.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
Hey, that’s so not fair! (Laughing) That’s like asking me which hand I would cut off! That’s like asking me if I only had two puppies, which one I would give away! Really? Really?? Hmm, maybe meat and fish… but I just love foie gras! And lobster! Maybe bread? NO! I can’t answer this, I really don’t know. I’m leaning toward meat, but if I go out to eat and I see foie gras on the menu, I don’t see anything else — I have to have it! And I can’t say sweets because that would be just shooting myself in the foot.  Got another question? (More laughter) I really can’t say, I need everything! It’s too heart-wrenching to decide! I really tried, but I can’t pick one. I plead the fifth! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Colleen Grapes