Melissa Denmark, Executive Pastry Chef of Gracie’s (www.graciesprov.com) in Providence, Rhode Island, admits she always had a passion for baking. Growing up in Columbia, Maryland, she would practice making chocolate chip cookies after school, almost daily. “I was always watching cooking shows and reading cookbooks,” she says. “Baking was in my bones and once I stopped and thought about it, a career in this industry seemed kismet.” She enrolled in Johnson & Wales University in 2006 and completed the Bachelor program in Baking and Pastry Arts. That included learning from many areas of the industry including a four-star hotel, small scale bakery, dairy farm, and cake shop. Following graduation, she began working at Gracie's and now spends everyday working on making memorable experiences for her guests through food.
Ever heard of flowering dill ice cream? That’s one of the items Melissa is playing with on her current menu. The pastry chef, named one of Food & Wine’s “50 Best Pastry Chefs” and a 2014 StarChefs.com Rising Star, says she loves working with savory herbs and has fun taking something with a typically savory reputation and surprising people with a sweet application.
Her inspiration for new things usually starts with one idea -- an ingredient or theme. She then forms a web of ideas around that. “I'm very inspired by unique or savory ingredients, childhood memories, and culture from places I've traveled to,” she says.
That includes using vegetables in desserts. “Our mission at Gracie's is to inspire and educate the palate,” she says. “I feel that using ingredients like parsnip or parsley in dessert opens people's eyes up to the many possibilities of food.”
Melissa tends to use the tasting menu at Gracie's to introduce the more unusual, savory ingredients. “It's a way of dining where guests are blind to the menu and allow the chefs to be creative,” she explains. “This way, when I send them a dark chocolate and olive fudgesicle for their final course they are open to the element of surprise and intrigued instead of baffled.”
One of her favorite flavor combinations is milk chocolate, grapefruit, and thyme. “It seems like an unlikely pairing but it’s divine,” she says.
As for her biggest challenge in terms of pastries, she says living in New England means she’s limited by the seasons for local fresh fruit. “We have to plan ahead and preserve for future months,” she says. “And when our supply runs out, we have to get creative with dried fruits, nuts, and spices.”
She says it makes her appreciate the seasons even more. “Now when the long anticipated strawberry season begins, we get fruit as we can and make jams, purees, syrups, ice cream, and sorbet, and try to preserve it for the cooler months when we have little to work with.”
The seasons play a large part of Melissa’s menu planning and she develops menus based on when she knows certain ingredients will become available (or if one of the restaurant’s farmers comes with an over abundant crop.) She also uses a lot of ideas from guests and staff.
“My favorite conversations with people are about food memories,” she says. “So when someone tells me about a dessert they had when they were traveling or that their mother used to make, it gets me thinking about how I can re-create that in some way.”
Trends she sees in the pastry world reflect the larger trends going on in the food world, namely a focus on foraging, preserving, and highlighting the Earth's bounty. Says Melissa: “It’s a trend that I hope grows and puts more people in touch with our roots.”