Talk about some culinary cred. Chef Keegan Gerhard launched to fame as a host on the Food Network Challenge and then opened D Bar Desserts in Denver to critical acclaim. He was also named one of the nation’s Top 10 pastry chefs of 2002 and 2004 by both Chocolatier and Pastry Arts & Designs magazines. Here, the chef talks about frozen pie dough, the sublimity of vanilla and how you get to Sesame Street.
French Davis: The holidays are always the busiest time for the home cook. Can you share a tip or two for keeping sane during the hectic baking and cooking season?
Keegan Gerhard: I guess my top three would be, first of all, start early. It’s the nature of holiday foods to be things that can be made ahead of time; a fruit cake is a perfect example. There’s no reason you should be making fruitcake two days before Christmas. The same with pie dough, as that can be made ahead and frozen. Christmas cookies are the same way. When I was working at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, we’d make all our dough for all of our Christmas cookies in September. That was the slow part of the year, so we’d make our dough and freeze it. Second, when you’re cooking for family, I’d try not to make something new on a big occasion. That seems obvious, and people say that all the time. But I think you get really overwhelmed by the occasion, you get fancy and you get a bunch of recipes. If you really want to try something, then do, but maybe just one. And third, don’t take on too much. Don’t kill yourself. My mom never left the kitchen during those holidays. Maybe that’s why I’m a chef. I don’t have a great “I cooked with my mom story,” but I used to wonder what would motivate a woman to work that hard for her family. When you look at it, there is something great to that.
FD: What is the one thing you will always find in your kitchen?
KG: A high-quality vanilla. I think all chefs are that way. My favorite vanilla is Nielsen Massey. You can get it all over the place. They have a vanilla paste, and what I love about it is that it’s the extract and it has the seeds, which of course is where all the flavor is. It’s thickened, so it’s emulsified. It doesn’t just dissipate, and it never tastes artificial. I really use a lot of vanilla beans as well. I dry them out and I put them in my sugar bin. Now that I think about it, I probably don’t have plain sugar at my house. I usually have a vanilla pod in my sugar; all my sugar is vanilla sugar. I think the other thing for me is salt. I think that people don’t always understand it, and it can have a negative moniker like sugar has. I don’t think people understand the impact of a tiny pinch of salt on savory foods or something sweet. When you are making desserts the only way to balance something that is sweet is to use a teeny bit of salt. It is also the number one recipe item to help with browning. Salt helps with that.
FD: What is the one thing you would never find in your kitchen?
KG: I wish I could say junk food but that’s not true. I eat a lot of junk food. But I guess it would be any ingredient that starts with “artificial” or “imitation.” I really believe that simple food is hard to do, and simple food starts with whole ingredients. I may sound like a grandma, but it’s hard to preserve the taste of something natural, so use something fresh and natural. When you look at the cuisines of the world, more often than not it’s just three to five ingredients done very well.
FD: What are some of your favorite restaurants in the Boulder, Longmont, Lafayette area?
KG: I’m not a fancy pants—but I just love Frasca and everything they are doing, I love their coffee shop next door and the pastries. I also love The Kitchen and I’m so glad that there is one in the Denver area now too.
FD: You work a lot on the competition shows on the Food Network. What has been the most memorable competition so far?
KG: That’s a tough one. I remember in 2001, I was on a plane on Sept. 11 headed to D.C. because the U.S. National Pastry Team had finally won the national championship and we were going to meet the president. Of course, everything got canceled and we got stuck, but that was a big deal. It was January 2001 and the U.S. won the World Championship in France. I had worked on that project from just dishwasher to assistant to coach to everything in between for 12 years and we finally won that year. That was my favorite. Now, as far as Challenge goes, we’ve done so many, we’ve hit somewhere around 320 episodes and I would say that I like the ones where you get to learn something amazing or something unusual happens. We had an anniversary for Sesame Street, and we actually got to go to Sesame Street. That was one of the best cakes ever. Mike McCarey of Mike’s Amazing Cakes did the most incredible Big Bird. It was so exactly Big Bird that I just wanted to cry; it was just amazing. And on top of that, I got to go to Sesame Street and meet all those people. It was really interesting, because it’s a very serious puppetry art form, you see these puppeteers and when you’re interacting with the character, they will not break character.
FD: What is your favorite breakfast cereal?
KG: It’s seasonal for me; Apple Jacks in the fall and winter and Fruit Loops in spring and summer. Since I’m in my 40s now and I’m older, I concocted this plan where I put something healthy like Shredded Wheat or Cheerios in a bowl and then I still put Apple Jacks on top of it.
Deb Flomberg contributed to this story.