For those of us who've been following pastry chef Danielle Keene for the past few years, from Wilshire's Ice Cream Shoppe nights, to stints in the pastry kitchens of BLT Steak and Little Door, to her own on-line pastry kitchen, Bittersweet Treats, it didn't come as much of a surprise to find her on the cast of Just Desserts. Bravo's all-dessert version of Top Chef debuts this Wednesday night, September 15th, at 11 p.m.
Keene, who was born in Culver City, raised in Sherman Oaks, and lives in South Pasadena, is the only Los Angeles contestant. (12 pastry chefs; host Gail Simmons; judges Johnny Iuzzini, Hubert Keller and Dannielle Kyrillos.) We caught up with her by phone in New York, where filming has finished. Yes, Keene knows the outcome of the contest. No, obviously she's not saying. Turn the page for our interview, and check back later for her recipe for roasted banana ice cream.
Squid Ink: Congratulations on the show — you're the only contestant from L.A. How did it all happen?
Danielle Keene: I heard about the show and I'm a total Top Chef junkie and people were always telling me, You should be on Top Chef! And I'd be like, Yeah, but I can't cook! So when I found out about this, I was like, Oh my god, how perfect. Because now every show is about either cakes and cupcakes, but this is about everything.
SI: Back when you were cooking at Wilshire, and since you started Bittersweet, you've done a lot of ice creams and retro desserts. How did that translate to television?
DK: Going into it, I was like: this is what I'm going to do. Watching Top Chef, there are always people who say, This is what I do and I can't really adapt it to this. You know, Everyone else is doing molecular gastronomy, so I'm going to do it too! But this is what I do and I'm going to do it, and you know that there are going to be challenges. It would just be silly if I thought that I was going to get on the show and all of a sudden start making foams. I wanted to go on the show and do my thing.
SI: Is ice cream hard to do on television?
DK: People just think it's kind of the same: cooking and baking. No, it's not the same. Someone on Top Chef makes a stew and it sits there in a bowl and 30 minutes later it's going to look pretty much the same. But desserts aren't like that. It's totally different.
SI: Do people try and stay away from ice cream because of the melting factor?
DK: There's a blast freezer. And we had a Bravo machine. It's cool because you can actually pour hot liquid into it.
SI: Bravo as in Bravo the show?
DK: Yeah. We definitely had the ability to make it properly.
SI: So do you think cupcakes will ever be over as a trend?
DK: Oh, lord. I mean [sighs] I appreciate all aspects of dessert. In my own realm I'm super evil and picky and I hate crème brûlée. But I understand — even though I think, Why would anyone ever eat vanilla ice cream? — that there is a market, you're subject to it. Having a small business, even though I'm working for myself, I'm always working for the customer. I can't be like, Well, these are the only things I like. Yeah, when I was a kid my mom baked, but if your mom didn't, then someone went to like Ralph's and [the cupcakes] were disgusting, with the shortening and the sprinkles and that was kind of it. It's funny to think that after Sprinkles or Magnolia or whoever claimed to be the first cupcakery, until then there weren't all these options. I think it's nice that there are really good cupcakes now. But it's like Starbucks, you can't turn and look at a corner without one popping up. When things get over-saturated, a lot of it isn't good. The majority of them have that powdered sugar-butter frosting and they're super sweet and I feel like my teeth are going to fall out. We can hold back a little.
SI: So you don't like crème brûlée. What's your favorite thing these days to make?
DK: Ice cream.
DK: No, no, not vanilla. Ice cream. It was always my favorite thing to eat as a kid, and it's just fun to eat. Like my mom says, it goes down easy; even when you're full you can have a little bit of ice cream or sorbet.
SI: And your favorite?
DK: Personally, it's always been mint chip. Yeah. I've gotten so used to not the bright green.
SI: You told me once that you'd like to have an ice cream truck. Is that still something that you're thinking about?
DK: Yeah, I definitely want to have a shop. I mean, I like the truck thing but I still don't know if it's a fad. Like last Art Walk, there were way more trucks than there had been before. And it's fun, but for me personally, I want to know where I can go a week in advance. I don't want to have to go on Twitter and be like, Where are they right now? That is never going to work out for me. Because I do a lot of delivery, people want to know where they can go pick it up, and not be like, Which street corner are you going to be on?
As far as the food part too, I don't need some fancy restaurant, but I also don't want to eat on the curb. The food is good, but the concept… I want to have a shop. Still, you know, you need people, you need investors.
SI: Is it more fun working on your own than being in a restaurant kitchen?
DK: Oh, I wouldn't trade it for the world. Working in a restaurant, I couldn't imagine not working in a restaurant. When you'd have employees quit and they'd be like, Well, I want to go do catering. I'm going to go work on a cruise ship. I'd be like, Are you crazy? I just could not fathom that. You're so embedded in it. Your only friends are the people you work with. You don't see anyone. People stop inviting you to things. You never see your family. And then, yeah. I mean it definitely has its ups and downs; it's not like having a stable, salaried job. But it's so much better. And also when you work in a restaurant you really have no idea who's there, who's eating your desserts, do they like it, do they not. I mean, you get a little feedback, but that's about it. I really like being able to talk to people and designing cakes and themes for parties. It's so much more hands-on. Whereas when you work at a restaurant, you think people like it because they're ordering it, but there's so much other stuff that goes on. Like manager meetings, like what happened at the valet, and someone got drunk at the bar. It gets away from what you really want to be doing.
SI: I know you can't tell us what happened, but good luck.
DK: I'm just excited to see the show. Because you don't know what really happens.
SI: You mean, you know what happens but you don't know how they put it all together?