“I’m a pastry chef that has knife skills,” laughs Jessica Craig, who is the Head Pastry Chef at the upscale Italian restaurant L’Artusi in New York City. “A lot of chefs come out of culinary school and they don’t know how to cook.” With an associates degree in Culinary Arts and a bachelor degree in Hospitality Management from NY Institute of Technology, Craig is well-skilled to whip up a tasty fish dish or juicy ribs in her own kitchen. But her true passion is dessert-making. “I knew early on that I wanted to do pastry,” she says. “I like that it’s different than the rest of the kitchen, and its a specialty in the field that many chefs are scared of.” In her gregarious manner, she laughs, “There’s a common fear if you’re off just a gram in a dessert recipe, then the thing explodes; cooking is more forgiving.”
In her over 12 years of experience in the kitchen, Craig has overseen the pasty program at several restaurants in the Hamptons, worked with the executive pastry chef of an international catering company in Queens, and most recently, as pastry sous chef for Andrew Carmellini’s Tribeca hot spot Locanda Verde.
Unsurprisingly, the pastry chef industry is not very diverse, and there are not many Black (or Black female) pastry chefs in executive positions across the country. Last spring, when Craig became the head pastry chef at L’Artusi, she was tasked with spearheading the preparation of at least 30-40 dessert components on an average day for L’Artusi and fulfilling around a dozen orders for the Epicurean Group’s sister restaurant, Dell’anima. Craig also recently hired a young Black female pastry sous chef, Janee Humphreys, who later admitted that one of the reasons she wanted to join the team was because she never ran into a Black head pastry chef.
If you have a chance to dine in the modern-décor L’Artusi (check out the intimate bar with an adjacent open-air kitchen and sultry candles that line the stairs to the second floor), then conclude your family-style meal with some of Craig’s pastry innovations. The strawberry basil crostata, peanut butter banana gelato sundae, and the selection of homemade gelatos and sorbets are her sweet creations. Recently, her protégé and sous chef, Janee was able to create a dessert for the menu as well-the buttermilk panna cotta.
“Everything we make desert-wise is homemade and we try to keep our ingredients as local as possible,” says Craig. “For example, right now, strawberries are going out of season, so nectarines, peaches, and blueberries are our focus.”
Her advice for aspiring pastry chefs is to be patient and persevere; that it’s not impossible to make it to an executive level. “I am a firm believer that your gifts will help you get there,” she says. “After all, this year, the 2018 James Beard winner for head pastry chef was a Black woman.