LJ and the Kat Lounge's pastry chef has advice for aspiring cooks

February 14, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Alisha Hanlin, pastry chef for LJ's and the Kat Lounge in Hagerstown, works on grasshopper pie shots, which the restaurant featured for Valentine's Day Weekend.
Photos by Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles of local restaurant chefs.

Alisha Hanlin, 26, is the pastry chef for the Hagerstown restaurant LJ's and the Kat Lounge, a high-end restaurant. Hanlin graduated from Williamsport High School, attended Shepherd University and now lives in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Hanlin said when she was young, her mother invited her to work with her in the kitchen.

"I did small tasks around the kitchen at home — a lot of bread and cakes, things that involved mixing and the more simplistic end of food preparation," she said. "I picked up a lot more from my mother in cooking with her as a child than I realized until I was in the professional kitchen and I was applying this knowledge that I had gotten from her."

Hanlin stepped out of LJ's kitchen and sat down with The Herald-Mail for a conversation about her passion for pastry.

When did you know you wanted to become a chef?

When you're young and if you do start to cook for yourself, and you do a little bit of baking at home, there are these moments when you have sort of a breakthrough — "I can do that; it's not actually that complicated." You have this thing you really love, that makes your day better. And you have that little epiphany. And from there you can take it as far as you want to, really.

What was food like in your family when you were little?

I was lucky. I had a very skilled chef as a mother, and she put a lot of attention to having a healthful structure to our meals. There was always a variety of protein and produce and fruits. Never too bread-heavy, too potato heavy. Everything was a balanced meal. (She baked) a lot of cakes, cupcakes, brownies. A big PTA baker.

Were there any foods you didn't like as a kid?

I don't think I was too terrible. I do remember getting fussed at a great deal. Because, like I said, my mother would have vegetables, pork chops, salad, rolls. And I'd sit there and I'd just want to eat a bowl of apple slices — the food with the highest sugar content on the table.

Where did you get your formal pastry training?

I'm not formally trained in pastry. Or culinary, for that matter.

So how did you get started as a chef?

I decided I wanted to make my career path my own sort of blue-collar culinary education. I decided that once I had learned a great deal from one environment or person or style of cooking, I would move on. I would explore something else.

And right out of school you went into a kitchen, then?

Yes, I started cooking when I turned 18. I graduated from high school and went to Shepherd as an art student. I was a painting major. Then I did a little bit of farm work, and then started working in a kitchen while I was going to school.

I started out on the hot line — grill, saute — and just started moving from kitchen to kitchen, from sandwich shops to kitchens with more complex dishes.

I've been all over the area. Mostly savory, being a line cook. In Shepherdstown, I've (worked) at the Blue Moon (Cafe), Shaharazade's (Restaurant and Tea Room), Bistro 112 before it became Stone Soup (Bistro). I was at Dish in Charles Town (W.Va). I've worked in Berkeley Springs (W.Va) And I worked with Al Elmerraji at Safron Bakery in Hagerstown.

And you had no formal training? So how did you learn to be a pastry chef?

In one of the first kitchens I worked in that was doing more complicated foods, I worked with a pastry chef, Cheryl Strasser. It was one of the first times I experienced a constant (flow) of homemade ice creams. Excellent cakes. All the doughs were wonderful. Every crème anglaise was perfect and it was executed swiftly and well. And it tasted so good.

And once you have desserts like that, you can't get a frozen piece of pie at the grocery store and feel satisfied. It's not the same.

How did you make the transition from line cook to pastry chef?

As you continue, you end up picking up the slack when someone's out of the kitchen. Or somebody needs help. You end up diversifying your tasks. And as I got more exposure to that, I wanted to work in a bakery. I wanted to observe production and feel it out and see how it works.

You produce all the desserts for LJ's?

I do. All the desserts. All the breads. Everything comes from my station. And sometimes it can be intimidating, like when we do large volumes of petit fours and things like that. Because if someone's going to walk up to a table with 300 petit fours, you want to make sure that no matter which one they pick up and bite into, that's it's delicious.

On your days off, what do you do for food for yourself?

That's a tricky question. I've got into such a habit of drinking a lot of coffee at work in the kitchen and keeping going, that when I'm not in the kitchen, and I'm at home, I still drink coffee all day. And maybe eat at the end of the day.

I don't often go and sit in and eat at the restaurant, because I spend so much time at the restaurant. I think, "I could go home and sit on the couch (and eat). It would be great."

So I'll order a bombardment of takeout. I expect to not like one or two of the things that I order. I have a bad habit of ordering excessive appetizers and bringing them home and eating that way.

I think the kitchen has trained me to have fairly strange eating habits. I think you'll find that from anyone who works in a kitchen.

If someone wanted to become a professional chef, what would you say are the key skills they should know?

Even though I haven't gone to a culinary school, I think it's a good idea. And also know you don't have to go right away. You can always go back to school (later).

I think the most important thing, if someone thinks they might want to do it, is to find a place that does the thing you're interested in. Find someone who pays attention to what your specific interests are. That's the biggest favor you can do yourself.

Get a job at the best restaurant you can. If you start at a lower-rung restaurant, you run the risk of developing bad habits. So even if you're doing something simple in the kitchen — someone hires you on as a part-time prep cook — get into the best restaurant you can.

And be humble. Work hard. That's the best way to learn. You're not going to walk into a kitchen and get a job and end up doing fun stuff right away. That comes later.

And read constantly. Do research. And there are so many online forums now for people to share information about food. Chef Talk is one of them. You can always reach out to people and ask questions and do your own research. There's just so much information out there.

I've heard pastry is more complicated, more precise than regular cooking.

I really love the process of cooking. So the more steps and the more phases you have to process something through, I think the more interesting and rewarding it is to make. And I think that that is another reason I like pastry (baking) so much.

I have a smoker at home and a meat injector and I'll do bacon at home. When you cure your own (pig) belly, you get to smoke it, and you have to make sure the temperature is maintained and what kind of wood chips do you want to use.

What do you read besides cookbooks?

There are books out there that, even if they are recipe books, approach technique and go more in depth with the handling, and how things perform. Once you have that fundamental knowledge, the way you handle food will improve.

Gesine Bullock-Prado's "Sugar Baby" — it takes you from the lowest point of cooking sugar to the highest point of cooking sugar.

Harold McGee wrote "On Food and Cooking," which Liz Gallery (former owner of) Stone Soup gave me when I started cooking for her.

I also have a book called "Food for Geeks." It's all science. It explains everything, so if you see something not going the way you want it to, you at least have a better understanding of what's happening and what you need to do to fix it.

What do you do when a recipe goes wrong?

Obviously, a big part of working in a professional kitchen is being able to perform your tasks. But every once in a while, something will happen. Everyone experiences disasters in the kitchen. Everyone everywhere. Even some of the biggest names. I've read some pretty funny stories about things that have gone wrong in the kitchen. But it's rare.

You have to know how to fix your mistakes. More often than not, you can fix something.

A lot of it is really just planning and having your mise en place (French for "everything set in place"). I make sure all my flour and my dry ingredients are sifted together and ready to go. You make sure your eggs are room temperature before you mix them with your chocolate, so it doesn't shock the chocolate. It's a lot of planning and thoughtfulness to avoid situations like that.

How have TV cooking shows affected you?

I don't really have a show that I watch consistently. You're more likely to see me watching old Julia Child or Jacques Pepin (shows) on a Sunday afternoon. They're just a pleasure to watch. You can see the way they work. They're so accessible, and they're so friendly, and they just love food.

And that's all you really have to do. If anyone has an impact on me, it's (chefs) who aren't over the top about it. People become intimidated. On the one hand, they think, "Well, I can do that." And on the other hand, you can get really overwhelmed and intimidated. I hate that, because I would like for everyone to be able to enjoy cooking at home.

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