jm Curley has been a destination for cocktails, burgers, and crazy twists on comfort food since it opened a few years ago, but there was never a dessert program to speak of, aside from a few late-night concretes — ice cream mixed with "tasty treats" (and sometimes alcohol). Now, Kate Holowchik has come onboard as pastry chef, so things are evolving. Holowchik could previously be found coming up with sweet creations like fernet ice cream bonbons in her recent role as executive pastry chef of Les Zygomates and Sorriso. Shortly after starting at jm Curley, she chatted with Eater about what's in store in the near future (yes, there will be fernet), her excitement about getting the opportunity to be creative, and her dream of opening an old-fashioned soda shop with real ice cream and romance.
So, let's talk about your new role. How did you get here, and what does it entail, exactly?
I was spoken to by Suzie [Dagenais], the general manager, and also Chris Bauers, the executive chef. They've been wanting to move in that direction; from what I gather, they want to be a destination for everything. It's a destination for cocktails, it's a destination for burgers, and they want to start being that late-night spot for dessert. They knew I do some wacky, crazy things, so they wanted to bring me on for that. We're still going to alternate those concretes and change them up a bit, but we want to do some more interesting things, give people variety and whatnot.
How did your first day go?
Very good. I love the staff. I love the people. I just felt comfortable. It's nice to know that I have a staff who knows what they're doing. I'm not holding anybody's hand. These are trained professionals, and I know what to expect of these people because they're also my friends.
I actually got thrown under the bus right away. They just changed the [specials] board — Bauers' Big Board. I walked in and was filling out my paperwork, and then Chris was like, Oh, by the way, you're doing the dessert today. It was hectic, but I'm so used to doing last-minute stuff that it's not an issue. We had fun with it. We did a s'mores pie. I like to take things that people are used to but give them in different forms. People would expect the filling of the pie to be chocolate, but I reversed it — the crust is chocolate, the inside is graham cracker pastry cream, and then there's a toasted marshmallow topping.
Will your menu change as often as the Big Board?
We're trying to nail out the details right now; ideally for me, I want to keep it like what Bauers does, switching seasonally. I'm not sure if we're going to be doing, like, a themed dessert menu. I've been thinking about that. In the next week or so, we're really going to nail down what direction we're going in.
How is this different from previous pastry-related positions you've had?
I always felt like in previous positions I was trying to fit a certain mold. I'm a very creative person. I went to school for art — I didn't actually go to school for pastry at all. I just need that creative outlet constantly. I have that energy always going, and especially with my last job, I felt like I was trying to fit into a mold I knew I couldn't fit into. I can't do the prim and proper. I mean, I can — but I can't be boring. I have to give people something fun and unexpected.
Yes, it may sound like I'm coming up selfish, fulfilling my needs, but I know people want fun and exciting, especially with the movement in Boston. People want to go out and have an experience when they dine. Oh, I can't get this anywhere else! Best example I know of for destination desserts, the one I hear constantly, is Ribelle, with their olive oil ice cream. You have that signature item, and everybody's like, Oh, it's so different and weird! It's nice to see people getting excited and getting out of their comfort zone.
What are you most excited about in this new role?
The amount of creative freedom. For once I feel like I really know my market of people. jm Curley has always been a destination for industry people, but they've also been a destination for getting something totally unexpected. I think [opening executive chef] Sam Monsour definitely paved the way for that, and I really appreciate that he did that. People like me can come in and actually be the chef that they always wanted to be. You always hear people saying, I won't be able to cook my food until I get my own place, whereas I feel like I'll be able to cook my food and be in someone else's establishment, which is definitely a privilege.
I know you've had some fun using fernet as an ingredient in the past. Will that continue?
Definitely — that was almost, like, a term of my signing on. Chris and I were talking about it. I was known for doing the fernet ice cream bonbons, and through science and lots of research, I figured out how to stabilize the liquor — I don't cook off the liquor. When you stabilize it, you can actually put more per quart. Instead of putting two tablespoons of alcohol per quart, you're putting a cup in per quart, so you can actually get drunk off them. I just don't want to sacrifice the flavor. I've had so many things that are liquor-laced, and you taste it, and you're like, I kind of taste it… I want you to be punched in the face. Oh my God, this is fernet.
Any particular menu items you can share at this point?
Not really, because we're still kind of outlining what we want to do and what direction we want to go in, but definitely fun and playful. As far as my style goes, I like to take a lot of stuff from our childhood and reimagine it and just have fun with it. In the media lately there's been controversy in the pastry world; they've been talking about how it's kind of petering off. That might be how it is in New York City, but in Boston I feel like there's kind of a movement towards pastry — us wanting more and also stepping back. Everybody's moved towards the fine dining, but I feel like we're moving back away from that, getting back to down-home, good cooking.
Is there anybody in Boston who you think is doing a particularly good job with pastry right now?
I love what Monica Glass does at Clio. I respect her flavor profiles, and she's very creative and such a positive person. Her technique is flawless, and I really respect her for that. There's also Kelcey Rusch at Bergamot. Her flavors are exciting and impeccable.
It's hard for me to think of others off the top of my head because I'm in kind of a different realm of things. I'm one of the few pastry chefs who actually goes out and socializes. I don't think I've met any pastry chefs face to face, just going out. I've met them at conferences, but I never see them outside of work, so it's hard to pinpoint who's doing what right now.
I try to be really active, getting out and going on Twitter and whatnot. I feel like as a chef, you should be well-rounded. I want to know what my peers are doing, know what bartenders are doing, know what's new and what's going on with flavors.
It seems like building your "personal brand" has increasing importance nowadays in the culinary world. You can be great at what you do, but that might not be enough to grow your career if people don't hear about you.
It's a double-edged sword because if you don't market yourself, no matter how good you are, you might not make it. You hope to get your break. But if you market yourself too much, you look pushy, so you have to kind of find that in-between. Networking's crucial, being active, supporting your peers. One thing I love about the Boston food scene is that we're so supportive of each other. We love seeing what everyone is doing. Different things bring us together, like tragedy — the Marathon and right now with the firefighters — just seeing the community band together and look for ways to raise money is incredible.
I try to explain to people that when I do my social media and talk to people, it's not for self-indulgent reasons. It's not, Oh, I just want to be popular! For me, it's looking at the end game, which is, I want to own my own place. I want people to know who I am and to know my food. When I say, Hey, I'm going to open my own place, the investors go, Yes. Yes, we understand, and we want to give you money. That's what I want to hear.
If you were handed the money and the circumstances to open your own place tomorrow, what would it be?
One of my favorite things to make (and always has been) is ice cream — not frozen yogurt; we're not doing that — actual, traditional, old-school, custard ice cream. I'm huge into the 1950s; I want to try to bring that back. I want to do an old-school soda bar and have it open late-night, to bring back that whole romantic idea. Especially with our age group, I feel like a lot of people think that the only way to meet people is in bars and stuff. The '50s picture being painted of sharing an ice cream soda with someone — that's so romantic, and I want to bring that back and have fun with it. Modernize it, of course. But one of my side hobbies is that I brew my own soda, so I would like to have a draft line system and really have fun with it.
Are you going to get the chance to incorporate your sodas at jm Curley?
Yeah, definitely. I was incorporating it slowly at my last job, so I've been experimenting with a lot of root sodas. I've done sarsparilla, birch beer; I got all the stuff to make my own Moxie. That's also another thing I like — taking stuff that people dislike or hate and making it more palatable. For example, I hate the taste of Coke; I can't stand it. I make the worst faces when I drink it. I don't know if it's too sweet or what, but I made my own cola syrup — you make it with fresh lemon zest, coriander, fresh juice — I made it and put seltzer in it, I drank it, and I was like, I can drink a full cup of this. It's delicious. So I want to take stuff like Moxie, stuff that makes people almost cringe when you say it but then go I really like this; this makes sense.
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