Back in March, while attending the media kickoff for Atlantic City Restaurant Week, a certain pastry chef’s work took us by surprise- little servings of fried chicken and slaw that were really a wonderful cake coated in a maple icing, with shredded pear, apple and strawberries as “slaw” ; a “burger and fries” that turned out to be a chocolatey brownie “meat” on a challah slider bun and pound cake “fries” with a sweet curry glaze; adorable, delicious chocolate ” purses”…creative, to say the least. But unlike a lot of outrageous pastry creations, they tasted so very, very good ( you can see some of those creations in our post from March, here) ! Needless to say, we did some detective work and discovered it was the handiwork of Deborah Pellegrino, Executive Pastry Chef at Showboat and her crew, and began to track her down for an interview. She certainly has had an interesting career so far: after graduating from the Academy of the Culinary Arts in Mays Landing and working as a personal chef, she landed a gig as a chef on an around-the-world cruise yacht.She returned home in 1999 to persue her true passion, pastry, at the Showboat. Last Sunday, the latest Food Network Challenge was broadcast; not only was Pellegrino one of the contestants, her chocolate “kraken” (a mythical, boat-eating octopus) won her the $10,000 grand prize. We were finally able to talk with her this week:
John and Lisa: How does it feel to be the latest Food Network Challange Champ?
Pellegrino: It feels GREAT to be the latest Food Network Challenge Champ! There’s no better satisfaction of all your hard work.
John and Lisa: Have you competed in other pastry competitions? How does the Food Network experience compare?
Pellegrino: I’ve competed in other competitions, but not quite the intensity of the Food Network Challenge. The idea of getting your concept together, testing it out to see that it works, shipping all of your raw ingredients out to Denver, Colorado, and hoping it makes it there just add to the pressure of competing on TV for a grand prize and exposure.
John and Lisa:Where do you typically find inspiration for your desserts?
Pellegrino: I find inspiration from the seasons/ingredients, art, and my imagination-which I’m sure makes no sense to anyone else. It depends on what I am feeling at the time for creating my desserts. I love to have a theme to work with and like to pair my desserts with menus so they compliment each other.
John and Lisa:Is there any one chef or person that you admire or has taught you something important?
Pellegrino: I can’t say there is any one particular chef that has inspired me. I enjoy looking at everyone’s work and get inspired by other’s passion to create awe-inspiring desserts as I try to. You can always be just a little bit better at what you do.
John and Lisa:What was the moment you decided that this was your passion, and what you wanted to make a career out of?
Pellegrino: I’ve always loved baking and using my hands. To mix, bake, and have a product that you can mold with your hands is very satisfying. The moment that I realized this is what I should be doing is when I had to make a birthday cake for a brain surgeon who was a guest on the yacht I was working on. What better to make a surgeon for his birthday but a brain-shaped cake!! It was then someone said to me, “You are wasting your time here. You should be baking cakes!”
John and Lisa:What is the most important thing you learned in your 3-year stint as a chef on a round-the-world yacht?
Pellegrino: The most important thing I learned on the yacht was to believe in myself. There was no one else at times to believe in me. It’s extremely tough being in close quarters with a limited amount of people, the same day in, day out. You have no choice but to look at yourself and it’s then you decide to be strong and independent, or that you were packing up and going home.
John and Lisa:…And just how do you and your crew get those little cakes to look just like fried chicken and slaw or a burger and fries????
Pellegrino: Those little burgers and fries are my crazy invention of….”I’ve never seen this done and it’s something I would totally eat!” So I dream up what I would like to have, mold with my hands what is knocking around in my head and, voila! Chicken and biscuits sweet style.
John and Lisa:If you had only hours to live, would the last thing you ate be a dessert? What would it be?
Pellegrino: …Only had hours to live what would I eat? That’s extremely tough, as I like so much. It would have to be….if possible, a meal to include sweetbreads, a great grilled steak, bottle of wine and vanilla cake with fudge icing. And it would have to be made with/by my husband who I could not imagine living without.… And I forgot to mention fresh grilled vegetables to go with that steak!!!