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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.12.08

Welcome to the Dahl-house

Profiles in Food: Interviews


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edahl

Boka pastry chef Elizabeth Dahl - photo courtesy of Star Chefs

Plenty of us grew up with that nostalgic treasure known as the Easy Bake Oven. Heck, I’d reckon there’s a sizeable population of closeted dollhouse “chefs,” putting Barbie to task in miniature kitchens across this land right now. But, other than the fact, that her last name is a homonym of the word “doll” and her life is seemingly fantastic, neither of these images has anything to do with the story of Elizabeth Dahl, the talented pastry chef at Boka. If you’ve had the pleasure of gobbling down any of her desserts including her semolina pudding cake or her sweet corn pudding with blackberries, then you know that this young chef’s skill exceeds the elementary confines of, say, ovens, fryers, ice cream makers, and yes, light bulb powered ovens.

Before she married into the “Dahl” name, Elizabeth spent many Sundays preparing dinners alongside her maternal grandmother. Growing up with a father who liked to bake, it didn’t take long for her to realize her culinary career path. After graduation from high school and the lifelong tutorship bestowed by her grandmother, it was off to Kendall College for culinary school. The plan was to pursue savory cooking and the fast-paced lifestyle of a chef de cuisine.

But, a few hours outside Chicago, in Madison, Wisconsin, everything changed. For a final degree requirement, Elizabeth, put her education to real-world use at a fine dining South American restaurant. It turned out, that in addition to a graduation certificate from Kendall and a taste for empanadas, she was also getting a future spouse. Tim Dahl, now pastry chef at Blackbird and her husband, happened to also be working in the same kitchen at the time of her externship. Although he was also a savory cook at the time, his aim was in pastry. With sparks of baking and romance in her eye, Elizabeth opted to stay on at her South American outpost for an extra three months after the completion of her externship.

Elizabeth, a young-looking woman dressed with a touch of weary sleeplessness from the endless bakers’ hours she keeps said that prior to her Wisconsin love-story, she foresaw a career in catering, having spent ample time working and learning under Cyd Henrickson, owner of a gourmet food shop in Peoria. She says, “I thought, ‘unless I find some guy in Madison, I’m gonna work with Cyd in the catering shop.’” Much to Cyd’s chagrin, Elizabeth did indeed find “some guy” in Madison.

Afterwards, she returned to Chicago where she worked at Campagnola, the chic Italian Evanston institution, a place that first inspired her to work seasonally, a hallmark of her current style. She says. “I find organic whenever possible. Both at home and at the kitchen at work, I use what’s in season.” She’s so hardcore about seasonality, she takes jibes at the Green City Market, and the rest of Chicago’s farm traders, calling many of them “trendy,” as opposed to the legitimate “Alice Waters” feel that exists in Wisconsin.

After Campagnola, she spent four months at Charlie Trotter’s, but says, “it was a little too much.” Although she liked that there didn’t seem to be a food budget and she was exposed to new ingredients and ideas weekly, she spent most of her time baking bread and dabbling in bits of pastry and chocolate-making. “I liked working with Della (Gosset),” she proclaims of her temporary pastry mentor, “but I like working with Tim more.”

Though, working with Tim wasn’t always easy. After having worked at NAHA as his pastry assistant, she says, sometimes “It was really hard to go home and shut off the whole ‘chef, assistant’ thing. It’d be hard to put all that aside.” That being said, she predicts a hopeful future of further collaboration: “We definitely want to work together again at some point; just not under him. Those experiences would enable us to learn and build.”

Domestic life at the Dahl house is full of the familiar see-saw struggles of a married couple. Elizabeth says, “He’d rather me cook and I’d rather he cook,” she quips of their exhausted evenings at home. Being pastry chef at Boka, while Tim deals in pastry across town at Blackbird, their back and forth desire to kick back and relax is understandable. She says, “Sometimes I like to experiment in savory cooking at home. I’ll leave the pastry experimentation at work, where the budget will cover it.” Even though nights in might often mean takeout and letting others serve them for a change, Mrs. Dahl is certainly not averse to cooking a meal. And despite what could be expected, Elizabeth says “everybody thinks that there would be competition, but we really understand each other.” For them, it’s more of a support system than a race. They both give each other pep talks, especially through the “burnout” stages. “Thank God,” she sighs, “we both get burnt out at different times.”

So what are the secrets to a successful marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Pastry chef? After all, it’s hard enough handling the juggling act that is an “average Joe” relationship. According to Elizabeth, the trick is in balancing schedules and checking work at the door. “We stay on a familiar and similar work schedule, and time it so that we’re together as much as possible.” Elizabeth also points out the important element of leaving their jobs where they belong. “Besides the car ride, we don’t talk about work,” going on to stress the vitality of supporting one another and prohibiting egos from getting in the way. Apparently the roadways between Boka and Blackbird are the only places that see work-related talk of menu ideas and kitchen stresses. Elizabeth sums up her relationship acutely by stating that “relationships come first. I would die if our relationship went bad because of ego or tension.” The twinkle in her eye, out-sparkling the badass stud on her nose, is an obvious indication of her affection. She speaks about her and Tim’s relationship as if they were high school sweethearts, and it’s hard to describe these two as anything other than a couple of Chicago’s pastry princes and princesses.

For Elizabeth Dahl, the future is an especially rosy one these days. Work-wise, she perks up in her seasonally focused excitement. “It’s been a year since I’ve worked with chestnuts, and I can’t wait,” providing superficial details of a planned chestnut waffle. She’s also excited to whip out some of her Trotter-honed chops, having fun with a sourdough starter from Madison that will open the doors for house-baked bread and such items like a sourdough crepe with apples. With holidays rolling over the horizon, and people more willing to partake in homier comfort fare, Elizabeth’s got a recipe for mincemeat pie that she’s been dying to execute. And what can family and friends expect for Christmas gifts? How about a slew of homemade jams and salsas, in addition to sure-to-be-whimsical holiday cookies and breads?

On the family front, things are hopefully unfolding according to the fairy tale that the Dahl’s have been living. Even though she doesn’t yet know what she wants to do when she’s done building her career, she’s got a clear vision of where she’d like to be. “I want baby dolls in the dollhouse,” she chimes, gracefully giving in to my pun-laced interview. She laughs giddily at the mention of starting a family, again unleashing her inner love-struck Juliette, proudly proclaiming that her and Tim are just waiting for it to happen. There’s also the matter of her culinary dream: “I’d like to open a little shop where I could have the crib in one corner and pull things out of the oven at the same time. We’d also possibly like to open a bed and breakfast in the Madison area, where it’s a little more pastoral.” It’s pretty clear, Elizabeth Dahl and her husband Tim make Barbie and Ken sound like a bickering couple stuck in a glittering toy mansion of a dollhouse, one that pales in comparison to the real Dahl-house.

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