Pastry Chef MJ Stewart Talks the Virtues of Baking, Detroit-Style Pizza and Cheese She Can’t Stand | Restaurants

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Baking and baking can be daunting for home cooks and even professional chefs, but Olive + Oak Pastry chef MJ Stewart says complex science can be boiled down to two ideas: patience and perseverance.

“Pastry taught me to have patience and that even if it doesn’t work the first time, that’s okay,” says Stewart. “You can always try again.”

Baking was a recurring theme throughout Stewart’s life. As a child, she always baked. She went to audio engineering school and was placed in the only freshman dorm that had a kitchen.

“And so I cooked all the time when I was happy, sad, stressed, bored, whatever,” she says. “I would always be in the kitchen cooking, and then halfway through my freshman year, I was like, ‘Why am I not doing this when this is what I love to do? “”

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After attending St. Louis Community College, she worked at Strange Donuts, the former Niche and Yellowbelly before moving to Olive + Oak.

Working at Niche was a transformative experience for Stewart. The restaurant only used produce from a certain radius around St. Louis, so for the first time Stewart had to learn how to create desserts without chocolate.

“Working there shaped me as a pastry chef and my style because I lean a lot towards the gourmet style, but I like to do something unexpected,” she says.

“Something unexpected” is also an apt descriptor of the dessert menu Stewart has curated for Olive + Oak, Perennial on Lockwood and Olive + Oak Events. One of her favorite desserts of the moment is a whipped cream brownie with salted caramel, caramelized milk chocolate, magic shell and cookie crumble.

“It’s a lovely creamy texture hidden inside a magical shell, which has a crunch on the outside so you step inside not knowing what to expect,” she says.

Another of his signature dishes is the Mousse Bomb, available at Perennial on Lockwood. It’s a chocolate cookie base topped with a malty milk chocolate mousse and filled with coffee caramel, then dipped in a magic shell. Stewart will change flavors regularly, keeping the formula of a baked base with a flavorful mousse.

“It’s probably the dish I have the most fun with just because it’s kind of like it’s me on a plate,” Stewart says.

Stewart enjoys learning all types of cooking, savory or sweet. She aims to be a complete leader and to become as competent as possible. Below, she drops some knowledge about the St. Louis food scene and Detroit-style pizza.

What’s the best thing you’ve ordered recently at a local bar or restaurant? It was at Lucky Complice. It’s an asparagus dish, and it was literally a dumpling of nori aioli and five or six pieces of grilled asparagus mixed with yuzu ponzu, and it was so simple, and it’s just kind things that I really like because I like gastronomy. It was one of the best dishes I’ve had, honestly, in years. And it brought me back to eating poke in Hawaii on my honeymoon.

What is the best style of pizza? I’m a Detroit-style pizza maker. So I’ve never been a big fan of pizza à la Saint-Louis. I didn’t grow up eating it. I love Detroit style pizza. I love it. Like when Porano was open. I had a slightly modified version of the Detroit style pizza. I think it has to do with the lightness of the dough. My favorite types of bread are big but light and airy, like focaccia, and that’s what Detroit-style pizza reminds me of. I also love the look of the caramelized cheese around the edge of the crust turning almost black, but it’s so good.

What is your favorite culinary memory? Honestly, this was probably only the first meal I’ve had at Niche as a whole, as it was so unlike anything I’ve ever had before. You know, I grew up here, but I grew up in Fenton, and we ate at chain restaurants and my parents weren’t in the local restaurant scene just because they never grew up like that. And therefore work at Strange [Donuts] integrated me into local restaurants and culture. And then Niche really introduced me to what food can be and it ranges from baking to savory, and that’s what made me want to learn more about savory working there. Just a tasting menu at Niche was probably the best flavor memory I have, as it shaped who I am as a pastry chef and as a person in our industry today.

What ingredients do you think everyone should keep at home and why? One is simple syrup. You can use it in baking, brushing cakes, to make cocktails. You can put it in so many things. I just make 50/50 sugar in water and bring to a boil. This is my standard simple syrup that I make at home. It’s a useful thing to have around the house to add moisture to something. Or you can put something in the simple syrup and add it to a cake or your coffee. I feel like I have to say vanilla. It’s always good to have, and if you bake a batch of cookies and you don’t have vanilla, you’re screwed. It’s Nielsen-Massey vanilla paste, which is like a thicker version of their vanilla extract. There are the vanilla pods in it, the little flecks. I always have the Red Hot Riplets seasoning. I love it. I put it on potatoes for breakfast, on vegetables when I grill them, and I think it’s really handy if you like things slightly spicy. Not everyone loves Red Hot Riplets, even if you live in St. Louis, it’s almost a crime not to. The seasoning is really awesome and I love using it for anything I can. Just add a little spice to anything, like burritos or grilled meats.

What is your most controversial food opinion? I hate blue cheese. I haven’t had any dishes that I really think blue cheese makes or breaks. I think the food could be great without blue cheese. I love cheese. I like cheese with funk. My husband is a brewer, so I love anything with a yeast profile. But it’s almost too much. I don’t even know how to describe how much I don’t like it. If I see blue cheese on a dish, that might cause me not to order it. I can still order it without. When people order blue cheese to dip their wings in, it’s very weird to me. I think to myself, why don’t you buy ranch, the essential condiment of the Midwest? Why would you choose blue cheese over ranch?

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