You know something is up when you eat a few things at a restaurant, and your favorite dish is the dessert. That happened when I went to AQ awhile back. AQ was opened by chef/owner Mark Liberman in San Francisco toward the end of 2011, has seen it's fair share of love from locals and from the press, and is known for its rotating menu for each of the four seasons along with a rotating restaurant decor to go along with the menu change. And that's not to say that the other food was bad by any stretch — because it was actually all pretty good. But it was this crazy “Popcorn” Dessert that seriously stuck with me like caramel, long after the meal. It consisted of caramelized sponge cake, banana, and marcona almonds, and aside from looking gorgeous, it hit a sweet spot that's difficult with desserts — it wasn't too sweet and it wasn't too light, it was just kind of effortlessly perfect. I was pissed we didn't save room for dessert #2.
Flash forward to my chat with Maya Erickson, the pastry chef there… who I find out is a) actually only twenty-one years old, b) started working for famed chef/pasty chef Elizabeth Falkner when she was sixteen, and c) knew she wanted her own cooking show when she was four. But there's more. Maya wasn't allowed to eat sugary cereals growing up, doesn't love chocolate, likes to put stuff like wood, curry, and pink peppercorns in her dishes, and get this — hardly ever orders dessert herself when she goes out to dinner. So basically… she shot down every assumption I may have had about someone who surrounds themselves in sweets day in and day out.
So, how long have you worked there?
It was recently our one year anniversary in November, we had a little party, totally cool. I started in October of 2011 so I was the opening pastry chef. I was phasing out of another restaurant called Orson, and the old GM of Orson went to be the GM of AQ, as well as a bunch of other people who came over. At first it was literally a mix of people from either Orson or La Foile, now we have some people from Atelier Crenn, etc. Interesting mix of folks.
Can you tell us a little bit about that experience at Citizen Cake and Orson? Highs, lows, etc. Plus, Elizabeth Falkner is kind all over Food Network now.
It really was an incredible experience and Elizabeth really was an inspiring person to work for. She gave me lots of opportunities that maybe other people in her place or of her stature wouldn't have given me. I started at Citizen Cake when I was sixteen years old, something like that. I worked there for a year, for free because it was just… well, I decided I didn't want to go to culinary school, so I was treating that as my culinary education basically. By the end of my time there, I had some of my desserts on the menu and things like that, and then I ultimately transferred to Orson. I then had more opportunities to get my desserts on the menu there, and then she eventually made me the pastry chef. I have a lot of respect for her for trusting me at that level, and for allowing me to be creative and giving me creative freedom, etc. I mean that was coming from someone who is known as a pastry chef. She taught me so, so much about flavors, thinking outside of the box, taking familiar ideas and turning them over on themselves, and seeing what you can actually do with dessert. I think she was kind of the perfect person to work with starting out in the industry, and then once I got to AQ I was able to start defining myself away from her.
Are you still in contact with her even though she's in New York?
I haven't spoken to her in awhile actually. I'm actually going to New York at the end of February, so hopefully I can check out her new spot. I mean, I hear it's cool and honestly, Orson had some pretty fucking awesome pizza so I think she'll do pretty well out there.
You've grown up in San Francisco. How would you say that shaped your view on cooking and what you do?
Was born and bread in San Francisco, I'm a rare breed. I came from a very… spoiled culinary upbringing I guess you can say. Our neighbor had this empty city lot basically, that he gave to my mom a long time ago, to garden in. So I grew up with a full garden… tomatoes, green beans, fava beans, stuff like that. So I grew up very connected to where food comes from. I guess I was kind of stereotypical San Francisco in that way. Never allowed to eat fast food, never allowed to eat sugary cereal… my mom literally made me eat garden tomatoes instead.
I can only imagine what I would have done of my mom tried to force me to eat a tomato instead of some sour candy.
I totally resented that growing up, that I couldn't eat Cap'n'Crunch like everyone else. But… I am thankful for the way my mom raised me. We would watch cooking shows together, and when I was four, I decided I wanted to have my own cooking show that would feature me making apple pie, meatloaf, chicken teriyaki.
That's a pretty eclectic menu for a four year old.
I mean, food really has always been an integral part of my life, throughout my childhood. So to me what I'm doing now makes sense.
Was your mom a cook too?
My mom was a founding member of a dance company called ODC here in San Francisco, but she cooked constantly. As did my godmother, who was also an amazing cook. So we would have these epic Thanksgiving dinners, epic Christmas dinners, etc. They were incredible cooks. And actually now that I think about it, my mom did have a cake business at one point, called Choreographer Cakes where she would make like, crazy volcano cakes, under water cakes, stuff like that.
Something tells me that you had some pretty fucking awesome birthday cakes growing up…
It's true. She did make me the most amazing birthday cakes ever. I remember this one time she made me this secret garden cake. She carved out this pond in the middle of the cake, and lined it with seran wrap, and then filled it with water. Then she lined the wall with tea cookies, etc. And another time I had this volcano cake made out of chocolate, and she filled the volcano with dry ice and then poured water on it, so it was like steaming… with unicorns around it. And maybe mermaids. She was crazy. In the best possible way.
Man. And I thought my GI Joe birthday cakes were awesome growing up.
Haha. Where I came from it all makes sense, I guess.
How have you seen the Bay Area dining scene evolve since you've been here? You've actually grown up here, come up in it. Where it's at, where it's going, etc.
When I first started, admittedly I was very young and wasn't quite “in the scene” like I am now. I was just “working in the kitchen.” But the biggest thing for sure is that “farm to table” has totally blown up outside of the Bay — local, sustainable, simple food but done impeccably, that really showcased ingredients, produce, where the food came from, etc. In terms of San Francisco, the biggest change is that people didn't really used to be receptive to modernist techniques and avant garde cuisine in San Francisco. It was there in New York and Chicago, and obviously Spain, but it wasn't quite as accepted here. And I think that was the problem with Orson actually, Elizabeth wanted to do avant garde fine dining. And she just opened it a year or so too early because it wasn't trendy yet. What I love about AQ actually, is that people are understanding that you can actually do both. You go do really seasonable, really local, but you can do that in a really creative, avant garde way. I think that's the way the food world should be, those things don't have to be exclusive of each other.
I like the way you guys do it there. It's good to have options for people who maybe want to try that new kind of more out-there stuff, but not having to spend an arm and a leg on a 1,000 course menu. You know, people who just want to sample some shit. A couple things. It's more approachable.
That's what really intrigued me about AQ initially I think. The idea of doing approachable fine dining, innovative food, at 7th & Mission, but making food that is good but different, and fairly priced. It's what makes our restaurant so special. It's allowing people to see different kinds of food that they might not have access to at Saison, or Benu, or whatever.
Speaking of 7th & Mission… what else is actually over there? I know 5th & Mission can be straight up Zombie Town.
I lived at 7th & Folsom for awhile… and there used to be nothing there. But now there's some stuff. Heaven's Dog, Radius, De La Paz, AQ… and maybe some other stuff. Not that many of us still. Yes we still have bouts with crackheads sometimes, but it's still exciting. In a weird way, it makes dining at AQ more interesting.
As a pastry chef, what's your process exactly in terms of coming up with new dessert ideas? What is the interplay between you and Mark Liberman in terms of finding stuff to add to the menu?
My process of inspiration has kind of changed dramatically from the Orson days. There we would name our desserts kind of like cocktails. Silly stuff. I would come up with names for desserts and work from there. What's cool about AQ is drawing on the inspiration from the seasons. I can draw on familiar flavors. Especially with fall and winter, there are so many tastes & aromas that people are familiar with for that time of the year. It's fun to take that, and take people preconceived notions and turn it around on people. Like I have my version of a sweet potato pie on the menu. Mine is a sweet potato custard with a brown butter cracker and pumpkin pie spice streusel. But then I put pureed marshmallow with it. It's unexpected but it totally works, and fits the flavor profile. Or like, wood ice cream with the chocolate dessert. I want people to think of sitting by the fire, falling leaves, etc. That's the fun with these couple seasons.
Wood ice cream? That must be the dessert you call “Barks and Roots.” That's one thing I've noticed after going in, you use a lot of stuff that people might not usually associate with dessert. Wood, curry, roasted soy beans, etc.
With the roasted soy bean dessert — my mother is Japanese, and there's something called kinako that's roasted soybean flour that's usually used to coat mochi. So it's completely in my head as a dessert thing, probably cause the way I was raised. Didn't even think about it when I put it on the menu because it just made so much sense to me. I think when people get it, they are pleasantly surprised that it isn't like, edemame. It's nutty & rich and actually goes really well with dessert. I think playing with savory ingredients, that people don't expect from dessert, is totally fun. You have so many options, and you can really change somebody's perception.
What have been some of your favorite desserts you've created thus far at AQ? I gotta give you props for the Popcorn dessert, it was my favorite thing of the entire meal when I was there.
Aw, thanks! I think where my head goes in terms of creative process is like either, super super light & super clean/palette cleansing desserts… or, super fat kid desserts, stoner desserts. I'm not very good at finding that happy medium. I need to work on that.
What's the vibe like in the kitchen there?
I have never worked in an open kitchen before, so that was kind of a shocking experience initially. I thought I was going to be really bad at it, because there's people watching you, I have a foul mouth, etc. But it's actually really fun, you see how people enjoy your dishes, you see your finished product, etc. But in terms of kitchen crew, it's one of the best I've ever worked with. Everyone is close knit, it's like a family, it really is. We hang out on our days off, stuff like that. It's a small crew… so we have to work incredibly hard, but I'm really honored to be working with the people I do. We have lots of incredible young cooks who I think are going to have bright futures in this industry. Very driven, talented, and excited to do the food we're doing.
When it comes to dessert making, if you had to choose one, what is the one ingredient that is most important to you? Could be your favorite, or just something you find absolutely essential across the board.
I think the combination of sugar and salt is the most important. I don't think salt is recognized quite as much in pastry, but the balance of sweet and saltiness is what can make a good dessert. Like chocolate is always better when you add salt to it, it brings out the flavor. Even sorbets and ice creams, you add some salt to it, it brings out all the flavors you're trying to get, brightens it up. So in a way it's as important as sugar as it really can kick up your flavors and help to showcase what you're doing. Beyond that, there's some silly stuff that I try to put on every dessert menu, and the Chef has to reel me back in. Like pink peppercorns, or absinthe, or tea. Stuff like that.
I fully support you trying to put pink peppercorns and absinthe in stuff.
Haha. I really do try to put them on pretty often.
What's the best dessert you've ever made? Your masterpiece, your favorite, etc.
The most popular dessert I've done was at Orson, it was called the Breakfast of Champions. It was cinnamon ice cream, toast ice cream, swirled together with bourbon caramel sauce, and more bourbon carmel sauce whipped cream and fried french toast. That was on the menu there from when I started until when I left, and it's my favorite because it's really really silly. And because it was inspired by the fact that I wasn't allowed to have sugary cereal when I was little. It's like the Cinnamon Toast Crunch that I would sneak and eat at my friend's house growing up.
Your mom never found out??
I'm sure my mom knew. I ate Fruit Loops too. It was a big deal. Super naughty.
What about something at AQ?
That would have to be the Pink Pearl Dessert. Raspberry meringue with olive oil mousse, green chartreuse gel and pink pearl apples with pink pearl sorbert. Pink pearl apples are special. So delicious and they have such a short season, I wanted to put them on the menu for like the month that I could. That's an example of a dessert I would actually eat.
You mean there are some desserts you don't like or wouldn't eat?
I actually have trouble, sometimes, thinking of chocolate desserts to be honest.
That must be blasphemous in some kind of pastry heaven.
But it's because I never ever order chocolate desserts. The flavors of the Pink Pearl Dessert are what I like, and I think that dessert showcases how I've evolved as a pastry chef.
Makes sense. So, aside from AQ, what other places have desserts that stand out?
I had a really excellent meal at Commonwealth, in SF. I had a couple of really fun desserts there… [Long Pause]… I have to admit… I don't really order dessert that often.
Ah-ha. The truth is out!
It's kind of terrible, isn't it? I feel like I should… but I just never do.
I've always felt that pastry chefs sometimes get the shaft at restaurants, in terms of you know, people being too full for dessert, people not wanting to drop a little more cash for another dish, or whatever the reason. You can really miss out on something special.
That is kind of unfortunate. You definitely notice it. Some people don't even bother looking at the dessert menu. Which is fine of course. It's OK.
Not everyone has a sweet tooth, I guess.
Speaking of that, I am a huge sucker for ice cream. There is a place called Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous in the Dogpatch area of San Francisco and they do awesome ice cream. Jasmine tea ice cream, fernet ice cream… really good stuff. A good combo of creative and traditional yet impeccable.
And last but certainly not least — if your desserts made music or were in a band, what kind of music would they make?
Oh gosh. Hmm. I think they'd have to be something like The White Stripes or The Black Keys, something like that. Guitar Wolf, something that's punky and bluesy, but fun and familiar.