3 meals that changed James Beard Award semifinalist Elise Mensing's life

Elise Mensing feels pretty lucky to be a pastry chef. She started out young, baking with her mom, moved on to throwing dinner parties in high school, and, from there, eventually decided to attend culinary school. Now she serves as pastry chef for Brasserie by Niche and has worked for the restaurant group for nearly 15 years. Recently, she was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist for Best Pastry Chef. “I am doing this job that not a lot of people get to do,” Mensing said. “I feel really lucky, and I have been here so long because it’s what I love.” Here, Mensing shares three meals that changed her life.

Her mom’s strawberry shortcake
“The fact that you can be creative with food came from my parents. I came from a big, blended family … [with] a lot of kids, and she was trying to make things work, but she was also a creative person. For every birthday, you got to choose what you wanted, and I always chose strawberry shortcake. It’s still my favorite dessert. I love strawberries, but any fruit dessert with a simple combination of something fresh and delicious and seasonal and adding the good, creamy fat stuff that goes along with it. Simple but good.”

Chocolate-pear cake, Patisserie Blanes ‘Au Petit Prince’
“I went to college, and then I came home and didn’t know what to do next. I did different boring jobs and, after a lot of thinking, decided to attend culinary school in Colorado. I got to go to France for a month and stage at a small pastry shop outside of Avignon. It was a local shop, and it was great – one person made the breads, the other made all the confectioneries. I remember specifically a pear cake that I would make there: It was a chocolate cake layer on the bottom and then a custard center [with] poached pears that you fanned out on top and brûléed. All the textures involved in that and the flavors and the look of it was beautiful. On the Brasserie menu, I’ve done a chocolate dessert with pear. I definitely pull things from my memory, and they make their appearance on the menu.”

Almond semifreddo, Niche
“Right after I came home from cooking school, it was around 2008 or 2009, and I still hadn’t decided if I wanted to do savory or pastry, so I was looking for restaurants that had in-house pastry chefs. At the time, there weren’t very many. Niche was one of them – they had Mathew Rice. I remember that stage because Gerard made a dish for me to try – like I could pick from the menu – and Mathew let me pick a dessert, it was an almond semifreddo with cherries and caramel popcorn. Everything I tried there was so delicious, and that dessert was the clincher, like, ‘I want to work here.’ It was simple and the texture and the flavors – I wouldn’t have come up with that, and it was inspiring. [Rice] was so creative, his magic was figuring out: What makes a dessert really good? Flavor, texture, and behind it there is always a story. Those are the things that I think of when creating a dessert even now.”