Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee.
Change is again on the horizon at Empire State South. Executive pastry chef Melanie Durant has accepted an offer to launch a pastry program at Fig in Charleston, where she’ll extend the eatery’s award-winning seasonal and local approach to the dessert menu. Durant led the ESS pastry team following Cynthia Wong’s departure in 2012, who moved to London taking the beloved phatty cakes with her. Ryan Smith, who previously ran the kitchen, will step in as the temporary pastry chef.
In the short time that Durant has spearheaded the program, she gained national recognition and a following all her own. Food & Wine honored her as one of the Best New Pastry Chefs of 2013, and guests still pine over her cocoa farro brioche pudding with Cognac-tinged toffee sauce and malted milk ice cream. Even ESS visitors who might never save room for dessert would be familiar with Durant’s offerings: she’s also been responsible for the sweet and savory goodies available at the restaurant’s coffee shop.
Durant starts at Fig in early June, which gives her just enough time to help bring her replacement up to speed. I spoke with Durant about her move and also with Smith about his unexpected upcoming role.
Melanie, this is becoming quite the pattern at ESS: Become executive pastry chef, have a baby, then move away.
Durant: I didn’t plan it like this!
Why make this move now?
Durant: We go to Charleston two to three times per year, and my husband’s family is nearby in Savannah. I’ve always wanted to raise our kid near the ocean—playing in the marsh, catching crabs, eating oysters all day. We’ve always talked about it, and then this opportunity came up.
What do you like about Fig?
Durant: It’s so simplified and focused. I’ve learned a lot about that approach here at Empire. But it will be a slower pace—just dinner service.
I think I’m just now realizing how huge your role is at Empire.
Durant: It’s a huge program. [Cynthia] Wong built it, and we’ve just expanded on it. There’s no way I could have figured it out without Wong’s teachings. You’ve got bread, breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch. Snacks, scones and biscuits. We have the candy program. Cheese. Everyday, just as I’m preparing to leave, I realize there are 5-10 other things I need to go back and do.
How will your approach change at Fig? I know you love to build off of herbs and vegetables.
Durant: I don’t know yet! That’s the fun challenge, to kind of create a style for myself and find a niche.
I feel like we were just recovering from losing Wong’s phatty cakes. Now we must say farewell to your peanut butter bonbons.
Durant: I’m not sure how easy it will be to find someone that will do everything you have to do here, then temper chocolate. It might not happen [laughs].
So Chef, whose brilliant idea was this?
Smith: Hugh [Acheson] texted me to see if I had suggestions of who may be a good fit. I responded by saying, “When do I start?” Hugh was like, “Ha, that’d be hilarious.” I told him I was serious. I sat down with him and Josh [Hopkins, ESS executive chef] and we talked about it.
The timing is pretty awesome.
Smith: Yeah, we’re not sure when Staplehouse is going to open. We’re hoping four months, but it could be longer. And it gives Empire some leeway to find the right fit. Part of my role will be to help them build up their pastry team.
When do you start?
Smith: I already have. I’ll be part-time for the next three weeks, working around other things. And I wanted to have a couple days per week with Melanie. I’m re-familiarizing myself with the systems. This role forces a lot of organization. They’ve done such a great job creating awesome templates.
Have you always been a pastry man?
Smith: I love making desserts, but I’ve never been responsible for them before. When I first started cooking in Atlanta I was in pastry at Canoe. Drew Van Leuvan and I did pastry at Toast. But I’ve never had to create a menu for a full service. I want to get in there to see what the day-to-day feels like. And I really like working with Josh. I enjoyed the last month I had in the kitchen with him, when he was first coming onboard.
I guess we’re safe in assuming the ESS pastry mojo will skip you, and you won’t get pregnant and move away.
Smith: As horrible an image as that is, it wouldn’t be so bad if we gave birth to Staplehouse. But I’m looking forward to this. There are so many places in this program where you can place your creativity.