Fourteen years ago Dalia Jurgensen was learning the ropes of being a pastry cook. On her first night at Nobu, one of the hottest New York City restaurants, she was experiencing the hectic pace of working inside a kitchen where staff would shout orders and warnings and make fancy dishes that look and taste good. Yet those eye-opening first moments didn’t faze this newbie because she was working in a profession that she always wanted to be a part of.
“When I was in the kitchen I thought it was exciting that first day,” says Jurgensen, who is now the executive pastry chef at Dressler in Williamsburg. “The whole service aspect was weirdly similar to my experiences in high school and college where I worked in ice cream stores in the boardwalk. I somehow managed to be in this hot, very good restaurant.”
The story of that first night at Nobu and some awkward moments along the way (like the time she overcooked the chocolate genoise, or when she accidentally burned a hole through a pot) are just some of the moments told in her book Spiced. Since then Jurgensen has emerged as top-flight chef and culinary expert through determination and confidence in her abilities. She has worked at subsequent fine New York restaurants such as La Cote Basque, Tonic and Veritas.
Jurgensen says she had always wanted to write: she formerly worked in book publishing before she decided to switch careers. She was taking a writing workshop around the time she became a pastry chef in 1998, and then got in touch with a literary agent. “She suggested if I want to sell a book that I focus on something that has to do with restaurants,” Jurgensen recalls.
Spiced offers a glimpse of what life is like inside a restaurant: the long hours and the demands of fulfilling orders; being a female chef surrounded by sometimes chauvinistic men; the skill and precision involved in preparing intricate desserts and dishes; the relationship between cooks and waiters; and how a new restaurant’s survival depends so much on a great review from The New York Times.
“When I worked in an office, it was much more homogeneous,” she says. “There was a lot of politeness. But in a kitchen it was sort of a free-for-all. It felt much more real. Even if someone was horrible and you hated him or her, at least they were real and you could be yourself as long as you did your job.”
Originally from New Jersey, Jurgensen was interested in cooking since the age of five when she helped her mother out in their kitchen; she also saw cooking shows on PBS hosted by Julia Child and Martin Yan. When she got bored with her book publishing job she decided to enroll in a culinary school based on a TV ad she saw. Around that same time a friend of hers told her that Nobu was looking for someone to fill in as a pastry cook. Jurgensen interviewed for the job and got on board.
“I didn’t realize that I could just get a job at a restaurant,” she says, “so that going to a culinary school was a necessary step I thought I had to take to get into a restaurant. I think it was a good first step for me because it put me in that direction. It forced me to take my decision seriously.”
The author describes in her book some of the elegant desserts she prepared in the places she worked at, such as a “pomegranate bombe” and a “chocolate espresso custard tart served with a “Cremisicle” sherbet.” Her favorite dessert to make is ice cream. “I like playing with flavors,” she explains. “I’m not a huge dessert eater, but I do like ice cream. Ice cream is a good base to play around with other textures and flavors. It’s very simple but it could be very satisfying,
Jurgensen’s new book arrives at a time of cooking’s popularity with the mainstream, especially reality kitchen shows featuring chefs like Gordon Ramsay of FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen. She prefers watching Bravo’s Top Chef . “What I like about Top Chef is that a lot of people are good cooks,” she says. “Being a good chef is about more than making good food. It’s about being organized; being able to do it every day; and being able to do it on different days with different ingredients.”
After working in several restaurants in Manhattan throughout her culinary career, Jurgensen currently works at Dressler, located in Williamsburg where she has also been a resident for 14 years.
We’re sort of the nicest restaurant in this part of town, so that’s an advantage for us,” she says. “You have an enormous amount of quality, and yet you have this relaxed, vaguely hipster thing…where you can get food and not have to have tablecloths and sit up straight. I’m much more interested in good food and have a good time [type of dining].”
Jurgensen says she plans to continue writing on subjects such as food and travel. As for how her past experiences in the kitchen has shaped her own life, she replies: “No matter what it is that you do, if you start out not being so good at it, if you keep giving it, you’ll get better at it. The biggest thing is not be discouraged and to have faith that you will improve.”
Dalia Jurgensen’s book Spiced is now available in bookstores. For more information on Jurgensen visit her Web site www.myspicedlife.com