Life is sweet for Ryan Schmitt. As executive pastry chef at Denver’s Four Seasons, a job he has held for three years, Schmitt oversees a team of seven to come up with all of the hotel’s decadent desserts, from those plated in the hotel’s restaurant, Edge, to muffins and croissants in the morning, treats in guests’ rooms, wedding cakes and banquet sweets.
The New York and New Jersey native (who admits his own weakness for cookies and milk) studied at a vocational culinary high school and then at the Cordon Bleu affiliated Orlando Culinary Academy before taking his pastry-making skills to Boca Raton, Florida, and then California (where he worked at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and then the Beverly Wilshire Hotel).
Schmitt, a married father of an infant daughter, Lily, says he adjusts his desserts to the setting. At Edge, which he defines as a “progressive American steakhouse,” he tries to offer “something people are familiar with, but with a beautiful, modern, elegant presentation. People eat with their eyes first, so you want them to want to take a big scoop of it, not just poke at it with their fork.”
How did you get into the culinary arts? My mom was a good cook, and there was something about cooking I was always curious about. We had a garden, so we’d dig up potatoes, lettuce, green beans, cucumbers and peppers for salads. My mom had lots of cookbooks and home magazines, and I liked flipping through and looking at the pictures; it got my mind wandering.
What was your first restaurant job? In high school, I worked at the Atlantic Bar and Grill in Seaside, New Jersey. I was on pantry duty, making salads. My first day on the job, I was searing eggplants and spilled hot oil all over my hand. I had to go home because the pain was unbearable. The chef said to me afterwards, “I didn’t think you were coming back,” but I told him, “No, I was hellbent on this job.”
And how did you go from eggplants to pastries? Right before I took off for the Orlando Culinary Academy, I decided I wanted to try working in a hotel, so I did a pastry internship at the Trump Taj Majal. I liked it; in restaurants, it’s all “Go, go, go, go—that’s wrong! Do it again!” In a pastry kitchen, everything is done in a more methodical manner. You’re not getting thrown all over the place.
How do you invent new desserts? We change the banquet menu every nine months or so, the restaurant dessert menu every season and the room service dessert menu twice a year. We have a lot of fun coming up with new items. We invented something called a “whoa-nut,” a combination of a doughnut and a waffle. My staff said, “One of the big trends is making doughnuts, then filling them and caramelizing them,” and I had just taken a trip where I had a waffle made out of a sweet batter. So we put those two ideas together into a hybrid filled with vanilla custard, then added poached pears on the side. When customers eat it, they go, “Whoa!”
What’s the recipe for a perfect dessert menu? Here, we’re known for our sticky toffee pudding, so we always have that, plus definitely a chocolate item, a fruity item like a banana cream pie, a gluten-free item like a soufflé cheesecake and then one more that we just created.
What’s the hardest dessert to do well? In my opinion, it’s hardest to do something that is really near and dear to customers, like chocolate cake, because they’re always going to compare it to what they have at home and say, “It’s too dry, it’s too moist, it’s too crumbly.” So we have to think outside the box a little more; we’d never just do a wedge of carrot cake. Ours is three thin layers with candied, poached carrots and little garnishes.
Finally, how do you stay so skinny? It’s a busy life being in a kitchen. You’re always moving. You’re not just sitting at a table eating desserts all day.