Tiffany MacIsaac: Indispensible

(by Corbo Eng)

The Game of Life game board at Buzz Bakery - Alexandria

The Game of Life game board at Buzz Bakery – Alexandria

It’s Buzz Bakery acting as lounge that offers board games; and, frankly, it’s a nice touch that gives patrons a chance to sit, relax, and enjoy each other’s company. In our case, we played Milton Bradley’s classic, The Game of Life; and, time—flying, as it does, in the presence of fun—still, allowed us to linger. However, time quickly elapsed with spirited banter that mixed a variety of topics (sex, politics, sports, the unfolding circumstances of the game itself, and, seemingly, everything having to do with the game’s obtuse rules) until my turn came again and, spinning the center wheel, I landed on a space that read: “Eccentric Aunt Leaves 100 Cats. Pay $10,000.” It was a surreal but punitive development that made me thankful that I had that key lime pie on my plate as consolation. Taking another bite and smacking my lips, I couldn’t wait for the next consoling forkful.

Nutella IceBox Pie (left) and Key Lime Pie (right)

Nutella IceBox Pie (left) and Key Lime Pie (right)

Tiffany MacIsaac’s desserts can definitely have that kind of effect. She creates them with the vigor and passion that’s commensurate with her role as the executive pastry chef of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group—a role that has cast her as the mastermind behind Buzz Bakery (with locations in Alexandria, Arlington, and DC) but, also, BIJOUX Patisserie, a special occasion’s arm focusing on custom cakes. In addition, she’s the creative force behind the doughnuts at GBD (Golden Brown Delicious), NRG’s fried chicken and doughnut shop in Dupont Circle. If that weren’t enough, she oversees the dessert programs for NRG’s roster of restaurants, serving as the de facto pastry chef for Vermilion, Tallula, Rustico, and Birch & Barley among others, where her breads and desserts grace the tables and have elevated the dining experiences at these establishments during her almost five years at the helm. Only a person of indispensible skill could pull all of this off—to oversee so many entities and to execute a vision that incorporates cookies, cakes, pies, and doughnuts at one end of the spectrum to James Beard Award-worthy restaurant desserts that trample on the boundary between art and food at the other. I’ve thought many times, “What can this woman not do?”

But, Tiffany MacIsaac is stepping down from her position in mid-June. It’s surprising news. It’s not that chefs—pastry chefs included—don’t desire change or should shun new challenges; but, to me, at least, looking at it from afar, her position with NRG appeared to be a dream job for someone like her whose talents and breadth of abilities matched the enormity of her role. If not a match made in heaven, the union was made somewhere pretty damn close to it.

the bread board at Birch & Barley (with Pretzel Roll at bottom right)

the bread board at Birch & Barley (with Pretzel Roll at bottom right)

One night, at Birch & Barley, which serves as MacIsaac’s grandest stage, I experienced something close to heaven myself. Dessert was set down in front of me—in that interval when the plates had been cleared and there was nothing on the table other than a discarded napkin or a half-empty glass. Time slowed down at this point and, still savoring the food that had come before (including the bread board, which included MacIsaac’s noted pretzel roll) I wasn’t immediately cognizant that there was more. That moment—partly silent—suddenly, was broken. But, more importantly, there it was: Tiffany MacIsaac’s lemon parfait, with muted pinks and yellows, on a plate as white as a wedding gown, startling me to attention.

the Lemon Parfait from Birch & Barley

the Lemon Parfait from Birch & Barley

It wasn’t a “parfait” in the commonplace sense—not a work of ice cream, fruit, jello, whipped cream, and other assorted ingredients layered in a tall glass or cup. Rather, it was a thing of refinement—a parfait more glowing and forward thinking than mundane and familiar, something as lovely as a spring day and comprised of a prolate spheroid of rhubarb sorbet, a rectangle of white chocolate genoise, and cylinders of lemon mousse dressed with organic garnishes. If it weren’t perishable and subject to melting, it would have fit right into an exhibit of modernist sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum.

My lemon-radar, calibrated and fined-tuned from years of savoring lemony confections, was beeping out of control. Diving in, the constituent parts, plated horizontally, tasted like the perfect marriage of sweetness and tartness with mostly creamy and small cake-y interludes and abrupt but intermittent contrasts giving way to a bite of edible flowers. My manly pork and beer-centric meal, something that Birch & Barley is acclaimed for, had segued into a dessert of plush, ethereal attributes that would have melted even Hercules’ heart.

the interior at Buzz Bakery - Alexandria

the interior at Buzz Bakery – Alexandria

the hanging lights at Buzz Bakery - Arlington

the hanging lights at Buzz Bakery – Arlington

That plush, ethereal quality, of course—when manifested at Buzz—is grounded by its color scheme of peachy and vibrant pinks and confident orange hues that play collaboratively with minty green tones and unexpectedly potent strains of white. Buzz’s distinctive signage, with those colors imbedded into four circles spelling out its name, is just one example. Bold use of color continues, at the Alexandria store, in its saturated carpet that boasts a sexily Venus geometric pattern of magenta, red, pink, orange, baby blue, and an array of lustful browns that evoke the insistent pleasure of desserts. At the Arlington location, the same and associated colors pick up on the vibe. But, most noteworthy, however, are the spherical light fixtures that hang from the ceiling like giant dandelion bulbs. Made from a dense series of fluffy protrusions, the light that they emit is almost incidental given how it’s so spectacularly delivered.

cookies on display at Buzz Bakery - Arlington

cookies on display at Buzz Bakery – Arlington

The wares for sale at each location only match the pleasing, incisive décor. Everything appears perfectly baked—perfectly shaped, frosted, glazed, loved, packaged, and labeled. With brilliant hues (cerulean, chartreuse, cherry blossom pink), the colors enliven their products and make me want to buy each and every luscious item. The cookies, which are bundled up in small bunches, wrapped in clear plastic pouches, and closed with an eye-catching, color-soaked ribbon (along with the occasional Rice Krispy and macaroon treat thrown in for good measure) strike the most inviting pose. A neglected subset of food porn—pastry porn—as represented by them, is most emphatically on display. I’m hooked.

the Russian Tea Cookies

the Russian Tea Cookies

Sipping a cup of tea and having undressed a bunch of Russian tea cookies—made of shortbread, studded with pecans, and dusted with powdered sugar—a few quick bites were enough to distract me. My companions must have shaken their heads in disgust. “Not again.” I turned the wheel, moved my playing piece, a blue car—now sporting three children (two pink pegs and one blue one)—and landed on a life-altering space that left me with one $500 bill: “Fire! House Burns! Pay $20,000 If Not Insured.” Of course, being uninsured, my house—and, presumably, everything in it—burned. Go figure.

Memories, generally, are elastic—fading in and out of consciousness as they are triggered by some event or stimuli. Food memories aren’t any different. As I sat there absentmindedly and mentally drifting away from the game for a moment—even as my cohorts laughed and as tens of thousands of dollars exchanged hands in front me—the smoldering mess of my last turn, with burning embers flickering in the foreground, I could see a marshmallow on a stick and, then, a s’more…which through the narrow lens of time, blended seamlessly into Tiffany MacIsaac’s version of one, called a S’mores Brownie Terrine, which I had enjoyed a few weeks earlier at Tallula (or was it EatBar), NRG’s symbiotic restaurant and gastropub in Arlington.

the S'Mores Brownie Terrine from Tallula/EatBar

the S’Mores Brownie Terrine from Tallula/EatBar

MacIsaac’s reinterpretation, once my mind’s eye adjusted to it, became quite clear as if it had been chaperoned through puberty into adulthood. Gone was the cumbersome Graham cracker sandwich, the mush of roasted marshmallow, and that slab of Hershey’s chocolate bar inside. In its stead was a dessert that was smartly reimagined as a terrine (a reference to that porcine loaf of forcemeat that only a man or woman could duly appreciate)—familiarly rectangular but with a deconstructed cast of s’more and brownie parts filling out the assemblage instead of porky ingredients. Brandy and lambic were incorporated into the mix with plumped cherries and Graham cracker dust that topped off a scoop of accompanying ice cream. MacIsaac definitely redefined the taste and texture of the original for the adult palate. As a pastry chef with a keen sense of both comfort and sophistication, it was a quintessentially Tiffany MacIsaac move. “People have fond memories of childhood favorites,” MacIsaac once said as a guest on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, a local program on NPR. “But, later, they want the grown-up, more refined version.” She’s the expert caretaker of that approach to desserts if there ever were one.

the Rhubarb Cobbler from The Evening Star

the Rhubarb Cobbler from The Evening Star

Even when taking on classic desserts, ones that don’t necessarily draw on childhood memories so much as tradition, MacIsaac doesn’t skip a beat either. Take her seasonally inspired rhubarb cobbler as an example. Offered at The Evening Star, NRG’s original restaurant in Alexandria, the affirming, generous cobbler (advertised for “two” but which could easily serve four) consists of pleasingly fresh, tart pieces of rhubarb topped with golden brown crème fraîche biscuits. A side of complementary ginger ice cream with crème anglaise and strips of candied ginger complete the dish. Working within the bounds of The Evening Star’s Southern-inspired menu, it’s the kind of dessert—respecting time-honored principles—that doesn’t need to greatly retool the established template. Rather, the tinkering is skillfully restrained given what MacIsaac could do to absolutely wow us at the end of meal. But, the cobbler absolutely scores. Sometimes, there’s no need for a gratuitous dunk when a 12-foot jumper will do the trick.

the Breakfast Brioche, Cinnamon Bun, and Raisin-Spiced Apple Scone

the Breakfast Brioche, Cinnamon Bun, and Raisin-Spiced Apple Scone

Of course, after Tiffany MacIsaac leaves her post, her cookies, parfaits, s’mores, cobblers (and other creations) could surely remain. Her team of pastry sous chefs and assistants, guided by her recipes and trained to bake as proxies in her absence—such as during a normal day when she’s running to and fro between NRG sites—could continue churning out her familiar desserts as they’ve always done. But, that probably won’t happen. A new pastry chef, once onboard, will undoubtedly want to place his or her stamp on Buzz and the dessert menus at the restaurants. This will include revamping the present offerings and introducing new items while, eliminating some, if not a lot, of the old. Most pastry chefs would want to do that. It’s just that I’d hate to walk into Buzz one day in the future to see those colors that I’ve come to love be replaced—however, unlikely—by a new design scheme with dark or unfamiliar tones and with MacIsaac’s signature line-up of treats and her distinctive pastry porn all crumbled to pieces.

the waffles at Buzz Bakery - Arlington

the waffles at Buzz Bakery – Arlington

On a recent stretch of rainy days, the sun had, seemingly, shriveled up and gone permanently to bed. It was on one of those days in the morning that the sun, peeking out from its covers, was as gray as a rock. The only reminders of the bright blue sky were the placards in the display case and the labels pressed onto and the ribbons tied around my favorite cookies at Buzz. That morning, I dined on a breakfast brioche, cinnamon bun, raisin-spiced apple scone, and an order of waffles (with my usual tea of choice and some coffee to boot). Even with a few of us eating, it was simultaneously a lot…and not a lot—in a confusing way that the parameters of a dreary day had no problem embracing. Two sips into my tea and two bites into my waffles, I was unexpectedly transported back to a moment, three years earlier, when I visited Birch & Barley, for the first time, for brunch—on a sunny Sunday.

the bittersweet chocolate, toffee-bacon, and lemon poppy seed doughnuts from Birch & Barley

the bittersweet chocolate, toffee-bacon, and lemon poppy seed doughnuts from Birch & Barley

The garage door at the front of the restaurant was rolled up, and the light was bright and thick. I had ordered chicken and waffles—a brunch favorite. Kyle Bailey, the executive chef and Tiffany MacIsaac’s husband, nailed the fried chicken to match the hype. The dark meat, as I remembered it, was moist, tender, and crispy as sin. The waffles were huge, crusty, and elegant; but, somehow, like unsung heroes, Tiffany MacIsaac’s trio of doughnuts that day—of graduated sizes—more than anything else, stole the show and lingered most: first, a bittersweet chocolate and, second, a toffee-bacon doughnut…and, then, that big lemon poppy seed one, shaped as a hollow square, that was so lush and airy that it floated away, in a dream, like a cloud.

The promise wasn’t empty. When GBD opened last spring, MacIsaac’s talent for making doughnuts, of which we had only enjoyed in such small scale, was finally fully showcased. The new venture provided her with a bigger platform where she could sell a range of artisanal doughnuts, either as items off of the sit-down menu or to go. Her repertoire, as a result, stretched considerably beyond Birch & Barley’s brunch offerings. As a pastry chef, she had extended her craft and stretched her reach beyond baked goods and desserts and beyond bakeries and restaurants. The tres leches and maple bacon bourbon doughnuts and apple fritters, on a rotating daily menu, were just some of the highlights as GBD opened. At this point, Tiffany MacIsaac was, arguably, at the top of her game. She’d conquered it all.

inside GBD

inside GBD (with the doughnut menu hanging overhead)

Yet, looking back, her conquest really was an unlikely one. Growing up in the remote but idyllic island of Maui in Hawaii, MacIsaac—surrounded by the ocean and knowing nothing of the pastry arts—was, physically and inspirationally, as far away from Washington, DC and her eventual career path as possible. But, yearning for more when she was eighteen, she moved, like many who seek for something big and new, to New York City. That’s when her journey began—as she started humbly as a hostess at Michael’s, a restaurant in Mid-Town Manhattan—which eventually led to her enrolling at the Institute of Culinary Arts and graduating in 2002. From there, she entered the fray of the New York dining scene and became a pastry assistant at Union Square Café where she laid a solid foundation and honed her skills before eventually landing her first official pastry chef assignments at upscale Cru, where she gained renown for her cheesecake, ice creams, and sorbets and, then, Allen & Delancey in 2007 where she developed her first bread program and immersed herself in making refined desserts—a talent, which she took with her to DC in 2009 when she, along with husband, Kyle Bailey, helped open Birch & Barley.

the doughnut case at GBD

the doughnut case at GBD

Now, after an impressive run—and, quite literally, writing the history of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group in the process—she’s moving on. I don’t know what Tiffany MacIsaac, moving on as she is, is going to do next…where the cloud that she’s riding on will take her. Only time will tell. But, clearly, she’s in a contemplative mood. In her blog, Open Kitchen, a site that MacIsaac has maintained since 2011—which includes tips, musings, and recipes—she posted an entry called, “Pastry Problems” where she candidly reacted to an article by critic, Adam Platt, entitled, “Why This is the Dark Age for Dessert,” where Platt (writing about the dining scene in New York City but, certainly, with generalizable claims for his readers) decried the current state of restaurant desserts—claiming, in part, that they have become largely unimaginative (with innovative and original creations having been supplanted by a litany of “prefabricated layer cakes” and “pre-made puddings”).

Tiffany MacIsaac (from Munchies TV)

Tiffany MacIsaac (from VICE/Munchies)

MacIsaac, being the conscientious and dedicated pastry chef that she is, reacted strongly to the article—calling her reaction “visceral.” Deliberating on her career and pondering the vicissitudes of her industry (like the fact that many restaurants have dissolved their pastry departments altogether) but, as well, pointing out just how valuable and unquantifiable having that perfect dessert is to completing a first-rate dining experience, she reluctantly agreed with Platt—while, in the space of a few paragraphs, also lamenting the fact that she didn’t work under a mentoring pastry chef for a longer period of time than she did. It’s an understandable sentiment when viewed through the prism of her own private insecurities or through the lens of her soul (which we, of course, aren’t privy to)—but, from a public vantage point, from having enjoyed so many of her desserts and witnessing her career unfold as it has, it’s hard to see any deficits in Tiffany MacIsaac’s talent and skills.

Indeed, what is she going to do next? I don’t know; but, in that same blog post, she suggests an answer to that question, an answer that not only ensures the ongoing health of the pastry arts and her career but that draws upon her immeasurable will to achieve. “We all have hits and misses in this business,” she writes. “But, we have to get better at being indispensible…” About her craft, she goes on to assert, “I’d be hard pressed to come up with something I’d be more willing to climb a mountain to save.” How poignant her words are.

After flirting with bankruptcy and, finally, finishing that slice of key lime pie, I landed on another spot—a spot that, very well, ensured that I’d recover and compete for the win. This time, alert and wiping my mouth, I could read the words aloud, “Climb Mt. Everest. Collect $50,000.” Knowing what I know now…I just wish Tiffany MacIsaac, ready for such a challenge, had been playing in my place.


Copyright 2014 (Corbo Eng). All rights reserved.

All photos by Corbo Eng unless otherwise stated.

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