Living the Sweet Life

Monica Parpal |
Culinary Personalities

You’ve been the executive pastry chef at Benny’s Chop House for nearly three years now, and we hear you’re also a youth soccer coach and a dad of three. How do you balance it all?

The focus of my life has become balancing my passion for pastry with being a family guy. I’m a soccer coach, I sit on the board of a nonprofit, and volunteer with my wife and three daughters. It really is possible because of the support from Benny’s Chop House. When I have time to recharge my batteries, I can keep my composure and have fun at work.

 

You first learned to cook in your mother’s kitchen. What specific memories do you have of cooking or baking with her?

When I was a kid, I used to prepare store-bought muffin mix for my mom. That was my first experience following a recipe, and the first time I felt the connection and good energy that comes from making food for people.

 

You’ve come a long way from packaged muffin mix. You’ve worked in fine-dining restaurants owned by Charlie Trotter and The Four Seasons, and for retail food manufacturers like Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe. What are some of the differences between working for a major retailer and working for a smaller restaurant?

Whether in fine dining or retail, there are similar issues of quality control and efficiency. At Zelda’s, I developed some desserts that got picked up by Whole Foods. But it was a challenge to move from classic pastry training to assembly-line operation at a factory. That said, moving to Benny’s Chop House was an easy transition. Here, it’s all about creating comfort desserts on a smaller scale.

 

You’re known for pairing seasonal ingredients with nostalgic American flavors. Tell us about that idea of nostalgia and how it plays into your everyday style.

I’ve always been drawn to Americana desserts like strawberry short cake and s’mores. It’s all in the execution. In the past, I’ve done strawberry shortcake with handmade biscuits, super soft whipped cream for sweetness, and incredible strawberries from California. It rings that nostalgic tone, which is why dessert people are emphatically dessert people. They get to treat themselves like they did when they were younger.

 

Can you give us another example?

During a stressful restaurant opening event, I made a chocolate and eucalyptus mint peppermint patty. After tasting it, a man approached me to tell me that it reminded him of playing with his brother among eucalyptus trees in their youth. For him, it triggered a memory of a moment from childhood. That’s one of the things that I really love about making food. You can touch people and make them feel young and happy. I get to do that on a daily basis.

 

What’s your favorite ingredient to work with, or your favorite style of dessert to make?

I love chocolate—chocolate and caramel especially. As simple as caramel can be—the sauce or the chews or the brittle—desserts in that vein are so nostalgic. That’s why I love making turtle desserts and toffee lava cake.

 

You’ve also been lauded for your Banana Cream Pie (specifically, the Chicago Chef’s Top 10 Recipes of 2012). Is this a popular item on the menu?

The Banana Cream Pie and the S’mores Cheesecake are the two biggest sellers, year-round. But in the spring, we’ll start to use more citrus on the menu. I plan to make a Meyer lemon pudding cake accented with a lemon-Greek yogurt sorbet.

 

What do you think makes a dessert successful?

When I make desserts, I really want to go for the “mmm” factor—that sound people make when they eat something you made, and you immediately know they like it. They just make that sound. “Mmm.” It’s so genuine. When I make my desserts, I don’t try to go to extremes, and I’m not overly experimental. I’m not trying to change anyone’s life. I want to remind you of your fondest memory. To remember the good times.

 

What are those good times for you?

As much as I love my art and my craft, my wife is my better half, and my family is the most important thing to me. When I’m working, I occasionally glance down at the yin and yang tattoo on my wrist, and I remember that work-family balance—at least, most of the time.