Welcome to The Sugar Files, where Eater uncovers and features the city's best pastry talent. In this edition, Amber Otis of Trillium gets the spotlight.
Amber Otis, Trillium [Photo: Adam Larkey]
Amber Otis is the mastermind behind the dessert program at Trillium, the Scandinavian-influenced Ballpark neighborhood restaurant. As an army brat, she has lived all over the country and placed roots in Philadelphia where she got her degree in pastry arts. Over the last several years, Otis has honed her sweets skills in a variety of restaurants including a nuevo Latino joint, a high-end steakhouse, and a cake shop. An opportunity to help a friend open Bocadillo in the Highlands brought her to Denver in 2012— that and the healthier Colorado lifestyle.
Otis has found a home at Trillium where her smart, inventive approach to pastry shines. Her work is intricately plated and offers a variety of textures and flavors. Each plate is balanced by an element that is less sweet— an unsweetened chocolate cracker with a dark chocolate bread pudding, a tart apple gelée with sweet potato dumplings— a welcomed respite from the richness. Even her simple offerings like cardamom cookies and ice cream pop. And the caramel apple pie ice cream alone is worth making a reservation for. Otis talks to Eater about cookie dough, VooDoo Doughnuts, and having to be extra tough.
How did you end up getting into pastry? I knew it was either food or animals. Those are the only two things that I really, really like. Animals are usually really sad when you work with them, so I chose food. I like to make desserts more than I like to play with meat. Everything in the dessert world smells good. I can't say the same for raw meat.
What drew you to work at Trillium? I was really just looking for a job. I stayed here because I really like it. It took me awhile. I was looking at a bad time. I'm from the east coast and I feel like a lot of places are more likely to hire someone from Denver where they can say, oh you worked at this place, I know all these chefs. Thankfully, a lot of the people at Trillium are from Michigan, Iowa, Arizona- different places, and they actually look kindly upon people from the east coast because we work harder. Day one, when I came in to do my stage I just fit in really well with the crew. They're all very goofy. It's a good mix between having fun and making sure we are putting out the best product possible.
Are you the only female in the kitchen? We have a pantry cook who is only here a couple days a week, so pretty much. I always have five big brothers and they have made me cry some days. It's just one of those things, they catch you on a bad day, they decide they want to harass you, and they picked the wrong day. Most days, it's good. I give it back to them pretty well. I have to rein it in from time to time, because the crazy lady comes out once in awhile. I don't know if a lot of females feel this way, but I always felt like I had to try to be harder than I really am, be extra tough, and sometimes it gets me into trouble.
What is your approach to pastry? Ideas just kind of come to me; I try not to push them. When I do have epiphanies, I just write them down so I don't lose them. Definitely something that reminds you of your childhood. I don't like pretentious things. I want somebody to eat something I make and be like, that reminds me of when I was a little kid in the summer, at the beach with my grandma, and she made this. At Trillium, I get inspired by Scandinavia. I'm working on a cookie plate for the holiday season: some traditional Scandinavian-like krumkake and spritz, and probably chocolate chip, just because.
What is the best thing about your job? I have a Pacojet, which is wonderful. I make a lot of ice creams. That has always been my thing. I have a caramel apple pie ice cream on right now— everybody loves it. The first pastry chef I worked under in Philly, Frank Urso, got me really into ice cream. With plated desserts, there are so many components, but with ice cream you can really focus on just this one thing. When I discovered infusions, I thought it was the craziest thing in the world, that you can put anything into an ice cream base and have it taste like it in a day or two -- like making toffee ice cream by letting toffee bits sit in there overnight and then straining it.
What's the most challenging part? Getting everything done on time. It's just me. A lot of times the guys will tell me to dumb things down. When I have a plated dessert in mind, it's got to be the way I see it otherwise I won't be happy with it. I could make things easier by simplifying the desserts, but it challenges me. I get stressed out from time to time.
So, ice cream is your favorite. What is your least favorite thing to make? I get irritated when I make stirred custards- any anglaise or pastry cream- mostly because it's hard for me to stand there. I find I can do twelve things at one time, but if you're making any kind of stirred custard, you have to stand there and stir it, otherwise it will burn.
What are you working on right now? Something pumpkin, involving cocoa nibs is in the works. I'm working on a cheesecake with an oatmeal cookie crust and I want to work oatmeal cookie dough in there somehow. I staged at The Squeaky Bean and Matt did a citrus bowl with shortbread dough and crispy shortbread, and I thought, I have to figure out how to put cookie dough in something. One thing I am really excited about is for Voodoo Doughnuts to open. I'd like to try to work there, at least one day a week. I love to continue to learn, work at different places, and do different things. The most upsetting thing when I moved here was that there was no good donut place. We had this great place in Pennsylvania called Yum Yums. I can't eat as many as I could when I was younger.
Advice to aspiring pastry chefs? It's hard. It's not an easy industry to work in. You have to really love what you do. You are either all in or you're all out, essentially. Because, you're never going to be a millionaire. Every state that I've worked in has a down season, where you're lucky to get 30 hours. It's not a cushy job. If you do love it, then you'll do great. You just have to know it's the right thing for you. Also, eat anything you possibly can. Understand that failure allows you to learn and grow.
Justin Hofmann of Fuel Cafe on Goofy Dancing, Making Pop Tarts, and Loving Fruit Desserts [EDen]
Hooked on Gelato and Sorbet: Fior di Latte Brings the Italian Frozen Treat to Boulder [EDen]
Rioja's Pastry Chef Eric Dale Dishes on Working for Jennifer Jasinski, Ghosts at Rioja and More [EDen]
Elizabeth Mackey of Devil's Food on Pastry Pet Peeves, What She Craves When She's Not at Work, and More [EDen]