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Hot Pastry Bee Joanna Powell on Cake Sculptures, Loving Milk Chocolate, and More

Welcome to The Sugar Files, where Eater uncovers and features the city's best pastry talent. In this edition, Joanna Powell gets the spotlight.

Aion.jpgAn early love with sculpture is what drew Joanna Powell to a career in the pastry arts. After graduating from the pastry program at the Culinary School of the Rockies at 21 years-old and decorating massive amounts of cake at King Soopers, Powell landed a head-pastry position at Café Aion in 2010. She continues to work there part-time, putting out seasonally-inspired pastries, among the best in Boulder and beyond. In addition, Powell works at Beehive where she mixes it up with shifts behind the bar and cooking on the line. Most recently, this busy pastry whizz has added Fior di Latte's to her work week- as the quality-obsessed gelato company is slated to open a bakery-meets-gelato café on Pearl Street later this year. Powell talked to Eater about perfectionism, talking to her dough, and secretly loving milk chocolate.

How did you get into pastry? In high school, I started doing a lot of pottery and sculpture and I loved making things with my hands. I wasn't quite sure how to make money with that. I started cake decorating at a grocery store just to kind of start with the sculpting of cakes and stuff- Food Network challenges were big back then with the big cake sculptures. I really liked it, so I went to pastry school and figured out a lot of stuff behind it. Amy DeWitt (owner of the late Cream Puffery) was my chef instructor. She is amazing. I love her.

You've been a pastry chef at Café Aion since 2010 --and you also work shifts at Beehive. How long have you been working with Fior di Latte? I started in December. They have a shop opening on Pearl Street this year. It's going to be fresh gelato everyday and pastries, pastries, pastries and an Italian coffee bar.

What does the future hold for you there? Right now, I'm just testing out recipes. We'll have all sorts of opera cakes, layered cakes, and cream puffs, and mille feuille and all sorts of stuff. Hopefully once it opens, I'll be in production all the time, and I may get to work front of the house too. I like talking to people about the product. I'll barista, especially now that I'm learning it over at Beehive.

Do customers ever rub you the wrong way? Well, I'm working on it. I think it's fun. It's really rewarding to make pastries and then talk to people about them and see them be happy. It's something you miss out on if you're stuck in the kitchen. It's definitely breaking out of my shell a little bit.

What's the best thing about your job? I love waking up in the morning. For me, it's starting when I sift the flour into a bowl, it's like, what are you going to be? In a couple of hours, it's fun to think it's going to be something so different, depending on what I add to it.

What's the hardest thing about your job? Keeping the perfectionism in check. There's always a point where you just have to let it go. Nobody is going to notice that one tiny piece of your tart shell is broken. Balancing that part of myself. I have to let go a little bit. For the sake of everybody's sanity.

What is your advice to aspiring pastry chefs?I think if you love it and you have that drive that's really all you need. It's just about wanting to get up early and not thinking about it as a chore. It's wanting to stay there until it's done, it's wanting to work in a hot kitchen. It gets tense but if you want it then you'll be successful. If you're always giving it 100 percent and doing what needs to get done.

What do you think the best way to find out if you totally love it or not? It's hard to say. I didn't start out baking a ton at home. I know that's how a lot of people get to love it, is baking at home. I came in a different direction. I think you just have to go for it and see. Surround yourself in restaurant-type situations.

There are generally two kinds of pastry chefs: those who crave dessert outside of work and those who don't. How about you? To tell you the truth I don't. I get a lot of flack for that because it was for me such a sculptural technique draw. I didn't grow up with a sweet tooth- my sister did. I always make things for other people who have a sweet tooth, not so much myself. My dad loves lemon desserts, so I'll always make him lemon bars and I still get the satisfaction. I love tasting it, I love just a little bite of chocolate, a little bite of this just to make sure it's all good.

Where do you get your inspiration for your pastries from? Just seasonally. I work in such a small kitchen at Aion. We aren't ordering fruit purées and all these crazy things to work with, so it's a lot of taking things that you don't traditionally think of as pastry ingredients. I like to use bay leaf a lot. I like using rosemary and paring a lot of different herbs for stuff because I have that stuff to my disposal all the time. I like experimenting, just kind of going into the walk-in and saying alright what do we have extra of today. How can I make that into something?

What is bay leaf like in desserts? It's really nice. I love bay leaf and chocolate. It's subtle. It's not as explosive as it is with savory dishes. I like caraway a lot. It's good with shortbread and little bit of lemon.

Are there any places that inspire you? I'd say Tartine. I got to go in Tartine when I went to San Francisco for the first time this summer. That was fun for me. I love all their cookbooks. I love their vibe.

Do you have a favorite cookbook? Those Tartine ones and I have a La Brea cookbook that I really like.

What's your fantasy job? My ultimate goal, because I love pottery so much, is to have my own place. My own casual café type place, where I could make all the dishes, mugs, and plates and then do all the pastry. I love crafty stuff too. Ultimately I'd like to get to a place where I made everything, all the curtains, all the art on the walls, all the stuff.

Do you have a dream-stage? The JW Marriot is something that's always come up for me, just getting thrown into a busy hotel night. Anywhere really. Just getting thrown into some crazy, mad, production. Just gallons of ganache, and big batches of stuff. A shift somewhere like that because my stuff is so different with small batches of things daily- I'd like to see how it works with just giant, giant production.

What's your favorite thing to make? I feel the most connected with laminated dough, just because it takes so much energy to roll it out. I don't like using sheeters, so I'll roll it all out by hand. I talk to it, I tell it about my day, I rap Dr. Dre to it.

When you are going out, what do you look for in pastry? It's the chocolate. I used to always think I was a custard person but, it turns out it's just the chocolate that I'm a sucker for. I don't know if that developed later or if I just tried to deny it. I really like Ritual chocolate. Don't tell anybody, but I like milk chocolate. That's so taboo. I always get teased for it- I'm supposed to only like dark chocolate. I love the Chocolove Hazelnut Milk Chocolate bars.

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