Since the start of the pandemic, restaurants with pastry chefs on staff have become a rare breed in New York City. At a growing number of restaurants, diners are presented with just a few options — often a big slice of cake or panna cotta, which can be plated easily by chefs in the middle of dinner service — instead of a full dessert menu.
Gramercy Tavern, which comprises The Dining Room at Gramercy Tavern and The Tavern at Gramercy Tavern, is not one of those restaurants. It has a long legacy of iconic pastry chefs including Claudia Fleming and, most recently, Miro Uskokovic. When Uskokovic announced he was leaving his post earlier this year, dessert lovers made reservations, hoping for one final chocolate pudding cake or chocolate chip cookie, and food writers debated who might fill the coveted role the way sports broadcasters discuss the NFL draft.
In May, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Karen DeMasco quietly took over the post. The role is a kind of homecoming for DeMasco, who started her pastry career at the restaurant under Fleming nearly 30 years ago. Since then, she’s made her mark at Craft, Locanda Verde, Hearth, and the trio of abc restaurants. Perhaps best known for her maple budino and apple cider doughnuts, she’s a master of simple and elegant desserts.
DeMasco sat down with us to discuss why she’s taking things slowly in her new role, how the dessert scene has changed since she started her career, and the moment she said to herself: “Oh my God, I think I made the right decision.”
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
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Resy: How did you end up in the food world?
DeMasco: My roommate from Kenyon was from New York and after college, I moved here with her and I got a job in publishing. Nelly was working in theater, and we started trying to earn extra money. She was always a great cook and there were these receptions at her theater that she hired us to cater — without really knowing what we were doing at all. And it got me so into food that I decided to go to culinary school.
Was Gramercy your first job in food?
My first job was at Chanterelle. I did an internship there while I was going to the New York Restaurant School, which does not exist anymore. I went for cooking [but] once I started working in restaurants, I realized that I loved the pace and the production of pastry so much more than cooking. So I started focusing on that. I interviewed with Claudia, and she hired me.
What was working under Claudia like early in your career?
It was terrifying. She was so scary. Now she’s a friend of mine — and she’s awesome. But it was very intimidating. She was really tough. She had very high standards and everyone worked really hard to maintain them. Everything was super fresh. Everything had to be done correctly or done over — we were hustling in that kitchen. It was an amazing place to learn, but you had to be very dedicated to be there, and to last in that kitchen.
What was the dessert menu like back then?
It seems so normal now, but it was revolutionary at the time — what made such an impression on me was the way that the meal just seamlessly flowed from appetizer through desserts. We were mimicking techniques that they used in the kitchen. We did a lot of collaboration with the kitchen; I remember we made this savory flan that they were using as an appetizer. And we were sauteing tomatoes and plums for dessert amuse [bouche]. It was so à la minute: We were baking things to order, sauteing, frying — there weren’t things like that then. And everything was coming from the market. It was very exciting to be part of that.
You left professional kitchens for a period to spend more time with your kids. Can you tell me a bit about what drove that decision?
I was at Locanda Verde, which was a job I loved, but it was just so demanding, and even back then it was always short staffed and [I was] always getting stuck on really long days. My kids were small, and I felt like I was missing so much. I just couldn’t figure out how to get that balance. So, I took a couple of years off to be with the kids.
There were so many great things about it and I’m really glad I did it, but also it was very hard because I love doing this. I love being in a kitchen, and I love making things. I sort of felt like I was losing my identity.
Do you think it’s gotten any easier for those in the industry to have kids?
I think it’s definitely gotten easier; the benefits and hours are so much better. I don’t think you’re expected, in general, to be working 14-hour days anymore, and I think that was definitely the norm, especially for a higher level position. And there are a lot more women in the kitchen; this kitchen is so female heavy, which is awesome. I think that businesses have to work to take care of their employees in a better way — right now especially. So I think it is definitely getting better. It’s still a super challenge.
I want to fast forward to your life now. How does it feel to be back at Gramercy?
It feels good, like coming full circle. You know, I’ve always had such a place in my heart for Gramercy. Also, a lot of people that I love and really respect in my life are from that time like [Hearth’s] Marco Canora and Claudia, and a bunch of other people. It was such an important time in my life and my career and such a formative job that the idea that I could come back and really do my thing here became an important part of it — I really couldn’t say no. It just seemed to make sense.
And the first day I came here as the pastry chef, the first person I ran into was Carlos [Garcia], who was here when I was here originally, and he remembered me, and greeted me, and brought me downstairs and I was like, “Oh my God, I think I made the right decision.”
Gramercy has a legacy of accomplished pastry chefs, most recently, Miro.
What do you hope the pastry program will look like under your leadership?
It was a scary thing to come and take over because he has such a loyal following. I’ve been taking everything very slowly. I didn’t come in and throw everything out and start fresh, because he was doing a great job, and his stuff is really great. I’ve slowly been putting my mark on things here and there and changed a couple desserts. I think over time, it’s going to more and more feel like it’s my thing.
Are there any desserts from him that will never come off of the menu?
I don’t think anything on the menu is untouchable. Eventually, probably everything will change, but I’m in no rush. Like his chocolate cake with cream and coconut: That’s a classic that people really love — I’m not going to touch that for a long time. And his giant cookie, which I did tweak a little bit, but I mean, that’s a classic. So those are definitely things that aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
I’m curious to hear about the changes you have made so far.
Most of the first changes I made were to change [desserts] to something more seasonal. Like they had this semolina pie, which was from their pie contest, which is such an awesome thing that they do — the person who wins the pie contest gets their pie on the menu for a period of time.
Tell me more about that.
I’m going to continue it for sure. Miro would invite judges like different pastry chefs or people in the food industry from around the city. And the whole pastry team made a pie — [so does] front of the house, the kitchen, whoever wanted to join in — and it’s like a huge thing. They line them all up and they judge them and decide on a winner. The first prize is that you get your pie on the menu in The Tavern. That was the first thing I changed because [the winning pie] was very wintry.
What did you replace it with?
I replaced it with the lemon poppy shortcake with strawberries and buttermilk ice cream.
What are some other new desserts you’ve added?
A matcha panna cotta with blueberry sorbet and an almond biscotti. It’s vegan, which is kind of cool. I think it’s important to have a vegan dessert on the menu. It’s made with coconut milk and it’s set with kudzu (arrowroot). And then we’re doing ricotta cinnamon sugar donuts with raspberries, rhubarb, and a ricotta sherbet. It’s really pretty. That was my most recent change in The Tavern.
You also added a sundae. Tell me about it.
It’s vanilla ice cream with little cubes of a marzipan-y cake and cherry compote and candied ginger and candied almonds, all layered up. And then we top it with this shortbread cookie with a little cherry blossom rolled into the dough.
Is there anything that you’re thinking about for the summer desserts?
I’m really excited about stone fruit. Apricots are my favorites — and peaches. I mean, summer is almost too much. It’s like there’s not enough room on the menu to get everything in. I haven’t totally figured it out. Claudia had that iconic peach tart tatin that was just so amazing, so maybe some kind of peach tart?
How would you describe your approach to dessert?
I really like simplicity. I don’t like to use stabilizers and crazy chemicals — just very simple preparations and with some sort of nostalgia, something that connects me to either something I’ve had in the past or maybe growing up, because I think desert is a great place to connect to that nostalgia for something.
The pastry world seems to be in an interesting moment. Former restaurant pastry chefs like Natasha Pickowicz and Zoe Kanan are working on their own projects and consulting, and Eunji Lee opened Lysée just around the corner from here. What do you think about the pastry scene right now? What excites you?
All of those people excite me; their desserts are amazing. There’s so much going on in the bakery world. That’s a post-pandemic thing. I feel like there is a total lack of restaurant pastry chefs. And it’s probably a combination of restaurants not paying as much attention to the pastry program and just the fewer number of people that are wanting to commit that sort of time and energy to one project that’s not their own. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m so curious.
In an interview with Anya von Bremzen, Claudia said that she feels desserts have become simpler. What do you think?
I agree and I think that that’s in part due to the labor shortage. I know at abc, we had to really streamline the menu and make everything really quick and easy to pick up just because we didn’t have the staff to be doing these intricate things that maybe we would have done in the past — I mean, it was still delicious, but definitely streamlined and simplified.
Has the labor shortage impacted your team here?
Gramercy has this stellar reputation; they really treat their employees so well. When I got here, I was like “Oh my God, you have a full staff.” And these people are awesome. I feel incredibly lucky to be at a place where they [are] still getting resumes — people want to work here. And I don’t think that’s the norm for the industry right now.
Any final thoughts to share?
I just hope that I can create my own legacy here and I hope that Gramercy continues to be known as a place to get really good dessert. That’s my goal, and to do whatever I can to make that happen.