David Hagedorn, Special to The Washington Post
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - It's just before 2 p.m., the end of a workday that began at 5:30 a.m. for Dolester Miles, a self-taught pastry chef who, in May, was named the best in the nation by the James Beard Foundation.
Wearing a spotless white bib apron over an equally spotless chef coat, with sleeves neatly rolled above her elbows, she stands in the compact kitchen of Bottega restaurant, deftly smoothing a thin layer of whipped cream frosting on a towering, three-layer coconut pecan cake.
She flicks her offset spatula all the way around where the top and sides meet, employing rote precision born of three decades of experience to create a crisp, perfect edge. After she coats the cake with toasted coconut, it's ready to be picked up by a patron waiting to pay $80 for it, plus tax.
Anyone who has eaten that cake, which yields 14 slices, knows two things: that it's worth every penny, and that the last crumb of it will be snatched up and savoured like the last word of a great novel.
Miles, who goes by Dol, oversees a staff of four and the baking production of the four restaurants owned by chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, including their fine-dining flagship, Highlands Bar & Grill.
In addition to the coconut pecan cake, Miles's fruit cobblers with flaky biscuit tops, her lemon tarts with swirls of caramelized meringue and her silken panna cottas are legendary in Birmingham. She handles with alacrity the array of Southern, Italian and French favourites found on the menus of the Stitts' restaurants.
A prep list 44 items long on the Thursday before Labour Day revealed the breadth of her work. Production included: chocolate pots de creme; citrus shortbreads; hamburger buns; pizza dough; buttermilk tarts; batches of ice creams, sauces, fig jam and frangipane (an almond-based tart filling); polenta cakes; and creme caramels.
Miles was one of 20 semi-finalists in the Beard Foundation's Outstanding Pastry Chef category for five years running, and among its five finalists for the past three years. The awards gala at Chicago's Lyric Opera House was a celebratory one for the Stitts, too. After being nominated for 10 consecutive years as the nation's Outstanding Restaurant, Highlands won. (Disclosure: I am a member of the foundation's Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee.)
The first time Miles was a finalist, she couldn't believe it.
"I never really understood how the Beard thing goes, how you get nominated and all of that and, you know, from being down South, from Alabama! Most of them be from New York, California, Chicago - all those big places," she said. "But to be nominated from all the way down here? That was amazing." (Miles' fellow 2018 finalists were from New Orleans, Minneapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles.)
Miles, 61, was born in Victoria, Texas, in 1956, but grew up with four older siblings in Bessemer, Alabama, a small town 15 miles southwest of Birmingham. Her mother, Cora Mae, sold insurance; her father, Jim, who had been a mechanic in the Air Force, did custodial work for the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Miles's parents, now deceased, kept a garden and were both good cooks. Miles caught the baking bug from her mother and aunt, Queen Esther Harris, who were known in the family for their baking prowess. Her mother's favourite cake, a brown-sugar pound cake, was the first thing Miles made on her own.
Like many restaurant workers, Miles happened into the business. In high school, she worked as a line cook at a Mexican restaurant. She tried her hand at computer science studies for a couple of years at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in Huntsville and Lawson State Community College in Birmingham but wasn't into it. In 1982, her path and Frank Stitt's crossed when he opened Highlands.
"My sister Diane was job hunting, and that's how we got started with Frank," Miles said. "He was a great up-and-coming chef who was opening this place in Southside, so that seemed like the place to be. I didn't have much experience - we learned as we went along."
First, she worked the garde-manger (pantry) station, making vinaigrettes, salads and appetizers and preparing a couple of the desserts. In a phone interview, Stitt explained how that morphed into a baking position. "We were doing biscuits and cornbread, and one thing led to another pretty organically," he said.
"She really enjoyed that part of the kitchen, so I would say, 'Okay, it's strawberry season, so let's make a cobbler or a tart.' I'd lay out a framework for a dessert, and she would implement it. That's pretty much how it's been, a collaborative process of me sharing my favourite desserts, and Dol being able to facilitate them with a level of care and love and finesse."
Miles concurred. "Frank does a lot of travelling, and he'll come in and tell us about something he's had or read about, and then we try to produce what he's thinking in his mind and make it our own," she said. One example is a layer cake filled with zabaglione (a foamy egg-based custard sauce flavoured with marsala wine) and topped with meringue, which Stitt had tasted at Harry's Bar in Venice, in 1984. Miles took that inspiration and put it into action.
"It's a very good cake, but when we put it on the menu, it didn't sell," she said. "Maybe people didn't know what zabaglione was. So, we changed the name to Frank's Favorite Cake, and believe it or not, it started flying off the shelf."
She seeks her own inspiration from well-known sources: cookbooks (Ina Garten and Martha Stewart are favourites), Pinterest, magazines such as Bake From Scratch, Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, and television shows.
"I watch 'The Pioneer Woman,' 'Barefoot Contessa' and 'The Kitchen' - they have good ideas there. If I see something I like, I go to their website and get the recipe."
Her latest project is a cake made with six layers of crisp almond meringue (dacquoise) and amaretto buttercream.
In 1988 when Stitt opened Bottega, his second restaurant, Miles officially became his pastry chef. By 2004, she was responsible for four restaurants, including the casual Bottega Cafe, which opened in 1990, and Chez FonFon, a French bistro the Stitts opened in 2000.
"I knew Frank wanted to do the baking for all the restaurants out of Bottega, so I asked him if I could do it, and he gave me the chance," she said. "I must have done okay, because I'm still here."
Since she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 10 years ago, Miles has been judicious about indulging in her own or any other baked goods.
Her doctor "tried to put me on this diet," she said. "The things I couldn't eat were all the things I was eating. They said to give up sweets and drinks, and you could eat some fruit, like half a banana. Or eat six grapes. Oh my God, who can eat six grapes? And no salt, either. It was a life-changing thing."
These days, she eats only an occasional swipe of dessert. "I didn't eat sweets until I found out I was diabetic, and that's when I really, really wanted them," she lamented. "Oh, I could just taste them!"
Especially when discussing her Beard win, Miles's shyness and humility shine through.
"I never dreamed they would call my name," she said. "To win, it's a feeling that I can't even explain. It sucked all the air out of the room. Frank said, 'Get up, they called your name!' and I said, 'Are you serious?' It was amazing. I still think about it and cry."
Stitt called it "an incredible accomplishment of a life's work."
"To see tears of joy from this woman who is a quiet, somewhat shy individual, but who has so much care and love in her soul," he said. "Obviously, it's wonderful for a Southern woman to be recognized, an African American woman to be recognized. It's a lifetime of work and dedication to pursuing quality and excellence."
In Chicago with Miles was her daughter, LaToya Phillips, 40. To her, the Beard win is huge. "She's self-taught," Phillips said. "She didn't seek the recognition, but still someone is paying you attention. It's not just a job you do every day now. It's something that means something." She confessed to taking her mother's talent for granted for years, until Miles hosted a baby shower for her 18 years ago and made pecan tarts.
"Everybody that was there wanted her to make those tarts for them," she said. "To this day, people still ask her about them."
Miles's win has been rewarding, literally. "People are coming from all over," Stitt said. "When they see the pastry chef has won that award, they're not leaving without tasting those desserts." Miles's team now makes 60 coconut cakes a week, instead of 30. Some restaurateurs are happy if 40 percent of diners order dessert, but at the Stitts' places, that percentage is now closer to 70.
But the accolades haven't gone to Miles's head. "People took the time out of their day to write me letters," she said. "So many letters and so many flowers. Wine, bourbon - all these things to congratulate me. I never had that before. It's been overwhelming, I must say."
Then, cracking a smile, she added, "I could get used to this."
One bite of this deep-dish cobbler with its flaky, buttery top will make clear why Dolester Miles won a James Beard award for outstanding pastry chef in 2018.
Adapted from Dolester Miles, pastry chef at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala.
For the crust
2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for the work surface
5 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 cup cold heavy cream
For the filling
8 pints fresh or frozen blueberries, stemmed and rinsed
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 large egg
1 teaspoon water
For the crust: Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the butter and beat on medium-low speed just until the butter pieces become pea-sized. Gradually add the cream, until the dough just comes together.
Dust a work surface and rolling pin with flour. Transfer the dough there; roll out to a 9-by-13-inch rectangle that's about 1/4-inch thick.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
For the filling: Toss the blueberries in a large bowl with 3/4 cup of the sugar, the lemon juice and cornstarch until evenly coated. Transfer the fruit mixture to the baking dish, then top with the dough.
Whisk together the egg and water in a small cup and brush the dough with it.
Sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Cut a vent in the dough (for steam to escape).
Bake (middle rack) for 35 minutes until the filling is bubbling and the crust is golden brown.
Nutrition | Per serving: 390 calories, 4 g protein, 58 g carbohydrates, 17 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 60 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fibre, 32 g sugar
Pear & Almond Tart
This tart, adapted from Dolester Miles's recipe in "Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill" (Artisan, 2004), still appears from time to time on the menu at that Birmingham, Alabama, restaurant.
Make ahead: The dough for the crust needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour, and up to 1 day. The pears can be stored refrigerated in their cooking liquid for up to 3 days. The poaching liquid can be reused. There will likely be a pear half left over for snacking.
For the crust
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour, plus more for the work surface
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 large egg, lightly beaten
For the pears
3 cups sugar
6 cups water
Half a vanilla bean, split
One 3-inch cinnamon stick
6 almost-ripe, firm pears, such as Bartlett, Anjou or Bosc, peeled, halved lengthwise and cored
For the filling
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 cup finely ground blanched almonds
1 tablespoon flour
3 tablespoons Calvados or dark rum
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
Blanched/slivered or sliced almonds, toasted, for garnish (see NOTE)
For the crust: Use cooking oil spray to grease a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
Place the flour in a food processor. Sprinkle the salt and cubes of butter into the flour. Pulse until the butter is pea-sized. Pour the egg over the mixture; pulse just until the dough begins to come together.
Turn the dough out onto the counter, and then gather it into a disk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour, or up to 2 days.
Lightly flour a work surface. Unwrap and roll the dough out into a 12-inch round. Transfer it to the tart pan, using your fingertips to line the pan with the dough. Trim the edges even with the rim of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to bake.
For the pears: Combine the sugar, water, vanilla bean and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes.
Add the pears; once the liquid begins to bubble at the edges, cook the pears for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are tender and the tip of a paring knife slips into them easily. Let them cool in their liquid. Discard the cinnamon stick and vanilla bean.
When ready to assemble, make the filling: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Combine the butter and sugar the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for several minutes, until light and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low; add the egg, ground almonds, flour, Calvados or rum and the almond extract. Beat for about 2 minutes, until smooth.
Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator. Unwrap and pour in the filling, spreading it evenly.
Remove the pears from the poaching liquid, placing them in a colander set over a bowl. Reserve 1 cup of the poaching liquid for this recipe; reserve and refrigerate the rest for poaching more fruit later.
Place the pears cut sides down on the tart filling, side by side with the narrow ends facing in, until the entire surface of the tart is covered with pears. Bake (middle rack) for about 45 minutes, until golden brown.
Meanwhile, cook the reserved cup of poaching liquid in a small saucepan over high heat until it has reduced to a glaze - about 2 to 3 tablespoons total. Remove from the heat.
Once the tart comes out of the oven, brush it with the glaze, then scatter the toasted almonds evenly over the top. Serve warm, or at room temperature.
Note: Toast the nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes, until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan occasionally to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.
Nutrition | Per serving: 750 calories, 7 g protein, 120 g carbohydrates, 28 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 40 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fibre, 95 g sugar
Featured Image: Rob Culpepper, The Washington Post