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Gold Twix bar at Local Kitchen & Bar
Gold Twix bar at Local Kitchen & Bar
Courtesy of Ben Robinson

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Meet the Wizards Behind Detroit's Booming Sweets Scene

Not all heroes wear capes

It’s no secret that Detroit’s culinary renaissance has quickly gained national attention. In the spotlight are a dedicated numbers of fine pastry chefs, putting out desserts that have caught the eye of big names like Martha Stewart, Bon Appetit, the Food Network, and our critic at Eater National. Serving unique and delectable staples from chocolate and marshmallows, to cookies and pies, here are six of the best pastry chefs helping keep Detroit sweet.

Ben Robison, Local Kitchen & Bar

Ben Robison Courtesy of Ben Robison

Executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine for Ferndale's Local Kitchen and Bar, Ben Robison has made a name for himself with his modern takes classically comforting desserts. The dessert menu is highlighted by beautifully plated dishes such as the, "so, the banana said to the peanut," made with banana bread, bananas foster mousse, milk chocolate ganache, and peanut butter.

Number of years in sweets business?

7 years

How did you come into the position?

I came to Local looking for a new creative environment and opportunity for growth.

Are you traditionally trained?

Yes. My formal training began in savory food. I started cooking professionally when I was 17 and worked the hot line at a few restaurants around metro Detroit. While attending the culinary arts program at Schoolcraft College I was attracted to the pastry side of the industry. My pastry career started at Bacco Ristorante in Southfield where I trained under Luciano Del Signore and Carrie Walker.

What's a "typical" day at work?

It all depends on the needs of the day. I try to avoid having a "routine." I handle bread production, the savory components involving pastry technique, and all of actual pastry production. I help with development of new ideas and menu items from concept to plate. I also take and post a lot of pictures. My days are typically some combination of those things.

What’s one of the most challenging sweets tasks you've undertaken in your career?

At a young and rather inexperienced point in my pastry career I was involved with a dinner for McClure's. I was given the task of making a dessert using their pickles. I can take on that challenge now. . . but what I made back then was NOT good.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

The way that we look at food and the way we cook food is constantly evolving. There are so many innovations, techniques, and cuisines around us to explore. I love that there's never a shortage of things to learn, and as I grow in my career it's fun to look back and see my own evolution in food.

What’s your least favorite part of the job?

There's not always enough time for the favorite part of my job.

What’s your most used recipe?

I'll always have panna cotta on my menu somewhere. It's such a versatile component. Cream is a great medium to infuse flavor into or it can be left neutral to help other flavors shine. It's soft creamy texture can't be beat!

Lena Sareini, Selden Standard

Lena Sareini Courtesy of Lena Sareini

Lena Sareini’s desserts are a cornerstone of Selden Standard's award-winning menu. Her personality and eye for art shines through in her imaginative, seasonal dishes like pumpkin pot de crème, made with maple cream, a molasses cookie, and candied pumpkin seeds, and a decadent chocolate semifreddo paired with sweet cream and plum.

How did you come into the position?

I've always had an interest in art. I've drawn, painted, created things since I was a child. And my parents were always in the kitchen when I was growing up, so I struck up an interest in cooking too. I guess it was only natural that I chose a profession that combined those interests. And now I get to eat my art — and feed it to other people every day, which is pretty great when you think about it.

Are you traditionally trained?

Yes. I'm classically trained, mostly with a French background in pastry. I attended Schoolcraft College for the baking and pastry program and I was also able to attend a pastry conference in France last year with my former instructor.

What's a "typical" day at work?

Selden Standard makes just about everything from scratch, including all the bread, so a lot of my day is dedicated to that. I'm the first one in every morning to bake bread for everything from sandwiches to crostini on the cheese plate to our rotating bread selection for dinner service. Then I'll take care of my rotating dessert menu, prepping for what is needed that day. And as we try to stay fresh, current, and seasonal, I'll develop new menu items.

That last part is obviously the most fun. I love playing around in the kitchen whenever I have the time. Our pastry assistant and I also make a number of seasonal fruit- or vegetable-based syrups that are part of the cocktail program. And really, if I'm being honest, a good portion of my day is spent laughing, awkwardly dancing, and singing out of tune to music on the back line.

What’s one of the most challenging sweets tasks you've undertaken in your career?

Really, every dessert has its challenges, but that makes it fun because I enjoy those challenges. People usually want things to be perfect on their first go, but that's almost never the case. I love to see the different phases my desserts go through before they finally make it to the menu. Tweaking and learning is one of my favorite parts of working in the kitchen. But I'd say the most memorable thing I've made, as simple as it is, would be my pumpkin pie. My grandfather told me he's putting me in his will because of it, so now I'm sworn to make him a personal pie every Thanksgiving.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part of the job is that the job itself is always changing, especially at Selden. There is never an opportunity to get stuck or bored because there is always something new to be learned or mastered. Being the busy body I am, I don't really think I could do anything else. I love the chaos, I love the culture, I love the creativity, and I love my kitchen family.

What’s your least favorite part of the job?

I think every pastry chef's least favorite part of the job is having to wake up so darn early. I'd love to lie and say that I eventually got used to starting my day when there are still all those weird late-night infomercials on TV, but that just isn't true. I've been doing this for about six years now, and I still press snooze a few times — okay, like eight times — before I can muster the energy to peel myself out of bed. Coffee helps. Sort of.

What’s your most used recipe?

I don't really like to do the same thing twice. It encourages me to be creative and to keep researching and learning. I've been working at Selden for a year and a half now and I have yet to repeat a dessert on my menu. I'd like to keep it that way. It's more fun for me and I think it's more fun for our guests too.

Lisa Ludwinski, Sister Pie

Lisa Ludwinski Michele and Chris Gerard

To say Sister Pie is well-known would be an understatement. Since opening the brick-and-mortar location 2015, the dessert-juggernaut has attracted national attention with staples like salted-maple pies and seasonal flavors apple cheddar and rye. Beyond the pies, head pastry chef/owner and Eater Young Gun Lisa Ludwinski dishes up delectable scones, cakes, cookies, muffins, and galettes with selections changing daily.

Number of years in sweets business?

6 years

How did you come into the position?

I was working at Momofuku Milk Bar in New York, and was aching to be back in my home state of Michigan. Plus I had a little bakery bug in my ear telling me to start my own thing and was constantly dreaming up flavor combinations and business ideas in my mind. So I moved to Detroit and started Sister Pie four years ago as both owner and head baker.

Are you traditionally trained?

Nope! I filmed a low-budget, kinda silly cooking show out of my apartment when I was living in Brooklyn, and introduced myself (through many recipes, cookbooks, blogs, and other videos!) to lots of different baking and cooking techniques. After that, I got the gig at Milk Bar and consider that to be the source of my professional culinary education and experience.

What's a "typical" day at work?

I'll arrive at 5:45 a.m. or so to bake morning items and open the shop with a couple other employees, then I'll make the "sister salad" that we serve for lunch daily while multitasking with some other kitchen tasks like making scones or beginning the day's pie baking process. Around lunchtime, I'll generally switch into office mode and answer emails, work on HR/staff stuff, etc. Lately the "etc" has been working on the cookbook that I'm writing for Ten Speed Press that comes out in Fall 2018 — super excited!

What’s one of the most challenging sweets tasks you've undertaken in your career?

Oh my god, it's definitely paczki. We make them every year for Fat Tuesday, and it's a real scene. Traditionally, paczki flavors are straightforward and classic: lemon, custard, prune, raspberry. But we mix it up. Last year we did a dark chocolate tahini rye flavor and a lemon poppy rose, plus a savory hybrid paczki-pierogi with a potato-enriched dough and cheesy potato/caramelized onion filling.

They're delicious, but also pretty challenging since a) We're not a doughnut shop, so scaling up to hundreds of paczki for the big day is pretty daunting and b) We don't have a fryer, so last year we were hopping back and forth between our bakery and the restaurant Craft Work's kitchen a couple blocks away. The proofed paczki would be transported by two employees in a van, and then we'd throw them right into the fryer. Then we'd bring all the paczki back to our kitchen to fill and finish. We open the shop at 6 a.m., having just pulled an all-nighter. It's nuts and VERY memorable.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

I find a lot of joy in the morning bake - brushing the scones with cream, cracking eggs on top of the galettes, and setting up the pastry display with all the treats just in time for our doors to open. I also love going to Eastern Market at 6am on Saturday mornings. We pick up our orders from the farmers and get to chat with them for a minute. It's a ritual that evokes a certain feeling and sense of community when you work with local growers.

What’s your least favorite part of the job?

The constant feeling of wanting to be ultra organized and on top of things while trying to run a bakery every day.

What’s your go-to sweet?

When I'm hungry for a sweet treat at the shop, I typically grab a golden oatie (like an oatmeal raisin cookie with golden raisins) or our vegan, gluten-free brownie that are made with buckwheat flour and lots of bittersweet chocolate. In terms of most used recipe, I've probably got my hands on the scone recipe more than any others (although it's honestly committed to memory at this point), and am just constantly trying to dream up new ways to make them interesting and delicious.

Alex Clark, Bon Bon Bon

Alex Clark Brad Ziegler

Holding down the babes babes babes in Hamtramck is Alex Clark, the chocolate-mastermind behind Bon Bon Bon. Made using classic French techniques, these artisan chocolates are far from average, with new Fall flavors like the Caprese, made with a tomato confiture, basil ricotta ganache, balsamic reduction, and glacee tomatoes. Stay tuned for major updates as the babes prepare to open their much larger location this winter.

Number of years in sweets business?

12 years (if you include ice cream and chocolate)

How did you come into the position?

I worked at an ice cream shop, which I loved, in high school and then moved to Norway. I had this weird twist of fate where I had a chance to stay with candy makers. I was totally inspired by the family business. Being pretty poor, but wanting to travel Scandinavia and Europe I discovered one of my favorite, most magical things about chocolate: you can have the best piece of chocolate in any city for less than $5 USD. I would travel and buy nothing but one piece of chocolate in some of the most legendary and interesting chocolate and design cities in the world. One day, I must have reached critical mass and I spent the next 10 years traveling to learn as much as I could, intent upon opening my own "practice" one day.

Are you traditionally trained?

I admit, I am obsessed. I love to learn about really any aspect of the cacao/chocolate value chain. To this day I fall asleep reading chocolate production equipment manuals and agricultural reports. But as for formal education in it, I attended the French Pastry School of Chicago and Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver for chocolate, Schoolcraft College for Pastry Arts, Michigan State for Hospitality & Food Processing Technology, and Massey University (in New Zealand) for Agricultural Economics where my thesis was on . . . chocolate.

What's a "typical" day at work?

There really isn't one! And, that's what I like about it best! It's creative, scientific, mathematic and full of wonderful people. My one constant is my mutt, Lou, who rides along for farm visits or meetings or sits at the window in the front of the shop and growls at anything on wheels.

What’s one of the most challenging sweets tasks you've undertaken in your career?

We were invited to Tel Aviv to make our first ever Kosher Bon Bon Bons for 1,000, tempering everything by hand using one air conditioner! It was a challenge! Those pistachios though . . . so good.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

Maybe not so much the tasks themselves as the environment that we all work in. Everyone's brings their skills to the table and is invited to be themselves. It's really exciting when the creativity is flowing!

What’s your least favorite part of the job?

Equipment failures!

What’s your go-to sweet?

We all munch on candied salted cocoa nibs pretty regularly! I'm a huge fan of the pistachio white chocolate gianduja.

Michele Bezue, Detroit Marshmallow Co. and Michele Bezue Confections

Courtesy of Michele Bezue

Owner and “fluff artist” of the Detroit Marshmallow Co. and Michele Bezue Confections, this Hawaiian-born pastry chef is shaking up the Detroit sweets scene with artisanal marshmallows, unique truffles, and tropical favorites like a guava chiffon cake. While still relatively new on the scene, since opening her brick-and-mortar location this year, Bezue has consistently impressed visitors and critics alike.

Number of years in sweets business?

3 years

How did you come into the position?

My daughter and I planned to open a candy store, but we wanted to make as much of the candy as we could. I started with marshmallows, The Detroit Marshmallow Co. and now we have moved into truffles and finally desserts in our new shop, Michele Bezue Confections.

Are you classically trained?

No. Completely self-taught.

What's a "typical" day at work?

Making marshmallow and truffles, and handling all paperwork, social media, marketing, etc . . . for both businesses.

What’s one of the most challenging sweets tasks you've undertaken in your career?

I am from Hawaii, so I make a favorite from my childhood, guava chiffon cake. That has been a real challenge as the most important ingredient is only available in Hawaii and on the West Coast. I have to either get the ingredient when I am there or have a family member pick it up for me on their trips.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

Creating imaginative marshmallows, desserts, and other confections.

What’s your least favorite part of the job?

Paperwork.

What’s your most used recipe?

Vanilla cake with vanilla bean brown butter glaze. I use this on its own and as a component in several other desserts and even in a marshmallow.

Kristina Conger, Mabel Gray

kristina conger headshot Joe Vaughn

Hazel Park's Mabel Gray is made much sweeter by pastry chef Kristina Conger. With no set menu, you never know exactly what you'll get, but with past desserts like a cranberry empanada or dense and fudgy chocolate cake, you know you're in for a serious treat. Coming up in the next year, Conger will lend her skills to a new Hazel Park sweets venture, inside the former Dougs’ Delight.

Number of years in the business?

11 years

How did you come into the position?

The sous chef Sam grew up with my little cousins in White Lake, Michigan. I had known [of her] for years, but never met her. One day, my uncle Bob and aunt Anne went to a funeral of a friend. Sam and her family were there and my uncle and Sam got into a conversation about what she has been doing. Sam told him about about James' new venture, Mabel Gray. My uncle asked if Sam was looking for any help because he had a niece that just moved back up here that does pastry. She told him yes, they were looking for someone to fill the pastry position they had available.

My uncle got James' email from Sam and I sent him my resume. James and I set up a meeting and once we met and I told him my story, he said, "the position is yours if you would like it." I thought about it for a day, called him and told him I would take the position, and I haven't looked back ever since.

Are you classically trained?

Yes. I am traditionally trained. I went to Johnson and Wales in Charlotte, North Carolina, and also went to Alain Ducasse School in France.

What's a "typical" day at work?

I start anywhere from 9 or 10 am. I start of with bread and any savory items chef may need for the night. Then I will start on my dessert items and all the accompaniments for them. Next, I will make my intermezzo and tasting dessert. Once production is done, I set up my pastry station for service. Once service starts I will plate up pastries and intermezzos. I also start scaling out for items I will be working on the next day. Once service ends I clean my station and see if anyone else needs help cleaning. I leave anywhere between 11:30 a.m. to noon on weekdays and noon to 1 p.m. on weekends.

What’s one of the most challenging sweets tasks you've undertaken in your career?

I would have to say macaroons. These little cookies are so temperamental. I love them, though. Once I figured out how to make them work every time I was so ecstatic. It's like figuring out a puzzle you have been working on for so long and finally getting it. I love a challenge, so once I figure out one thing I move to the next until it get it, constantly working on my skills in the presses.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

I would have to say the creativity of being able to make whatever I want. Also I really like flavor pairing. I like combining different flavors together to make them accentuate one another.

What’s your least favorite part of the job?

Allergies.

What’s your go-to sweet?

I make a set chocolate cream. I love this recipe because every time I have made it I have used different flavor. It is a very versatile recipe and will go well with any chocolate flavor combination.

Sister Pie

8066 Kercheval Avenue, , MI 48214 (313) 447-5550 Visit Website

Bon Bon Bon

5 Nickels Arcade, , MI 48104 (734) 369-8558 Visit Website

Local Kitchen & Bar

344 W 9 Mile Road, Ferndale, MI 48220 248 291 5650

Detroit Marshmallow Co.

17215 Mack Avenue, Detroit, MI 48224

Mabel Gray

23825 John R Road, , MI 48030 (248) 398-4300 Visit Website

Selden Standard

3921 2nd Avenue, , MI 48201 (313) 438-5055 Visit Website

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