Self-taught pastry chef named the best in the United States

Pastry chef Dolester Miles won the title at the James Beard Foundation Awards, considered the Oscars of the US food industry.
Pastry chef Dolester Miles won the title at the James Beard Foundation Awards, considered the Oscars of the US food industry.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

BIRMINGHAM (Alabama) • It is just before 2pm, the end of a workday that began at 5.30am for Dolester Miles, a self-taught pastry chef who, in May, was named the best in the United States by the James Beard Foundation.

A towering, three-layer coconut pecan cake is ready to be picked up by a patron waiting to pay US$80 (S$110) for it, plus tax.

Anyone who has eaten that cake, which yields 14 slices, knows two things - that it is 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' fruit cobblers with flaky biscuit tops, her lemon tarts with swirls of caramelised meringue and her silken panna cottas are legendary in Birmingham.

She 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 are considered the Oscars of the US food industry.

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 US' Outstanding Restaurant, Highlands won.

Miles, 61, was born in Victoria, Texas, in 1956, but grew up with four older siblings in Bessemer, Alabama, a small town 24km southwest of Birmingham.

Like many restaurant workers, she 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, but was not into it.

In 1982, her path and Frank Stitt's crossed when he opened Highlands.

First, she worked the garde-manger (pantry) station, making vinaigrettes, salads and appetisers and preparing some desserts.

In a telephone interview, Mr Stitt explained how that morphed into a baking position.

"We were doing biscuits and corn bread, 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, 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 Mr 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 Favourite 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."

In 1988 when Mr 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.

Her Beard win has been rewarding, literally.

"People are coming from all over," Mr Stitt said. "When they see the pastry chef has won that award, they're not leaving without tasting those desserts."

Miles' team now makes 60 coconut cakes a week, instead of 30. Some restaurateurs are happy if 40 per cent of diners order dessert, but at the Stitts' places, that percentage is now closer to 70.

But the accolades have not gone to Miles' 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."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2018, with the headline 'Self-taught pastry chef named the best in the United States'. Print Edition | Subscribe