A Chat With Callie Speer, Pastry Chef, Swift’s AtticBy Megan Giller
September 11, 2013
We’ve been in awe of Callie Speer’s talents with sweets since our first bite of her goat cheese cheesecake with basil ice cream on Parkside’s menu years ago. The chef, who manages to merge bubbly with sarcastic, has a stellar resume that reads classic Austin: Jeffrey’s, Mars, Parkside and now Swift’s Attic, where she creates childhood-inspired desserts like Popcorn and a Movie and caramelized white chocolate s’mores. Plus, the native Austinite is married to Philip Speer, the culinary director and pastry chef at Uchi and Uchiko.
Zagat: Growing up in Texas, what did you eat?
Callie Speer: I ate nothing growing up. I’m sure my mother would be horrified I’m saying this. She’s a great cook, but we didn’t have exciting - our palates were not developed at all. The choices were canned green beans or canned peas. I have a friend that always laughs that I used to eat those Easy Mac cups that you put in the microwave all the time.
Zagat: Is there a savory thing or sweet thing that you ate that opened your mind?
CS: The first time I ever had a dessert where I was like, “Holy cr#p,” it was the most basic dessert: a chocolate soufflé over at the Four Seasons. I was 16, and it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened. That’s still one of my favorite dessert experiences in town. It was totally mind-blowing, like, “This is not a Ding Dong at all! What do you mean they made this to order?”
When I went to Uchi for the first time, it was awesome. I had never done anything like that. It was my first real date with Philip, and I was nervous as sh*t. I didn’t know how to use chopsticks very well. I was 21. And then they’re all staring at us.
Zagat: You have two kids, right?
CS: We do. I have a stepdaughter who is 14 who is about to start high school, Philip’s daughter Ella. And we have a daughter, Lucy, who is 4. She’s a pain in the a*$ in all the good ways. She just gave herself bangs the other day.
Ella and another little girl did a summer stage program at Uchiko, which was exciting for them. They got yelled at a little bit and had fun. When she was a lot younger, she told us that when we died, she was going to take over the pastry empire. We were like, “That sounds so sad. Why do we have to die?”
Zagat: Do they get to eat sugar at home?
CS: They do. We’ve never been really - I had to give an interview with Mathew Odam at the Statesman, and he was asking me about romantic meals I’ve prepared for Philip. That’s a huge joke in our house, because I never cook. The other day I cooked for the fifth time ever. People always ask, “What do you guys eat? Are you healthy eaters?” I’m like, “We eat cereal.” When Philip is in Houston, we have cereal for dinner.
Neither Philip or I are really sweets people, surprisingly, so there’s not a whole lot of it going around. People get real stressed out when they come stay with us, like, “I thought there was going to be-” I’m like, “NO! You think I come home and do this? Sorry.”
Philip always makes a joke that I could go into a grocery store with $100 and come out with Cheetos and juice boxes and granola bars. He’ll go in and have food for two weeks’ worth of meals.
Zagat: Philip told us a while back that he’s not a sweets person but that he loves your chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven. What’s the secret?
CS: It started as the Tollhouse recipe, and I’ve modified it a bit. I let the dough sit overnight, which helps. I think the secret is not overbaking them. A lot of people bake them until they’re burnt to a crisp, and that’s pretty much it. And really, it’s a chocolate chip cookie. He gets so excited about it, but it’s a hot cookie. Of course it’s going to be delicious.
Zagat: Since you don’t like to cook and bake, how did you get into baking professionally? And how does it maintain your interest over time?
CS: I’ve always worked at restaurants, which is how I turned crazy and decided to stay in this field. I worked savory for a long time before I started pastry. I always really liked pastry. Part of it is the science of it, but I really liked making things that made people excited and happy. And desserts, for sure. You make lots of friends making desserts.
Zagat: Jumping forward to Swift’s Attic, the restaurant is so innovative. Where do you find your inspiration?
CS: They come from strange [places]. I’ll have an idea floating around a little bit, and then I come up with something. The sesame dessert I have on the menu right now was inspired by Hyde Park’s Wom Kim peach pudding. It’s so good, and it’s so basic. There’s nothing to it, but I love it. And I always think I should do something like that. Popcorn and a Movie came from a rip-off of Uchiko’s popcorn sorbet. I thought it was awesome, and I told Philip he couldn’t put it back on because I was totally going to jack that so hard.
Zagat: At Killed by Dessert a while back, you said that pastry chefs don’t like serving chocolate. What is that about?
CS: I like chocolate, and I like working with it. But it’s almost like a cop-out, because everybody likes chocolate. It’s an easy crowd-pleaser. So at something like Killed by Dessert, no one is going to go in there and make a chocolate mousse, because that’s lame. Everyone has made that 1,000 times. I have one on the menu right now and secretly think it’s kind of lame and try to put other things on it to make it not lame. Especially for something like that, where they want to impress each other too, nobody is going to pull out a brownie.
It comes in trends. For a while caramelized white chocolate was really trendy, because Valrhona came out with their version of it. But pastry chefs would rather go in there and be like, “Check out what I can do with olives.”
The first time Philip did something with olives, he made olive brittle, and even I was thinking, “Uhhhh, I don’t know.” But it was surprisingly good. He can take anything and make it good. Like, “I peeled some gum off the side of the road there. Here it is!” And you’re like, “What the hell? That’s the most amazing thing!”
Zagat: What’s it like to be married to another pastry chef?
CS: For starters, it’s awesome. Particularly with the molecular gastronomy techniques, he’s a lot better at it than I am. It’s really awesome to be able to call and say, “Hey, how do you do this? And you have to tell me because I’m married to you” [laughs]. Sometimes I’ll ask him things and you can tell that he almost doesn’t want to share it, and I’m like, “Suck it up, buddy. What’s the secret?”
And if I’m out of something, I can call and ask him to drop it off. People always ask if we’re competitive at all, and we’re not. We do such different styles of things, that we’ve never been competitive with each other or we would have killed each other.
Zagat: What would you say the differences are between your desserts?
CS: My food is a little bit more comfort food. I lean toward throwbacks, something you might recognize but doing it a little bit different. He goes for the “let me try to do something that you’ve never had before.” He goes for new and I go for old made new.
I get more nervous when he comes in to eat things than anybody. Because I’m like, “Don’t judge it.” I guess there’s a little bit of competition. I would die before I would feed him something sh*tty. If we both have to do an event together, I’m like, “Oh great, now I have to do something really awesome, because he’s going to be there.”
Zagat: Coming back to the desserts at Swift’s, are there ingredients you’re excited about using?
CS: I don’t like fall ingredients as much. I like spring and even some summer. My new dessert has apples and they’re smoked, but it’s a minimal component of the dish. I get really stressed out when all the desserts turn into pumpkin or five-spice or they all taste like Christmas. They taste like a stocking. Hate it.
Zagat: What’s next for you?
CS: For now, nothing. Our restaurant group is slowly moving toward some other things in the next year or so, which will be fun. I don’t intend on going anywhere, so we’ll see where the growth of the company takes us all.