From forensic scientist to pastry chef at Crop Bistro, Olena Gudz is truly quite unique. Here, she offers up interesting insight into the science behind her craft, why she loves her heritage, plus gives readers a detailed recipe for a dessert anyone can make at home. And if that’s not enough, she’s a fan of Babbo and loves The Office.
1. What are the top 5 spices that should be in everyone’s pantry? Vietnamese cinnamon (a more fragrant and bolder cinnamon than one would find in the spice aisle of most grocery stores), a chili, such as ancho or chipotle (great for adding subtle heat to all things chocolate, such as brownies, cookies, hot chocolate), instant espresso powder (great when baking because it has an intense coffee flavor and dissolves very well), cardamom, and a nice sea salt for garnishing.
2. What is your favorite and least favorite thing to make? I absolutely love making ice cream. The flavor possibilities are endless and there is a lot of room for experimentation. I also love putting together cakes. It takes a lot of patience but I love making all the separate parts; the cake layers, filling, soaking syrups, and frosting, and then experiencing it all together…with both the eyes and the tastebuds!
I don’t like making puff pastry dough from scratch. I made it in school and while it was interesting to see the process, it is just too labor intensive and the purchased stuff is very similar.
3. What is your favorite thing about Cleveland and what drives you nuts? I love all the little neighborhoods and what each has to offer: Tremont, Little Italy, Coventry, Lakewood, Ohio City, Shaker Square, University Circle. I just wish there was better public transportation to access all these areas more efficiently and conveniently. I hate when people really trash Cleveland, especially when they live here. I’ve been to a lot of great places, both in and out of the U.S., but I have a soft spot for Cleveland and always will.
4. If you could cook for one person, real or dead, who would it be?
Real: Oprah Dead: Charles Darwin
5. You’re having a dinner party, top 5 songs on your play list?
I always like to have a nice variety: “Forever Yellow Skies” by The Cranberries, “Electrical Storm (Orbit Mix)” by U2, “The Rach 3″ by Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Ecstasy” by Rusted Root, “Get Up Offa That Thing” by James Brown.
6. Favorite restaurant in Cleveland? I’ve always had good experiences at The Flying Fig.
7. What restaurant do you miss? I have fond memories of going to the original Lopez & Gonzales with my parents, siblings, and aunt and uncle. That was when I was still a pretty picky eater though.
8. What’s your last meal on Earth? A good, crusty bread with the richest, saltiest butter I can find, the perfect Caesar salad, a chicken simply roasted with butter, salt, pepper, onions, and lemon, risotto with rosemary and mascarpone, a bowl of pistachio gelato, and a nice dessert wine.
9. Most unusual food you have ever tried?
I know for many folks, this isn’t so unusual, but for me, it is sweetbreads. The first time I had them, I really didn’t care for them. The second time, I actually enjoyed them.
10. Most famous person you have cooked for? I was just part of a small team who prepared dinner for a very exclusive group of people, that included Colin Cowie, lifestyle and design expert to celebrities.
11. Most requested dessert your friends and family ask you for? Honestly, I haven’t repeated a lot of desserts for family and friends. I use the opportunity to experiment with new desserts and baked goods. They’re pretty excited anytime I make anything! One of my most requested cookies, though, are Fudge Crackle Cookies.
12. Where do you grocery shop? I do the bulk of my shopping at Giant Eagle, mainly for price and convenience. For more specialty items I can’t find there, I love Nature’s Bin in Lakewood.
13. Favorite guilty pleasure when it comes to food? I definitely have a weakness for salt, great breads, and really good doughnuts.
14. If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing? My plan was to be a Forensic Scientist, working with DNA.
15. If you could visit any restaurant in the world, which one would it be?
I would love to have the full El Bulli experience.
16. What is one easy dessert everyone at home could make?
Fruit (either fresh or slightly cooked down with butter and sugar until tender) served with a streusel topping and fresh whipped cream. Taking advantage of fruit that is available is an easy way to create a simple, yet delicious dessert, whether it be for your own enjoyment or for a special occasion. The key is to use fruit that is in season. Some general guidelines: stick to pears, apples, and cranberries in fall and winter. Stone fruits, such as apricots and plums start becoming available in late spring, and then berries in the summer.
For the streusel, work the following ingredients together with your fingers until it comes together and is crumbly:
4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter, slightly soft
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cups granulated sugar (or equal amount of brown sugar if you want a richer taste)
1/2 tsp. salt
Spread in an even layer on a sheet pan and bake at 350 for 8 – 10 mins or until lightly brown.
This streusel recipe can be easily doubled or tripled, without affecting the quality. To add a bit more interest and texture to the streusel, feel free to add about a 1/4 cup per batch of coarsely chopped nuts or even oats.
For garnish, whip two cups of heavy whipping cream with 1/2 cup of powdered sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla extract, until medium-firm peaks form.
Serve this dessert in small bowls for a casual look or parfait-style, in martini or other nice glasses for a more elegant look. Start with fruit on the bottom, top with desired amount of streusel, and then a dollop of whipped cream.
17. Favorite TV show? All-time favorite is Seinfeld, with The Office coming in at a very close second.
18. What kitchen gadget can you not live without? A microplane and small and large off-set spatulas.
19. What is the best plate of food you have ever had? I’ve been fortunate enough to dine at several great restaurants, such as Babbo, The Slanted Door, The French Laundry, Zuni Cafe, etc. However, my most favorite dining experience was at a restaurant called Le Chien Noir in Kingston, Ontario. It is a French bistro in this Canadian city that borders Lake Ontario. It was the simplest yet most delicious plate of steak frites I have ever had. That, along with the company I was with and the atmosphere, made it a dining experience I will never forget.
20. Favorite meal from your childhood? Not necessarily a meal but a few different foods. Potato Pierogies with sauteed onions and butter, potato pancakes, cinnamon rolls, and Packa (Ukrainian Easter Bread). These are all foods that both my grandmothers made. That’s a lot of carbs, huh? Also, I remember delicious cupcakes that my mother made when I was only a couple years old. They were very rich chocolate cupcakes with chocolate fudge frosting topped with the little colored sprinkles. I have yet to find a chocolate cupcake that is as good as those.
21. How did you become a pastry chef? I have always had a passion for food and an extra-passion for desserts. I was almost through with my Undergrad Degree in Biology from Kent State when I had a light-bulb moment. I love science but I also have a very strong creative side that I knew I had to incorporate into my career. I graduated from Kent, completed the Pastry Program at ICASI, and landed my first restaurant pastry position, opening with Lola in Downtown Cleveland. Since then, I have gradually begun to marry two of my strongest interests, science and food. Working at Crop has really allowed me to apply my science education to my dessert creations in terms of new techniques, ingredients I am able to use, and continued experimentation. Also, continuing to take science-related coursework as I can allows me to stay sharp and current in that area while still working with food.
22. Are you trying out any new desserts? I really love floral notes but I know many people are hesitant because it reminds them of perfume. For spring, I want to put a dessert on the menu that is a balance of floral and herbal notes, something that is refreshing and not too perfumey.
23. How does science play into your desserts? I incorporate aspects of food science into my desserts in ways that improve the dish, whether it be texturally, flavor-wise, or nutritionally. However, I strive to make these improvements subtle and so they are not screaming out to the customer, like “Hey, I am a laboratory experiment on your plate!”. Part of my philosophy is, if it does not do anything to improve the quality of the dessert, then do not do it. I also plan on using my science background and continued science education to create baked goods/desserts that are delicious and nutritionally sound.
24. How did you become involved with a Ukrainian vocal group? I have always been very involved in my Ukrainian heritage but as I got older and busier, I fell out of a lot of the groups and events. The opportunity arose to audition for a Ukrainian Female Vocal Ensemble. Because music, particularly singing, has also always been a big part of my life, I knew this was something I had to do. Our group, Zorya (which translates into star), is made up of about 13 women who all live in the Greater Cleveland area. We bring a fresh, young face to Ukrainian music while still maintaining tradition. We are recording our first CD of folk, Christmas, and sacred music. I am thrilled to be a part of it.