The thin slices of pig heart “pastrami” look impossibly ruby colored, almost purple – a stark contrast to the sheen of pale yellow mustard topping the small mason jar of rillettes (a pâté-like spread of pork cooked in its own fat) next to them on the charcuterie board. There are ribbons of house-cured ham too. And a tempting fat-studded headcheese that belies its name. (Who gave such deliciousness such an off-putting moniker?)
Standing over the board is the person who made it all: Alina Eisenhauer. Yes, that Alina Eisenhauer. The “pastry chef.” The one who deftly incorporated rambutan (a tropical fruit) into a cupcake on The Food Network show “Sweet Genius.” The one who has been dazzling Worcester and beyond since 2008 with her signature cupcakes, which line the entrance to her restaurant, Sweet Kitchen & Bar, and adorn its logo. For sure, those pig parts, especially that heart pastrami, would make any carnivore scream, “Sweet!” But they are decidedly savory.
And if this confuses you, well, you may know her cupcakes but you don’t truly know Alina or Sweet.
Don’t worry. Alina still makes a “damned good” cupcake and she still has that wicked sweet tooth that led to her “dosant” and other popular dessert creations. (She’s aware that rebellions might form should they ever disappear.) It’s just that Alina waxes equally rhapsodic about her restaurant’s growing and evolving savory side, which actually takes her back to where she started.
“Everyone – including me! — is so quick to think that I started in desserts, but I started as a cook in restaurants,” says Alina. “I have a love/hate relationship with the structure that pastry requires. My natural personality is not that of a pastry chef. A savory chef doesn’t need to be that exacting. You don’t have to stand over the candy thermometer because if you go over or under one degree you’ve ruined the whole thing. Because that isn’t my personality in the kitchen, I guess I took a certain amount of pride in forcing myself to do desserts and accomplishing the challenge when the opportunity presented itself. I learned pastry and desserts from my mother but I taught myself at sixteen when there was no pastry chef at the restaurant I worked at. I became the pastry chef. I was obsessed. That’s how I am.”
That explains Alina’s current savory obsessions. Her eyes may light up passing a flat of strawberries from Lettuce Be Local but maybe even more so when she explains how to scrape the fat off the inside of pig skin with a spoon, fry that skin into crispy chicharrones (pork rinds), and use them as a foundation in place of chips for the ultimate paleo nachos. The skin and all the aforementioned bits came from a whole pig she got from Lilac Hedge Farm in Berlin; she plans on doing even more with their porcine tastiness in the near future. Lilac also provides Sweet’s ground beef, which Alina used as the foundation for her entry to The James Beard Foundation’s Better Burger Project™– a nationwide challenge to blend ground meat with 30% mushrooms to create a tasty but more sustainable burger.
The burger has been a hit but overall Alina still struggles for acceptance of her savory treats designed for sharing because have you tasted those cupcakes? “So many people around here identify me for the sweet and have yet to realize that we make really good food not just desserts. We are working on changing that. I have the confidence I can do it. People even joke that pastry chefs are the better chefs because we have to be more technical. We are taught to follow recipes, and if you give me a recipe for anything, I can cook it.” Alina stops and laughs, “If you’re a recipe kind of person.”
Balancing her sweet and savory sides accomplishes two things for Alina. The first is purely business: “There’s a lot of competition for the sweet side. Desserts are such a small segment. Not everyone eats desserts every day. Some just for special occasions. Supermarket bakeries are getting better. You have to do other things to survive.”
“But the bigger reason for me is creative,” she continues. “My mom always told me I was looking for the next thing. I love a challenge. To be locked in the box of just sugar and chocolate didn’t give me as much creatively.”
It also doesn’t let her push boundaries, which is the biggest challenge as the Worcester food scene grows: “Like other great chefs in the city, we try and educate the consumer. There are things I would love to be able to do that people are not ready for like incorporating more vegetables into dessert. I know they will like it but will they try it? When you are using fresh local ingredients, you don’t have a lot of room for people not to try it because there is a lot of waste.”
So, she pushes gently. “We did a sorrel ice cream, which is a weed that grows on your sidewalk, and made ice cream that was very popular but the fact that it came with strawberries and whipped cream probably helped. That’s the way to do it. Sneak it into a dish that they might not be 100% sure what it is but the rest of the dish sounds so good that they will try it anyway. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the burger has been received just because people do not think of us as that kind of place.”
That’s certainly true of Alina’s favorite part of Sweet’s menu too: brunch, which is unlike any in the city right now and which she would love to expand from weekends to a Friday “Business Brunch” or even a gospel one on Sundays. She’s playing with more than pig too, including the first “nitro” cold brewed coffee tap (pours like a Guinness and tastes unlike any iced coffee you’ve had) behind one of the most inspired and best stocked bars in Worcester.
The important thing for Alina is the restaurant scene in Worcester is getting so much richer: “We are getting enough chefs here who are pushing boundaries and doing interesting things and informing and educating consumers about what they are doing. We are buying local. It’s not competition. The more there are of us doing it, the more it grows the demand for it and people want more and more.”
As she pushes to satisfy this demand, Alina also tries to remember to celebrate what she has not just what she can do better and different for her customers to give them the best experience and the happiest memories. For someone who makes madeleines, she sounds appropriately Proustian: “Everything we do here is because we are trying to provide an amazing experience and a memory for someone. That is what food is. It is memories.”
That goes for herself, too: “I do this because I love it. This is a passion for people like me. You are so driven, so focused on what you are doing in the kitchen, you forget to appreciate what you have achieved. Usually it catches me on a Friday night, walking up the stairs. I turn around and see the place full of people having a good time, my kitchen turning out great food, and my dedicated staff serving it, and I think, ‘This is cool.’”