Friday, January 17, 2014

Meet Pastry Chef Drew Rogers of Drew's Pastry Place and TV's Bakery Boss

One of my favourite things that has come out of this blog has been the opportunities to meet local chefs and restaurateurs, getting to know some of the ins, outs and what have yous of the Houston Food & Restaurant Industry.  Every now and again, someone contacts me and asks if I want to meet a local restaurateur, and I've yet to say no.  If I've ever been invited and it did not come to fruition, it was a case of schedules being out of sync.  Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Chef Drew Rogers, owner and operator of Drew's Pastry Place.  Chef Rogers is a native of New Jersey who's dad got a job in Tomball when he was in his teens and the whole family relocated.  Talk about culture shock!  It took him about 3 or 4 years to get acclimated, but like most of us Houstonians who've come from elsewhere, he found his groove and this wonderful patchwork town of a Metropolis became home.

Drew, like many of us Generation Xers, found himself at a crossroads at age 40.  After a career in another industry, he decided this was no longer for him and he reinvented himsel.  His wife asked him "If time and money is no object, what would you do?"  His answer was "I want to be a pastry chef!" She looked into schools for him, she took him to an open house for culinary schools.  With his wife's support, he went to a local Institute of Culinary Arts and worked hard to earn his credentials as a pastry Chef.  He worked under several local restaurants including the Houston Country club under Chef Fritz (a Master Chef, one of only 58 in the world at a time and with Jeffrey Guy, an outstanding pastry chef) as he honed is craft for a few years until he felt he was ready to start his own place, Drew's Pastry Place.  His original idea was to recreate the local Italian Bakery/Pastry shop you see on most corners in New Jersey and bring it to the Houston Market for the benefit of transplants from the Northeast (give them a taste of home) as well as to introduce new pastries to Houstonians and Southerners who'd never had the pleasure of tasting a fresh Cannoli, a Pizzale or a Pignoli.

Chef Rogers set up shop along Louetta Drive at Cutten, very close to Louetta and FM 249 (and my place of work at Lone Star College) and gradually built a loyal core following.  However, Chef Rogers felt that his pastry shop wasn't as successful as it could be.  He had gone the usual routes--promotions, coupons, social media, you name it.  However, he decided he needed help from an expert.  Enter Buddy Valastro, a fourth generation baker of Italian American extraction from Hoboken New Jersey, and the host/advisor of TLC's Bakery Boss.  Bakery Boss is the bakery's version of Hell's Kitchen--where a successful entrepreneur helps another entrepreneur get over the hump or break through something hindering their success with sage advice and a bit of drama long the way.  Chef Rogers quite literally said in his application he'd tried everything he'd thought of that needed to be done to improve business and if he could have thought of something else that would have improved things he would have done it already.  Rogers needed a fresh set of experienced eyes to give him a little help, and based upon how he talked about his experiences with Buddy Valastro, what was offered was indeed quite helpful.

Mrs. Katz & her lawyer would chase down this
great house blend Avi Katz roasted for
Drew's Pastry place! 
Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chef Rogers this past week and we talked food, family, Houston, the dining scene, TV, entrepreneurship, and most certainly Italian Pastries and Cupcakes.

One of the first things you notice about this affable man is his passion for good Italian pastries and his love of his family and customers.  While I waiting to speak with him, he was greeting a few customers by name, gently reminding his staff about bussing tables and preparing a cake for a customer with some advice from his mother.  While I enjoyed their House Blend roasted by Katz's, I took in the warm Tuscan inspired interior and perused the bakery case that was filled to the brim with various colourful cupcakes, cookies, cannolis and such.  I also noticed the Texas shaped flag iced sugar cookies and could think of more than a few folks who'd enjoy them just for the appearance alone--we Texans are a proud bunch, whether native or naturalized, and that includes the unique shape that is unmistakably Texas.

Drew finally was able to get situated and began to tell me his story.  From his bearing, one can see he is a driven man, someone who loves good food, loves what he does and had a goal to share good bakery fare with his adopted city.  He recounted from his youth in New Jersey it seemed that on every other corner you had an Italian American bakery.  In these places you could find all kinds of delicious treats, especially some unique cookies.  I don't mean biscotti like at Starbucks--I mean butter cookie sticks or pignolis loaded with Pine Nuts that would be crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, sweet, but not excessively so.  These are the cookies sold by the pound that an Italian Grandma would be baking for family gatherings and Sunday Dinner after Mass.  This was something well known to Houston residents who'd been transplanted from the Northeast, but was not familiar to us Southern folk.  Drew wanted to change that when he rolled out his Pastry Place a few years ago.

Tuscan Inspired Interior a Drew's Pastry Place
Situated on Louetta at Cutten, close to Compaq/Hp, across from Vintage Park Centre is seemingly an ideal place for a restaurant, a bakery even a fast food joint.  There's a hospital nearby, along with several neighborhoods and Klein High School is just to the east of it at Steubner Airline.  Drew set up shop a few years ago with a business model in mind that worked fairly well.  However, when he hit a plateu and tried everything he could to hit the next level, he signed up to be on Bakery Boss in order to tap the wisdom of Buddy Valastro.  The initial visit was very good--Buddy felt that Drew had a lot of the shop and the dining area well designed but did have him reconfigure some of the dininig area--new wall coverings on part to make it warmer and more homey, creating a bit of a nook that was cut of from the TV wall so some folks could enjoy their coffee and pastries without the flicker of the TV.  Adding in some couches and coffee tables for a comfortable feel as well, and a reorganization of the pastry case was in order as well.  These parts went through okay, but without much drama.

Creative Cupcakes at Drew's
The harder part was getting Drew to be willing to go beyond his initial menu intent--beyond just the Italian Bakery from New Jersey transplanted to Houston.  Drew himself had already adapted somewhat to Southern tastes as far as offering some cakes and pies that appealed to the area.  However, he really did not want to make and sell something trendy: gourmet cupcakes.  As anyone who's been living under a rock, knows these are trendy and popular, but they weren't something that appealed to him personally.  When Buddy came and evaluated Drew's pastries, he gave high marks to Drew's Tira Misu and his Italian Rainbow cookies.  However, Buddy also broached the subject of gourmet cupcakes and Drew bristled.

Traditional Cannoli, filled fresh on site by Chef Drew
"I was ADAMANT about not doing cupcakes." Drew relates "For the past 5 years, I had only one cupcake--a red velvet cupcake.  I would do them for special orders, but I never had them in my case.  My wife's been telling me for five years 'Do cupcakes! Do cupcaks!' but I didn't want to do them.  So [Buddy] and I disagreed about that. I said to him 'After all that money I paid and went to school to learn to bake [gourmet desserts], any monkey could bake and sell cupcakes!"  And then Buddy pointed to himself and said 'This monkey bakes and sells over 10,000 cupcakes a day.' And then it hit me that maybe I should do cupcakes."

Cannoli Cupcake by
Chef Drew Rogers
Buddy challenged Drew to come up with a signature cupcake he'd be proud to hang his name on.  As an Italian American and a Pastry Chef, one of his favourite desserts are Cannoli.  Usually Cannoli are fried pastry shells filled with a sweet blended mixture of Ricotta cheese and sugar, often topped with semi-sweet chocolate bits and/or pistachio nuts.  Drew came up with a Cannoli cupcake--a moist yellow cake cupcake partially filled and iced with a Ricotta Creme dressing, garnished with semi sweet chocolate chips and broken Cannoli shells.  Buddy was pleased, and those cupcakes were placed out front in the top of the pastry case.  Suffice it to say, these cupcakes and several others that Chef Drew Rogers have created since working with Buddy, are high volume sellers.  Other flavours include a Pink Princess cupcake and a S'mores cupcake, along with their traditional Red Velvet cupcake made with Buddy Valastro's own Cream Cheese Icing Recipe.

(clockwise from left) Italian Rainbow, Cannoli Cupcake, Pignoli
  and Italian Wedding Cookies from Drew's Pastry Place
Chef Drew invited me to sample a few of his desserts, starting with the traditional Cannoli.  I may be a Southern boy, but I've traveled a bit and have learned to appreciate food from all over.  However, I've had some traditional Cannoli back where I grew up due to a number of Italian American families who had moved to Louisiana during the 1970s.  I saw drew fill the shell with the fresh Ricotta cheese cream filling and drop in the chips himself.  Can't get fresher. The filling was a bit like a pudding derived from Stracciatella gelato, but much richer due to the cheese.  The shell was sweet, crunchy and had a hint of cinnamon flavour.  This was a dang good Cannoli--I think my coworkers might want me to bring some for our next department meeting!  Grade: A++

A sampling of Drew's Pastry Place Treats
coming home for the kids!
I also tried his Italian Rainbow dessert.  This is kind of like a Petite Fours--three layers of dense cake in Green, white and red like the Italian flag, with a thin layer of raspberry between each cake layer and topped with a chocolate ganache.  This was  sweet, not too heavy and went down very well.  Grade: A  
The Italian Wedding Cookies were crunchy and nutty, very nice and reminded me of what some of my mom's friends would serve when they had a ladies get together.  Grade: A.   The pignoli were next--these are crunchy, chewy small Italian cookies that are typically made with Pine Nuts.  I'd had these before--my mom's coworker, Mrs. Giordano (such an Italian name!) would make them for parties at their office and mom would bring home leftovers.  I had not had one of these in years and Chef Drew's evoked those kinds of memories for me.  Who'd have thought?   Grade: A+.  Last but not least, the creation that came from Buddy Valastro's challenge; the Cannoli Cupcake.  The shell and icing were pretty much like the Cannoli I'd had--wonderful stuff.  The cupcake was rich, dense and moist;  it had weight to it much like an Italian cream cake does.  Cupcakes aren't just treats for kids anymore and Chef Drew made a good one!  Loved it almost as much as his actual Cannoli.  Grade: A+
Helena enjoyed the Princess Cupcake
from Drew's Pastry Place

In and around tasting his products, talking food, TV, Houston, family and the like, customers came in and out, and Drew knew many of them by name.  I met a couple of young women on his staff who are students at Lone Star College-University Park where I teach, just the other side of 249 from his shop.  Several customers gave their enthusiastic endorsement to Drew's baked goods and indicated plans to come by on Monday, January 20th to watch his appearance on Bakery Boss at 9 PM on TLC.  I know I'll be watching and I hope y'all will too.  Better yet, if you've not been out to 249 and Louetta and visited Drew's Pastry Place, you really need to.  This goes TRIPLE for any Italian American transplants from the Northeast who are looking for authentic Cannoli in the Houston area.  I also want to thank Drew Rogers, his family and his staff for inviting me to be their guest and to try their great food and coffee.  FYI:  they also serve New York style crust Pizzas during lunch if you're not in the mood for anything sweet.  Given who's making it, I will venture it's very good pizza, to be sure!!!
Yes, they make Italian cream cake too! 

Drew's Pastry place is located at:
10300 Louetta Rd. Suite 114
(2 blocks east of 249 & Louetta, corner Louetta & Cutten)
Houston, Texas 77070
Phone: 832-717-3530
Hours of Operation:

Mon: 6:30 am - 2:00 pm
Tue - Thu: 6:30 am - 8:00 pm
Fri: 6:30 am - 8:00 pm
Sat: 8:00 am - 8:00 pm
Sun: Closed

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!
Mangiare felicemente tutti voi!!!

Drew's Pastry Place on Urbanspoon

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