By Jemma Howlett
Name: Kate Snider
Occupation: Pastry Chef
Hometown: Roslyn, Long Island
Current Neighborhood: Astoria, Queens
Finish high school, go to college, get a degree, then start your career—this is the generally accepted route to adulthood; one that makes parents and college counselors happy. Kate Snider tried it out, but after her first year at Vassar College she figured out that wasn’t for her. She loves the city, craves it even, so living in a small bubble of academia and collegiate athletics made her feel claustrophobic and stagnant.
So when her freshman year came to a close, Kate decided to take some time off. Her plan was to live and work in NYC for a little while and figure things out. After moving to Brooklyn she started to think about what type of job she would really enjoy. Baking had always been a hobby and passion of hers, but she wondered if it could be more. She got a job as a production baker in a small café through Craigslist. This snowballed into greater responsibilities and new jobs. Soon she had her first pastry job—and loved it.
Kate had a whirlwind rise to pastry chef glory. Now 21, she is the head pastry chef at Cantine, the Cobble Hill café that owner Alex Sagol and head chef Eric Zawacki recently opened after running a successful catering company for the past three years (find them at Union and Columbia streets). In Kate’s apartment you’ll find dog-eared Lucky Peach magazines and a well-worn Flavor Bible. Through self-guided study, hours in the kitchen, and raw talent, she has become a master at challenging your dessert expectations with inventive recipes (several of which are pictured below). She walks the line between sweet and savory, punctuating desserts with unexpected flavors like peppercorn, and plates her food with effortless elegance while somehow keeping it honest and humble. I got the chance to speak with Kate about her journey from undergrad to baking goddess.
You went to Vassar College for a year before deciding to move to the city and do something else. How did you know that college wasn’t for you?
The summer leading into my first semester at Vassar, I was working at a spot on St. Marks in the East Village. It was my first job in a restaurant, and I was the hostess. I was couch-hopping, practically living out of a backpack, and exploring the city with every chance I got. By the end of the summer, I knew two things: I was in love with restaurants, and I was in love with Manhattan. It took me about two months at Vassar to realize that I was missing something, and seeking something, that college wouldn’t be able to offer. I was craving the energy of the city, and the independence of making it my own.
Did you get a job right after leaving Vassar?
After finals my freshman year, I decided to move to Brooklyn and work. I hadn’t committed to taking a semester off and wanted to see how I would like working and living on my own. I applied to a few non-profits and landed an internship with New York Road Runners. I worked in the development and philanthropy department, where I spent my days researching potential donors for various campaigns. I enjoyed it a lot, but by the end I definitely realized I would need a more hands-on job.
How did you get started working in restaurants and bakeries?
Once I had the idea to leave Vassar, I was pretty confused about what my next move should be. The idea of going to culinary school crossed my mind, but I didn’t know if I truly wanted to commit to a future in the industry. After leaving my internship, a 9-to-5 desk job, I wasn’t quite sure where to turn next. Then it hit me: a kitchen. I figured I would give it a shot, and perhaps I would know for sure if culinary school was the place for me. I mean, baking was always a hobby of mine, but what would happen when it became a job? Could passion persist through work? I found a posting on craigslist for a production baker at a small café in Fort Greene. That turned into my first pastry job.
From there, I ended up hopping around, working at a few different places trying not only to learn as much as possible about the craft, but also to understand what I did and did not like in a work environment—something that is equally as important when working in a kitchen. The hours are long, the space is small, and you must be totally into it. I tried my hand at Tiny’s and The Bar Upstairs in Tribeca, Del Posto in Chelsea, Copperhill on Long Island.
You are only 21 and you’re in charge of baking for a whole restaurant. Is that a lot of pressure?
It’s definitely a lot of pressure, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. A year ago I accepted a job as head pastry chef at a new restaurant. It was frightening, knowing that if I made a mistake and things weren’t ready for dinner service, or that if customers had complaints about the dishes, it was all on me. The bread had to be ready by 5 p.m., and the dishes had to both taste and look beautiful. There were no excuses. To create your own menu and schedule, you have to be incredibly self-motivated, organized, and efficient. Some days I feel overwhelmed, and like I’m in way over my head. Other days, the kitchen feels like an extension of my body, and I float through my prep list.
Where do you get the ingredients for your kitchen?
Being in Brooklyn, at Cantine, we have access to an incredible variety of produce and specialty ingredients. The culinary diversity of New York is a playground for chefs. The produce stalls of Chinatown, the many bodegas of Sunset Park, and the overloaded aisles of Kalustyan’s, my absolute favorite place to roam, are all within a few subway stops. And let’s not forget about all the local farmers who set up shop at Greenmarkets across the city. Thanks to them, we are able to craft our menu around the current crop, and use produce when it’s perfect. We also have a small garden in our backyard, where we grow blueberries, various herbs, and edible flowers. We source our dairy and other basic pantry ingredients from a few different purveyors.
You create a lot of your own recipes, how do you know what will work and what won’t?
One of the first things I learned is that nothing is original. Every dish, every recipe, is inspired by a prior experience, be it a memory of a dish eaten long ago, or a physical recipe bookmarked in a well-worn cookbook. As chefs, we have to take conceptual inspiration and reformat it into a tangible dish. In order to take an idea and make it into a pastry, I usually start with the basics, which in my case would be a well-tested, well-received recipe. From there, I start to experiment and make adjustments based on what I would like the finished outcome to be. Is it too dense? Too sweet? What would happen if I substituted olive oil for butter, or almond meal for all-purpose flour? How do I add moisture? Is there a way to make this vegan? Once you begin to understand the basic properties of ingredients and the variables that affect a recipe, it’s a lot more formulaic than one may think. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s part of the gig. The only way to learn is to put in the hours and start creating.
Have you ever had any huge flops in the kitchen?
Flops? Of course! I mean, haven’t we all? My first week in a kitchen ended with a very large batch of peanut butter cookie dough in the trash bin. And then there was the time when I was prepping for a party of 80, and dropped all nine chocolate cakes on the ground. Let’s just say that didn’t end well.
You have moved around a lot since you’ve been living in New York. How do you like where you are living now?
Astoria is the best! Really. It’s the perfect mix of old and new. You can sit on your stoop and feel like you are in suburbia, and then go to a bar and listen to live music outdoors and remember that you’re not. Plus, Greek food. Enough said.
Can you talk a little bit about living in NYC as a young person on a budget?
I’ve definitely had to prioritize where my paychecks go. I’m lucky enough to eat most of my meals at work (industry perk!), so food costs are low. Rent and transportation are killers, but that’s universally felt. The thing is, as often as New York seems impenetrable and unforgiving, it’s incredibly giving. There are so many things to do that are either free, or pretty cheap, especially if you have a student ID. There’s also so much to see, and walking around is totally free.
What else are you involved with in the city?
I’m on a running team, The Dashing Whippets, which is awesome. Lately, I’ve been going to different classes and groups to try new things, like pottery or tap dancing. Two weeks ago I joined a friend at a Buddhist session near Union Square, which was a really cool experience. You never know who will show up.
Can you name three of your favorite places to eat in the city?
Hmmm, this is a tough one. My all time favorite spots are places where the food and the people are honest. Right now, I’m obsessed with a few of the Greek restaurants in Astoria, like Elias Corner or E Taverna. Spring Street Natural has always held a special place in my heart, and I can’t stop eating the bread at High Street on Hudson. It’s unreal. Recently I ate at Nix, which was definitely cool, and Kajitsu, which blew my mind.
To finish up, what are your goals for the future? Where would you like to be in 10 years?
I’d love to have my own café by then, although I have no idea what the time between then and now will look like. I hope I’ll still be making some good food with some good friends. That would be nice.
Anyone else getting hungry? Follow Kate on Instagram (@kdsnidez) to see pictures of her fantastic baked goods and visit her at Cantine in Brooklyn! Also follow @cantinenyc and check out their website.
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