The Dish: Chef Petersen of CityZen

D.C.’s Top Chef on sweet vs. savory. Plus, a video of the chef in action!

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Chef of the Mandarin Oriental's CityZen and Sou'Wester (Photo courtesy Mandarin Oriental)

In an ongoing series, Washington Life sits down with some of the area’s best pastry chefs to see where D.C. desserts are heading.

If Chef Matthew Petersen, pastry chef at Mandarin Oriental’s CityZen and Sou’Wester looks familiar, think back to Season 2 of Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts. Petersen was one of 14 pastry chefs in the country to compete on the Emmy award-winning series, where he made it to the final three and was voted “fan favorite” for the season.

A native of Philadelphia, Petersen studied baking and pastry arts at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. He worked at Castle Hill Inn and Resort in Newport before returning to Philadelphia as the pastry chef at Morimoto and then LaCroix, where he refined his skills and made the acquaintance of Chef Daniel Boulud. Later, Petersen joined Boulud at db Bistro Moderne in New York and Café Boulud in South Beach Florida.

Petersen has worked with Chef at Mandarin Oriental since 2010.

How did you end up as a pastry chef?

I was lucky. I knew what I wanted to do at a young age. My mom did a lot of wedding cakes and pies when I was growing up. Being around homey, feel-good pastry was something I always grew up with.

What was your “Top Chef: Just Desserts” experience like?

I always told my wife that if they do a pastry spinoff, I wanted to jump on it. Then I watched the first season and felt so bad for what those chefs went through. When they announced the second season I wasn’t sure. I put it on the back burner until I got a call from the network saying they wanted me to try out. Since they were coming after me I thought I’d have a good shot so I jumped through all the hoops and they sent me this email: “You’re on the show, get on a plane in two weeks.”

I valued every moment and don’t have any regrets. I made amazing friends and had a great learning experience. I would love to do it again. It really tests your every limit: your talent, skill set, ability to work under pressure, dealing with people.

CityZen's star anise rice pudding (Courtesy of Mandarin Oriental)

Any behind-the-scenes drama while filming?

We were actually really cool with each other. On the savory side, chefs are more outspoken; there are hotter tempers. Pastry chefs are more reserved and behind the scenes. We tend to think before we speak. We had a great deal of respect for each other. Pastry is a different animal. The chefs are more introspective, very methodical. Cooking, you fly by the seat of your pants. For years pastry chefs were pushed to the back and fought for a space in the kitchen, although that’s changing now.  Pastry chefs just have a certain personality. It’s not an easy job, it’s the last things guests see. Dessert must be damn good.

What trends are you seeing in pastry lately?

It seems like there’s a trend toward things that make people feel good. I can’t stand cupcakes. I’ll make them for people if they want me to, but people want things simple and uncomplicated. I think that’s what the food scene is trending to. You have your fine dining, but those restaurants are also catering to that clientele. We try to do things that are avant garde but approachable.

Has there been pressure on you to create healthier desserts?

We have a vegetarian tasting menu at CityZen that includes desserts. The way I’ve approached it is to not use butter, milk or cream. I am using eggs, however, otherwise I’d be screwed. It’s been really hard to create something amazing without those things, but it helped me push myself.

Would you say you have a dessert trademark or style?

No, not really. It’s just kind of like, what’s my mood like? My emotions are reflected in my plate. If I’m having a bad day, my staff makes me look good. I approach each dessert differently — plating style, look, composition.

CityZen's Valrhona chocolate dessert (Photo courtesy of Mandarin Oriental)

Where do you get ideas or inspiration for new desserts?

It sounds cliché but the seasons. I try not to look too much at what other people are doing. I’ll reference my cookbook collection here and there, banter with our sous chef or Eric and bounce ideas off of them. We change the whole menu every month and a half — the whole thing — and we don’t repeat. It’s difficult but very exciting.

What is a must-try on this menu?

Right now we have a really beautiful Apricot Vacherin with apricot sorbet, rooibos tea cream, honey ice cream, local basil and crispy meringue. It’s super refreshing.

What are your favorite ingredients?

Butter

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I’m a cookies-and-cream ice cream junkie, Trader Joe’s brand. And KitKats.

What are your favorite spots in D.C. when you’re not working?

I spend a lot of time with my family. I work so much that I’m at home with my wife and daughter on my days off. We live in Arlington. We usually go to a place in Shirlington called Guapos.

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