Bryant Stuckey

Bryant Stuckey
Pastry Chef
owner, Decadent Delight

Tottered on: 16 August 2007
Temperature: 83 F
Ceiling: hazy sun
Ground: yellow walnut leaves
Wind: WNW at 9 mph

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TT with HD: Bryant Stuckey

[Ed. note: The Michigan-shaped cake presented to Congressman John Dingell at the Greenpeace reception was baked by Bryant Stuckey, owner of Decadent Delight. ]

HD: Welcome to the teeter totter!

BS: Thank you.

HD: Alright, let's actually get some tottering motion going. You're like what, six-four?

BS: Six-three.

HD: Okay, so we need to make sure you get adequate leg extension so you don't cramp up in the middle.

BS: Right, right!

HD: So this cake you made for Congressman Dingell in the shape of the state of Michigan, I witnessed the actual transfer of that from Greenpeace over to his office. So rest assured, that did, in fact, happen.

BS: Good, good! I'm glad.

HD: The disappointing thing to me was, the staffer in the office, Andy LaBarre I think was his name, he was quite cordial, he played his role as host really well, and he offered to cut the cake with us and to have coffee with it, and to actually share the cake with us. But Rebecca, the Greenpeace organizer, she sorta suggested that she'd really like for the Congressman to see the cake intact ...

BS: ... she'd mentioned that to me, yeah.

HD: Yeah, and it was all I could do to restrain myself to keep from saying, Well, Andy, you go right ahead and cut that cake, because I'd like a piece!

BS: [laugh]

HD: But you know, Rebecca had gotten some extra cakes, I don't know from where--chocolate cake with white icing, which is my favorite flavor combination--for us to enjoy, so that we didn't have to spoil your artistry. So that was chocolate cake underneath?

BS: That was actually vanilla cake.

HD: Oh, okay!

BS: It was intended to be chocolate, but plans just got changed, and I ended up doing vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream.

HD: Now, when you say, 'plans just got changed' ... ?

BS: To be honest with you, I started running out of time. And I had vanilla cake batter already made for something else. And since I was giving the cake away, I figured that it was okay. It was intended to be chocolate with vanilla icing.

HD: Oh, okay, so this was something you did gratis?

BS: Yeah, oh yes.

HD: Wow. So what would something like that cost if I wanted to buy it?

BS: If I was actually selling that, it would depend on how many people it fed, but that cake could probably feed around 15 people, maybe 20, probably around $60. Maybe fifty or sixty dollars. Because it's such a special cake, in the shape of Michigan.

HD: So do you have a pan shaped like Michigan?

BS: I do not. That was actually a stacked sheet cake that I ended up cutting into the shape of Michigan. Which is the better way to go anyway.

HD: Really? Why?

BS: I think when you cut it into the shape that you want, you get it exactly the way you want it, as opposed to a pan. A pan will bake into that pan shape only, and you're kind of limited as to what pans you have.

HD: So there aren't like specialty pan makers where you can go and get like the whole set of 50 states baking pans?

BS: [laugh] I'd imagine you probably could. And have it so that the pan would make it so that they all fit together to make the U.S.! I imagine you probably can. But most bakers nowadays that are doing specialty cakes, if they want a certain shape, they'll cut it that shape.

HD: And is there any particular reason you left off the Upper Peninsula?

BS: [laugh][laugh] Great question! It was nothing personal!

HD: Did you intend to diss the U.P.?

BS: Well, I think we were really intending to highlight Congressman Dingell's district--it was kind of kitschy in a way, in the sense that it was in the shape of Michigan. I think it was really intended to be the Michigan hand without the extra finger of the U.P.! [laugh].

HD: So I think I heard Rebecca say that she actually constructed the little windmills?

BS: Yeah, I didn't get to see those, but ...

HD: ... I took some photographs, I can send them along to you.

BS: Oh, cool.

HD: Is that something that you would ordinarily, say, time-permitting and energy- and creativity-permitting, that you would offer to clients?

BS: I would. I like to go as creative and as exact to what the customer wants, and I don't really put limits to what they can do. I mean, obviously it does have to work out financially, because of the time involved, but I don't really set limits. I try to do it exactly what they want, because that kind of pleasure of getting exactly what they want, you really can't pass that up.

HD: I want to get back to the flavor combination of chocolate with white icing, or white frosting--is there a technical distinction between frosting and icing?

BS: In my mind there is. I think it's more of a personal thing, but I think when people mention 'icing' they tend to mean the icing from back in the 70's when your mom made icing on the stovetop or like Betty Crocker kind of icing ...

HD: ... now when you say make icing 'on the stovetop', like out of what kind of ingredients?

BS: I think a lot of times in the past those old recipes had milk in them, powdered sugar, and butter. That tends to be kind of a popular one from back in the day. But I think of icing as compared to buttercream, because I use buttercream. Buttercream is much smoother, and much more complicated to make than just icing. Icing tends to be the kind like people get out of a can. That's usually what you mean. And then buttercream is a little bit more refined tastewise. It's not as sweet, and so when people ask for buttercream, they mean they want buttercream--they don't want the sugary kind of icing.

HD: So if somebody came to you--like me for example, this'd be me talking--and said, I want the kind of frosting where you can actually feel the grit of the sugar against your teeth ...

BS: ... [laugh] ...

HD: ... because for me that's the standard--if I can't feel the grit of the sugar, it's not even really frosting or icing.

BS: I have done that, and I can do that, because a lot of kids like that. I have a son, who's three, and he tends to like sweet things. He might end up liking buttercream, just because of me, but a lot of his friends ...

HD: ... so you're trying to steer him away?

BS: I'm trying to steer him away from the sugary stuff, to be honest.

HD: So you're trying to get him to develop a more sophisticated, refined palate.

BS: Exactly, yes! And I think most of his friends would probably like the sweet kind of icing. A lot of kids tend to like the icing. So I don't say that I won't or I don't do it, because I have, for sure, and sold it that way. But it's not what I like to do, put it that way.

HD: So for yourself, say if you were baking your own birthday cake--and I suppose you've done that, haven't you?

BS: Ahhh, no. Not my own birthday cake, no. I've baked myself a cake, but never for my birthday.

HD: What kind of cake would you choose to bake yourself, just to please yourself only, now, not thinking, Oh, well, there's going to be these other people there and I know they like blah blah. Just to please yourself.

BS: I like plain vanilla cake, and it's kind of a sour cream recipe, so it has some sour cream in it, which really brings out the flavor. And layered up with creme brulee filling, and passion fruit filling. And then covered with vanilla buttercream. That's my all-time favorite.

HD: Wow. That sounds kind of complex. You can't just 'whip that up'.

BS: Well, it's a little bit, actually. I mean, I could, I've been doing this a long time. It is kinda complicated--I know what you're talking about. I've never thought about it, but I guess it is. But I like that cake, I love the tartness of the passion fruit, along with the smooth creme brulee. I think it's excellent.

HD: I wanted to ask you--this is a purely selfish question, because I've constructed recently a solar oven, and I've not been able to get it to the temperatures I would like. I would like to be able to bake cookies and bake cake in this thing, and I assume I need to get at least above 300 F degrees to do that?

BS: Yeah.

HD: Well, I'm only making it to like 230 F degrees, which is fine for beans and rice--we've made beans and rice a few times so far. And last weekend, we made custard. Which is low temperature, long cook time. But I'm wondering, do you know of any confections that require only a low temperature, but a long cook time?

BS: Meringues.

HD: Meringues??

BS: Meringues are perfect for that. Unless you really want them browned, then I would say, No. But meringues really just need to bake until they dry out. You know, you go to bakeries and they have those little meringue cookies or meringue stars kind of thing. Meringues, as soon as you pipe them out onto a sheet, or whatever you're using to bake with ...

HD: ... now when you say 'pipe them out', that means what?

BS: Oh, I'm sorry, that would be where you fill up a pastry bag and it has like a tip on it, and you squeeze it out of that tip. Meringues are good for that, because then you could leave them in the oven, and they're really just made to bake and dry out. And so that'd be perfect for that I think, and it'd make you look like you're a professional!

HD: Yeah, well, that's a good idea! Part of my reluctance to really go forward with the solar oven, is that I think people's expectations from the word 'oven' are that you have cake or cookies or something, that those are part of the repertoire of the device. So meringue. Huh. So would that work with like a pie?

BS: Not necessarily. Because a pie has a tart shell in it. And you would have to bake that tart shell beforehand. Now I would imagine if you left the tart shell in there long enough, eventually it would dry out and bake. It just wouldn't be as ...

HD: ... flaky?

BS: Flaky, exactly. And you'd have to make sure it's completely dried out, because sometimes the butter will kind of seep to the bottom and not completely dry out. But if you were able to get the tart shell to bake, which I think you probably could, ...

HD: ... at 230 F?

BS: Maybe. You could roll it really thin. I'm not going to say a hundred percent, Yes. But maybe. And if you were to get that to bake, you could make--oooh, you could make a lemon custard to go on the bottom and then put the meringue on top, and that would be almost like a lemon meringue pie.

HD: Wow. So the custard, you would bake separately?

BS: Yeah, the custard would be baked separately, and then you would spread that in after it's cooled off. Maybe to room temperature, refrigerated, whichever.

HD: And then you'd put the whole thing in with meringue on top and bake it, so that the meringue dried out?

BS: Mmmm, I would be careful, though, because maybe that won't work, now that I think of it! I would be careful, because I'm thinking with all the eggs in there, you do need to have kind of a hot temperature for that meringue to really bake. I think I was thinking more of like meringue cookies. Yeah, I think meringue cookies would be the ultimate best. Just making little meringue cookies onto a sheet pan, or whatever you bake them on, and letting those dry out.

HD: I was noticing on your website, there's all these wonderful pictures of wedding cakes, and I couldn't find any that were taller than four tiers, although in the text describing what you're capable of, you say five tiers. So what's the deal?

BS: I have done five tiers, I just really haven't gotten around to making sure that there's one on the website. But yeah, I've definitely done five tiers. In fact, I've done six! But the deal with that is I don't necessarily deliver it all as one cake.

HD: Right, you have to take each tier and the infrastructure ...

BS: ... right, and then assemble it onsite. But yeah, I definitely can do five tiers and even up. It really kinda doesn't matter.

HD: But most typically people go with four?

BS: Typically, it depends, because you know if they have like a big, big party--I've done stuff for 250 people plus--you can do as many tiers as you need to feed as many people. A lot of people will choose to do a medium-size cake and then have other cake on the side that will feed everyone else. Which, you know, works out easier for me, either way's fine.

HD: So you're talking about wedding receptions basically?

BS: Yeah, that's having to do with weddings. But nowadays, a lot of people are doing birthday parties and bridal showers in the same way that they're doing weddings. So they'll have a birthday party with a wedding cake.

HD: Wow.

BS: And Quinceaneras ...

HD: ... I'm sorry, what?

BS: A Quinceanera is kind of like a celebration when a girl turns fifteen and it's in the Mexican culture. Very similar to like a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. And they're even doing bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs in the same way, where they'll have a wedding cake, they have these huge cakes. And kind of makes you wonder, because there's like a celebration every year from the time you're twelve or thirteen for something!

HD: So are people doing weddings with pies at all?

BS: I have done one where it was a mixture of different desserts, and pies was one of them.

HD: Yeah, because I went to a wedding--I don't know two or three years ago it seems now--and they had pie. And it was good pie, but you know it was a little bit off the beaten path.

BS: [laugh] And there are some people who have certain kinds of allergies--I'm trying to remember which ones they are, there was one that I had to do, and it was because of an allergy, maybe it will come to me ...

HD: ... like gluten?

BS: It might have been gluten, but then there's gluten in the pie shell. So there's some kind of allergy and I'm not remembering it--oh, it was dairy! It was dairy. And we had to not do butter in the pie crust and just use shortening. And so there's fruit filling and stuff like that. So some people will choose pies as an alternative, just to have something different. I think I probably started doing more pies out here than I did when I was in Chicago, for sure.

HD: Speaking of Chicago, that's where you actually grew up?

BS: Mostly, yeah. From the time that I was seven. Before that I lived in Wisconsin. That's where I was born, Racine, Wisconsin. But most of my childhood was definitely Chicago, there's no doubt.

HD: And that's where you went to school for this?

BS: Culinary school, yes. It's called CHIC--Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. I went there for two years, and ended up not really even taking that many pastry or dessert classes. It wasn't until I graduated and got a job at a bakery and worked there for three years, that bakery is where I learned most of my craft.

HD: So what kind of classes did you take, if not pastry stuff?

BS: You can take a lot of hot food kind of things. A meats class. Believe it or not, there's a meats class.

HD: Is it called Meats 101?

BS: It's just called Meats. And it's pretty much Meats 101, because there's only one. You have Meats. You have Soups and Sauces and Fillings. That's all one class--Soups, Sauces, and Fillings. Breads. Culinary 101 is really like your basic all-around class and everyone has to take that--how to use a knife, and how to keep things cold and things like that. But that was kind of the basics, all around culinary, not just pastry. I ended up taking one pastry class that was part of the Breads class also. But I really didn't focus on it at all really.

HD: Do you watch the show--it's just concluded now for the season--Hell's Kitchen?

BS: I've seen it, yeah, I've seen it before.

HD: Do you find that entertaining?

BS: You know, I think it's a little bit over-the-top.

HD: Yeah. Well, it's FOX TV, so it's gonna be.

BS: [laugh] Yeah, that's true. I think it's a little bit over-the-top. I do see some chefs like that in certain kitchens definitely, and I've worked with some who were ...

HD: ... who were cursing all the time? [laugh]

BS: Well, not necessarily that bad, but they do get out of hand. Especially when the pressure's on, they want everyone to perform at their level. And that's understandably so. But I don't think that they're out of control for that long of a period and on a regular basis. I think, unfortunately, it kind of drives the stereotype that I think a lot of people love to have of chefs, that they're like these yelling monsters. And I don't know if that's good or bad, to be honest with you. As far as pastry goes, though, it's a whole different world. As compared to a hot food chef, pastry chefs tend to be a lot more patient. Because they have to be. And a lot more scientific. Because their food is definitely weighed more. Everything has to be scaled exactly right. You can't fudge things and say, Oh, I'll just throw a little bit more salt on this ...

HD: ... when you say, 'weighed' you mean literally put stuff on a scale?

BS: Yeah, literally weigh. Literally weigh them on a scale. I use a baker's scale, which is the old traditional way, a balance scale.

HD: So, not digital?

BS: No, no.

HD: Wait up, so with little weights that you have to put on there and take off?

BS: Yeah, exactly, the weights on each side ...

HD: ... are you kidding me?

BS: Yeah, I love it. It's the way to go, really. Because, you know--I was explaining this to my assistant today--the problem with digital scales is, let's say I had a bowl of something, and I filled it up. I put in flour, I weighed out my flour, so then I press zero on my digital scale. And now I'm going to weigh my sugar, and I add my sugar. And I press zero and then I add my salt ...

HD: ... that just sounds really convenient, I want a digital scale!

BS: But let's say I was questioning myself as to how much sugar I really did put in, or how much salt I really did put in. If I wanted to take out that salt that's sitting at the top, and I want to just measure it from there, on a digital scale, I can't, it's all together now. On a balance scale, I can go back a few notches, because I know how much that salt weighed. So go back a few notches, and I know how much is in my bowl, as opposed to a digital scale, you have to constantly start over from zero. On a balance scale you still have the chance of taking things out and re-weighing just from your start.

HD: So you're not talking about sifting through the ingredients, you're talking about using what you know about the previous ingredients' weights, on the assumption that you weighed those things accurately.

BS: Exactly. Right, right. And it's kind of a small thing, but in the sense that you still have a chance, without having to throw that whole bowl out. That could cost money, when you have a big huge measurement of 10 or 15 pounds of sugar, there's a difference there, you know. Plus it's about what you learned on, too. I learned on a balance scale. And there's some traditions I like to keep, just because they make sense to me.

HD: Is the smock a part of that tradition? Is that even the right word for it?

BS: A chef coat, chef jacket, yeah. I think it kind of goes with the image. I like to wear it when I'm going to shows ...

HD: ... I would expect you to wear it, actually. Someone gave us a gift certificate for an evening with a personal chef. The woman came and prepared the meal, and for me the very best part of the spectacle was that she had the actual chef jacket and the hat. It was the complete package. Without that, I would have felt like, Wow, the food was really tremendous, she obviously knew what she was doing, but she was out of uniform.

BS: [laugh]

HD: So I dunno, I attach a lot of significance ...

BS: ... no, I think you're right. Especially when I go to shows, I think what makes me stand out from other bakeries--I've noticed a lot of other bakeries now showing up in chef's coats, I don't know if it's from me or if it's that you see a lot of cooking shows on television, and people want to live the role or show the role. But I think when I go to shows, what makes me stand out is that people will start asking me questions about food, and I will really know about the food, and because I have the jacket on, I think they think, Well, obviously, he knows about food. If I didn't have the jacket on, I could just be some worker. But I think it definitely distinguishes that it's about the food, for sure.

HD: So is that navy blue, or?

BS: This is black.

HD: Is that peculiar to pastry chefs or is that you?

BS: You know, I don't know why I started wearing the black! I would say it's a social commentary [laugh] you know, but I think I just wanted to be different. And a lot of people thought I was crazy for wearing the black, because I deal with flour all the time.

HD: I was going to say, that'd show up if you've been working!

BS: But on the same note, it shows up if I was wearing a white jacket and I'm dealing with chocolate. Either way, it's going to get dirty, I guess. I just think I like the black more. I just feel like a little more of a rebel, I don't know what it is.

HD: Do you have pants to go with it ...

BS: I do have check pants, yeah, they call them check pants, where it's black and white, houndstooth design. That's the stereotypical chef wear, would be the houndstooth black and white check pants. Usually when you talk to chefs, they'll say, Wear your 'chef whites'. And that's what they mean--the houndstooth black and white pants and then the white jacket.

HD: So I found two addresses, for you. Are you actually out on Metty or Platt or?

BS: That is a mistake. Originally I was going to move to Platt Road and I had taken out an ad in the Yellow Book. And the Yellow Book, they're in conjunction with Google, I guess, with their online services. So it immediately went to Google that I was at Platt, and it stayed there. And I've tried to change it through Google, but I guess it takes a long time for it to filter through their system. So it will probably be like that for another maybe year or so.

HD: So you are, in fact, on Metty.

BS: On Metty Drive, yes.

HD: And off Jackson that's the road just before Enterprise Drive?

BS: Just before, that might be Enterprise, I'm not sure. Is Enterprise right before Baker?

HD: Ahhm, yeah, I think so. Enterprise is Motawi Tile and Littlefield Brothers Furniture, I think, right?

BS: I'm not sure, I won't say yes, a hundred percent on that. But after Staebler is Metty Drive. The next street after Staebler on the right side.

HD: So how did you wind up in Ann Arbor, after living in Chicago?

BS: My wife is from here. And we decided that we were going to be moving to an area where either one of our families was. My family is in Nashville, Tennessee. And her family was out here. I had visited out here to meet her family a number of times and I liked it. It reminded me of the suburbs of Chicago, and so I felt that between this and Nashville, I liked this better. I like Nashville, too, but I pictured living here better than I did Nashville, I guess.

HD: Well, Nashville is definitely the South.

BS: It is. And it's very different. I grew up in the North, so it's very different.

HD: Is there anything particular about Ann Arbor that you would identify as being similar to the suburbs of Chicago?

BS: Yeah, I would say that Ann Arbor has like a small-city feel, it's more like a town, but it feels like you're near a city. Now obviously, you're near Detroit. But it does feel like you're near a city really close by. That's where it's that suburb feel that I felt in Chicago. Chicago, you could zip right downtown and you'd be downtown.

HD: Do you go into Detroit on any regular basis?

BS: I do now, because I have cake deliveries out there. And I'm getting used to it a lot more. When I first moved here, I think I was--I'll be honest--I think I was scared of Detroit. I didn't really know anything about it, and it just seemed like a run-down city to me. And the more I get know it, though, the more it has a lot of character that I didn't really pay attention to before. And maybe it's because I've gotten to know a lot of my customers out there. But I go downtown a lot more than I used to, for sure. Especially in this past year, I've just had a lot of cake deliveries out there.

HD: Listen, you have anything else on your mind before we dismount?

BS: Mmmm, I don't think so. This is probably the most interesting thing I've done in years!

HD: Well, listen, thanks for coming over to teeter totter.

BS: No problem, no problem! Thank you!