Carrie Laird and Aileen Lewis are the talented ladies behind all the desserts enjoyed at The National. As a team, they draw from Mediterranean traditions to Southern classics, updating each dessert with the flair of The National. To an outsider “cheesecake jiggly” may mean nothing, but after Carrie relays this message to Aileen, both know the dessert will turn out just perfect.
How did you land this sweet job?
Carrie: I’ve been at The National for three years this December, though, my road to get here has been winding. I received a Biology degree from UGA, then a Masters in Special Education, the field in which I worked for a time–but throughout, I always worked in kitchens and that was where my passion was. I had been working with the current sous chef at Five & Ten, Mimi, when I approached Peter about this position. The opportunity to have menu control and creative control was what really excited me about the job, and still does.
Aileen: I had my first experience at The National after approaching Peter about shadowing the pastry chef, whom I didn’t know at the time. I came in that day and Carrie basically put me to work. I think I was there for 10 hours. A few weeks later Carrie asked me to work for couple of days when she was short staffed. A couple months later, one of the pastry chefs moved, and that’s when I came on permanently.
How did you learn the craft?
Carrie: I’m self-taught in desserts, and much of my growth and learning has happened at The National. I studied Bo Friberg’s “The Professional Pastry Chef” to gain a foundation, and used my background in science to experiment. Once you know what ingredients are leveners, emulsifiers, etc., you can make a dessert perform how you want it to, and you know what’s wrong when something goes awry. Of course, my traditional Southern family, full of cooks, influences my style. I tend to re-imagine classics for the aesthetic of The National.
Aileen: Ever since I was young I’ve enjoyed baking, mostly with my mom. Just like Carrie I’m self-taught. I’ve learned so much through my time at The National. And recently I’ve been using the Bon Appetit Desserts cookbook to experiment with new recipes at home.
How would you describe The National’s particular style?
Carrie: It’s all about nodding to Mediterranean flavors and traditions while highlighting local and seasonal flavors. For example, our peanut baklava takes a classic Mediterranean dessert and incorporates peanuts, a product we happy source from South Georgia farmers.
Aileen: We bring unexpected flavors to the desserts. The use of Mediterranean spices, like cardamon, and the addition of pomegranate seeds for example, make our desserts unique. We often take known classics and update them. That and our changing menu bring people back.
What is your quintessential holiday dessert?
Carrie: Our apple cake is an updated version of my family recipe; that was a typical holiday treat. What’s interesting about fall and winter tastes is that people seem to naturally crave things they associate with the holidays. From our menu now, I would say my favorites are the ¼ Pineapple and the Pumpkin Bread. The pineapple, served with lime-sugar, cane syrup and pomegranate seeds is a light and refreshing finish to the heavier meals we see in the colder months like cream-based soups, potatoes, etc. And although it’s not the first fruit we think of during winter in Georgia, pineapples are actually in season this time of year where they grow. On the more classic side, the pumpkin bread is rich, delicious and vegan, and the pumpkin jam served on top is the best. Making vegan desserts is always a challenge, but I like to offer at least one vegan option. I don’t go for butter substitutes, but rather focus on vegetable and canola oil, for example, which are healthier options anyways.
Aileen: For New Year’s last year we served chocolate ice cream with peanut baklava mixed in. That was so good. I love chocolate…all the time! Since I’m working with our desserts all day, it’s rare I will visit the restaurant and order one–unless we have a chocolate item. I can’t resist the Pot de Creme or the everyday Chocolate Cake which is just plain and good. Kittens and chocolate chip cookies are all I need.
Why do you value The National?
Carrie: I think we serve top notch, delicious food. We bring new flavors to the Southern palate, and I’m glad we have it in this town. The farm-to-table model has been in place for centuries in Europe, and on the West Coast, people like Alice Waters have been doing it since the 60s. We’re happy to be among the movement on the East Coast, especially in Georgia.
Aileen: This is cheesy but I love that everyone gets along so well. All of the staff are actually friends, and we hang out outside of work, have Christmas parties, go out for drinks. It’s a real family here and I think that creates a special, inviting environment at the restaurant.
Do any well-known chefs inspire you?
Carrie: Although neither are pastry chefs, I really respect both Alice Waters and Rick Bayless. I absolutely love how Alice Waters puts together a menu. They are never wordy and always stay true to the food. Menu descriptions are all about the product and are always presented in a sophisticated and elegant way. And, as I said, Waters was pivotal in bringing up farm-to-table dining in the United States. Rick Bayless is one of my favorites because I too love Mexican food and their flavor combinations, like the pairing of cinnamon with chocolate and chilli you taste in our Mexican Chocolate Cake.
Aileen: It may seem expected, but you can’t go wrong with Martha Stewart. Her recipes are reliable and always well-tested. I also really like Ina Garten. She makes simple, good food. And of course Deb of The Smitten Kitchen. Her recipes are current and fun to try at home.
If you could design your perfect 3 course meal at The National, what would it be?
Carrie: I would definitely start with our Gambas al Ajillo over toast. For an entree, duck confit with greens. And to finish, I would design a chocolate tasting to pair with a glass of bourbon. It would have three pieces of single origin chocolate, one from Switzerland, France and El Salvador, all containing the same percent cacao.
Aileen: Ooh, I’d have to start with Rabbit Pasta, only a small dish since it’s so rich. Then I’d have the Bone-In Pork Chops that are about the size of my head, served over sweet potato puree and kale with a caramel vinegar jus. So good. And I’d end with our ricotta cake. It’s actually my mom’s aunt, Aunt Jo’s, recipe that we’ve updated with chocolate on the bottom and mixed in, served with pistachio ice cream on top.