Dream Job: Sway and La Condesa's Laura Sawicki
Renowned Austin pastry chef and James Beard nominee Laura Sawicki sweetens the deal for downtown restaurants.
Laura Sawicki has a job that many women dream about: She creates decadent desserts for sophisticated and successful restaurants. As pastry chef of Austin favorites La Condesa and Sway, Sawicki concocts such delicacies as a jasmine tea panna cotta made with red grape, lychee, palm sugar, Thai basil, shiso, crunchy amaranth and coconut-lychee sorbet.
Earning her degree from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Sawicki has quickly become one of Austin’s top chefs. She was recently named 2012 Best New Pastry Chef by Food & Wine magazine and was a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award nominee for Outstanding Pastry Chef. While her job may seem glamorous— it certainly has its perks—Sawicki gives Austin Woman a peek into the real life behind those industrial kitchen doors.
I moved to Austin four and a half years ago to open La Condesa, and I never looked back. I left New York because Austin gave the promise of a lot of change and growth. The food scene was really starting to take off here, so it was an exciting time to be a part of all the momentum.
I was an administrative assistant in a gallery in New York asking myself, Is this really what I want to do? I wasn’t feeling very stimulated creatively. Then I was at the doctor’s office reading Gourmet magazine and I just had an aha moment. Literally, it clicked. Why am I avoiding this reality that I know to be true? I know that I want to go into this. I think I was just scared to really make that change.
I was living in Brooklyn, working in restaurants and very quickly worked my way from pastry cook to pastry chef. I was given a lot of opportunity to express myself creatively and to work with chefs. I just found my path pretty early on and I had a lot of success in my mid to late 20s. So that whole process sort of expedited itself quickly.
The creative process is very complicated. It’s a lot of writing, a lot of research, lots of drawing, lots of recipe development. Then I pretty much throw everything out the window and start from scratch. I go through this self-deprecation. I revisit every emotion possible until I get to the point where I’m absolutely thrilled with what I’m doing. I’m my own harshest critic, so I really push myself for excellence. In doing so, the creative process becomes very tumultuous.
On average, I’m working 12 to 15 hours a day. And if it’s 12, then I go home and work for another three or four hours. I do try to allow myself one to two days off. But the work doesn’t stop, especially because anything can stimulate your creativity and anything can be an influence. I carry moleskin around with me everywhere I go, and I write, draw or take photos to try and capture the inspiration in that moment.
Teaching is absolutely the biggest part of my job. There’s so much education that we share not just with the customers but with our servers and with our cooks. Education is a huge part of the teaching that we do in the kitchen. We like to give the knowledge and the understanding to the cooks: not just of the technique but the stories behind the food, the cultural details and history.
My advice for aspiring chefs is to take risks. Be patient. Ask yourself a lot of questions. Really just stay with it. It’s a lot of hard work, but it can be the most rewarding thing.
This career isn’t for everyone. It’s not the romantic stuff you see on television; it’s definitely sensationalized and painted in a very glamorous fashion. Or on the flip side, it can be painted in a very negative way—lots of cursing and hot-headed moments. And we don’t have that in this kitchen at all. You can find kitchens with all sorts of different kinds of attitudes. It’s really the chefs that set the tone. So if you find the right people to work with and work for, you can ultimately become the chef that you want to be.
There is that simple pleasure that we get feeding other people. There’s that connectedness to a community, to friends, to family. Food is ultimately a conversation. Whether they’re strangers or loved ones, it really just unites people. It makes me really happy to feed people. It makes me really, really happy to see the looks on their faces when they’re enjoying their food. So it’s kind of a reciprocal sensation. It makes me feel good to see them feel good, which is really inexplicable.