An afternoon with Olympia Provisions’s Pastry Chef Mandy Groom

I never thought I’d go into Olympia Provisions, a salami maker, and leave excited about dessert.

Note: this is from my 2017 archives at Seattle Dessert Geek. Mandy was a joy to chat with and leaving this behind was not an option.

Way back in January, Olympia Provisions pitched me to chat at the Winter Fancy Food Show. Thing was, I’d already been planning to go to Portland, their home turf, so I asked if I could check out their restaurant. Their PR person said they weren’t sure if there was a story for me, them being a charcuterie-focused place and all.

At the show, co-owner Michelle Cairo started telling me about their pastry chef, Mandy Groom. And there were photos. Um, yeah, I had a story. A few days later I went to Portland and met Mandy in person. I also tried her winesap apple sorbet, which I already consider to be one of the best desserts I will eat in 2017. (Seattle, I’m sorry, you need to go and eat her stuff. If you do, I know you’ll forgive me.)

If we’re going to be fancypants, Mandy’s approach to dessert is relaxed, with a love of savory, layered elements, and subtle takes on childhood snacks. (She calls it earthy, I call it fun.) And it’s just fun to eat. I mean, she wants you to eat her sorbet and meringue ‘chips and dip’ style. Not what you expect from a fancy casual place next to Smith’s tea tasting shop.

And Mandy herself is a joy to chat with. The interview is basically an hour of Mandy talking and my squeaking with delight as she described what she was making or going to make. I haven’t felt that inspired by someone’s takes on dessert in ages.

Also: Olympia Provisions, sell the dang meringues by the bag already. I will buy them.

On to the interview!

Jessica Tupper: So I have to ask: how did you get here?

Chef Mandy Groom: Olympia Provisions?

My dear friend [Chef Melissa McKinney] was the pastry chef here, and she was my assistant when I worked at Bluehour. I was the head pastry chef there, and she took over when I left. And then I owned my own business, and then I had kids and stayed at home for ten years, and then I was getting back into the work force and she was looking for an assistant, she was the head pastry chef here, looking for an assistant. And that was my speed, what I was ready for, after being at home for ten years with two kids. So I was her assistant for two years, and then she left and I got the head pastry chef job. So, yeah. So I’ve been doing this for a long time.

JT: What has inspired you the most in pastry work recently? Anything catch your eye?

MG: What’s been speaking to me – well, it’s always seasonal, whatever’s the freshest and most seasonal. But also herbs, I love herbs. Things that you don’t think of: for instance, the apple sorbet that I’m going to make for you today, it has sumac on it, and it’s a winesap apple sorbet with tapioca pudding, rosemary caramel sauce, and sea salt meringues. Sumac is kind of sour, and I just thought it would be a nice counterpart to the whole thing. And then sugared rosemary on top of that. So, I guess things that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being on a dessert, like herbs and spices.

JT: Please walk me through how you designed this dessert, because that’s super neat. Like, how did you get to sumac? How did that come about?

MG: I just — ‘cause I love it. It just felt right, sounded right. It’s hard to explain, it’s a very instinctual thing.  

JT: I know that feel! Like you’ll think These two flavors need to be friends, yesterday and you just go with it.

MG: Right, exactly. It’s just a gut feeling.

JT: So did you start with apple and sumac – what started it? Because I don’t think you get to sumac and rosemary caramel out of nowhere.

MG: No, it’s the kind of thing I lay awake at night thinking about, always thinking. I think too much, I think.

JT: Well, that’s good dessert – it should be thoughtful.

MG: The winesap apples were the original inspiration. I was actually going to use them for a plated cheese dessert, and I got them at the farmers market. And they were sitting in the walkin and I tasted them again with the cheese that I was going to use, and just texturally it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, so I ended up doing something else.

JT: Do you feel like Portland allows for more adventurous desserts?

MG: You know, I just do what I think is good. I know what I like.

I’ve also noticed that, being at home for ten years my style has changed a little. I’m happy to notice that because I was really kind of scared coming back to it after being gone for so long. Like, was I competitive, have I lost my touch? Do I know what’s current anymore? Like, so many people in this town are doing so much beautiful food.

Again, I just do what I like. I’m very heart-centered, that’s all from my heart – and my gut.

JT: Do you have any dream desserts you’re thinking up already?

MG: I’m gearing up to put a new thing on the menu that I’m really excited about. It’s a four citrus sorbet terrine. So I’m gonna do lime and basil seed, pink grapefruit Campari, Meyer lemon and rosewater sherbet, and blood orange sorbet. So all the pretty colors, but I’m gonna do thin layers and then cut it into rectangles, and then I’m gonna turn the rectangle on its side so you see the stripes on the top. And I’m gonna put that on a bed of crushed sea salt meringues. And I’ve dried out some kaffir lime leaves and I’m gonna make powder out of that, just put a little line of kaffir lime leaf powder.

It’s gonna be really pretty and definitely a celebration of all the beautiful citrus. Citrus is gorgeous right now.

JT: Most favorite desserts?

MG: Well, I’m a custard and fruit girl. I love eclairs.

I actually thought about doing an earl grey custard-filled eclair [for the restaurant].

JT: What’s the inspiration behind the chocolate salami?

MG: The recipes were written by friend Amelia, who was the first pastry chef of [Olympia Provisions]. And there are three different kinds – French, Italian, Spanish. So I’m just executing her recipes, as they’ve been made for years.

JT: Are you going to make your own version someday?

MG: I’d like to! I actually have an idea for one I think would be really good that has fennel seeds,

And candied pink grapefruit peel. I make really good candied pink grapefruit peel.

I’m gathering ingredients and I’m to try to test recipes to make it shelf stable. Yesterday I made some – ‘cause Amelia’s recipes have egg yolk in them, so I put some coconut oil in it and I made some sunflower seed butter that I wanna try. I toasted sunflower seeds and made butter out of it. It’s quite tasty.

This interview was edited for length. I was given a free dessert and snack by Olympia Provisions; all opinions are my own.

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