An Interview with Chef Lisa Donovan & Her Recipe for Buttermilk Chess Pie
image credit: Heidi Ross
As I mentioned yesterday, I’m fortunate to be working with the Music City Food + Wine Festival again this year as a local ambassador, and as I was brainstorming topics for a blog post, I kept coming back to desserts. What began as a project to create a list of my favorite desserts in the city led to the idea of interviewing one of our best pastry chefs, Lisa Donovan of Husk.
Lisa is one of the featured talent at the festival this year, and since her Buttermilk Chess Pie is high on my list of the Best Desserts in Nashville, getting to know her a little better seemed like the perfect thing to do! I was even able to convince her to share the recipe for that amazing pie. You’re welcome.
Tell us a little about you. What’s Lisa like when not in the kitchen baking?
Ha! There isn’t much time when I’m not in the kitchen baking. But, when I do get some time it’s mostly spent with my kids, writing, and traveling. My daughter and I have started taking little exploratory trips around Tennessee to places we’ve never been. She’s a lot like me and enjoys just kind of ending up in strange, unfamiliar places. Getting lost is fun and until Maggie, I’d not met anyone who enjoys it as much as I do. My son is a full on teenager and it’s fun to watch him find his own path and interests. I’m enjoying motherhood so much these days in a way that wasn’t quite as natural to me in the past.
What inspired you to become a pastry chef?
So many things. It’s funny because, even though I watched Great Chefs of the World on PBS growing up, always eager for the final six minutes when they would go to the pastry kitchen, and would peek inside the kitchen of every little German restaurant we went into as a child so I could steal a glimpse of the cooks, I still had no inclination that being a pastry chef was a profession I could actually choose. As a young art student I read and reread artisan bread baking books like the biggest nerd in the world. I was a bit desperate to recreate the food, specifically the bread, I had in Germany as a child. Cooking and eating were my favorite things to do, but it wasn’t really like I had a community to share it with. My best friends were yoga teachers and writers and lean, world travelers who were more interested in the romanticism of being the starving, struggling artist. This was 1997 and 1998. There weren’t a lot of people cooking or, hell, EATING a lot of food in my world. We were all so skinny and “special” and, dear god, VEGAN, it makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. So I just took it as a hobby until I took a server’s job at Margot Café in East Nashville when I was a 25 or 26 years old arts writer with two kids.
I wasn’t seeking out this community, I just needed cash and fast. But, looking back, it meant everything that I stumbled upon that place and those people. There was plenty about working there that challenged me, for better and for worse. I didn’t know that this culture existed beyond my peeks into kitchens as a child and imagining that it was almost a royalty that one had to be born into. I learned so much in my first year as a server there about food and restaurant culture and how much work and studying and technique goes into good food.
Even when it was a struggle, I slowly started to realize that all of the strange little codes I had been writing in my internal computer finally had connectivity. All the books and freelance bread I was selling and large dinner parties I wanted to have at 18 years old started to make sense to me. What had been a hobby became a full fledge addiction and I was ignited. Food became my work.
How do you come up with new ideas?
In order of importance: Traveling, reading, eating, traveling, reading, talking, traveling, reading.
Do you have any secret ingredients that you like to use?
No secrets really. I think any good cook will tell you to listen to your instinct. Remembering that cooking is both sacred and a total fluke sometimes in equal measure is important. Some of the best ideas come out of nowhere so let yourself go from the hip as much as you also follow “directions”.
image credit: Crystal De Luna Bogan
What is a typical workday for you?
Well. I’ll just tell you about today, if you want it: In at 7am, big brunch, made so many biscuits that I will be dreaming about it tonight, crackers, cakes, ice creams and restored our cookie stash (note: tweak the sorghum stack cookies), cornmeal English muffin testing was a hit and the housemade bologna eggs benedict seemed to be a success, prepped while plated a busy brunch service, finished working out details on a new dessert to be put on next week, made jams and prepped brioche for my donut plate for tomorrow’s brunch (which I’m so excited about I can’t sleep – so much for biscuit dreams), helped my assistant get mised out for dinner service, office work (worst part of my day), left early around 630pm to take my daughter school shopping and home to work on two articles to write (deadline!) and recipe writing.
It’s now 11:48 pm which means I’ve got six hours before I get up and go do it again tomorrow, but this time, with yeasted, chocolate glazed peanut brittle donuts (!!!!). I seriously can’t wait.
Where (besides Husk, of course) do you like to dine in Nashville?
City House is always our go to place. Otherwise we eat a lot of ethnic food: Woodlands Indian Restaurant, Guantanamara for good Cuban, King’s Market, El Jaliciense on Gallatin Road even though it’s been “discovered” and is now overcrowded with all those crazy cool kids these days.
We’ve also just bought our first home. So, eating on our front porch with the kids on the stoop is what I like most.
Describe your most memorable food moment.
Vienna Square, my first chocolate truffle with a hazelnut cherry liquor center – the whole world stopped a little. I had never tasted anything like it either before or since. It was special because, here I was, this little wide-eyed American girl in Austria with a bad, bad haircut, doing my best to look sophisticated and not having a clue what the world really had to offer me. One of my dad’s friends, a young GI, came up to me out of the chocolate shop that I was standing in front of with this truffle in his hand. I thought, “Oh, chocolate. Nice.” and proceeded to put the whole thing in my mouth.
Then like forty-seven different things happened in my mouth in the span of eight seconds. I didn’t know what to do. I liked it so much it actually kind of scared me a little. My instinct was to spit it out, just out of the sheer intensity of it all. But it was too good, too special. I had just never had anything that special to eat before. It was really something else. I think I was 9 or 10?
If you weren’t a pastry chef, what would you be?
A writer. All day, every day.
What is your favorite thing to do in Nashville?
Sit on my front porch.
What about the Music City Food + Wine Festival are you most looking forward to?
I missed it all last year so I’m super happy to be a part of it and to see how it all goes down. It looked so wonderful last year and I’m glad we have such a thing in our city.
Mainly though: so many of my pals are coming to cook and present! I can’t wait to have everyone here for a couple of days so we can all “do Nashville”. And, by “do Nashville”, I mean, sit on my front porch together and get it nice and properly broken in.
To learn more about Lisa, head over to Husk’s website for a full profile.
As I mentioned, Lisa’s Buttermilk Chess Pie is one of my favorite desserts in Nashville. The toppings throughout the year change – roasted strawberries, blackberry sauce, lemon cream sherbet, fresh peaches – based on what’s in season, but no matter how it’s served, it’s always delicious!
image credit: Beth Sachan (me!)
Lisa Donovan's Buttermilk Chess Pie
6 eggs, room temp
3 cups Sugar
1/2 cup Flour
1 tsp Salt
1.5 cup Buttermilk (Lisa prefers Cruze's)
1/2 tsp Lemon Zest
1 Tbsp Lemon Juice
1/2 cup Butter, melted
Scrapings of 1/2 vanilla bean
Combine sugar, flour and salt and whisk.
In separate bowl, whisk eggs together.
Add dry ingredients from above and then add remaining ingredients, saving butter for last. Combine well.
Fill one deep, unbaked 10" pie crust and bake at 350 for 30 minutes then turn oven down to 325 and bake for another 25 minutes until set but slightly jiggly in center. Cool for two hours and serve room temp or cold.