Boston pastry chef Dee Steffen Chinn loves to toast buttered panko to the stage of “golden brown delicious” (GBD) prior to mixing in cocoa powder and chocolate, which then melts on its own. This innovative technique brings a new level of crunchy texture to her desserts — “that’s not just cookie crumbs.”
“My preferred chocolate brand is Guittard,” says Chinn, recently named Best Pastry Chef in Boston Magazine’s 2019 Best of Boston issue. “For every restaurant, we use milk, white and dark chocolate, anywhere from 60% to 72%. I like to play with different flavor profiles, depending on what I’m doing.”
Chinn is the award-winning pastry chef for Boston’s Big Heart Hospitality, the successful restaurant group from two-time James Beard nominated chef Tiffani Faison, a Season 1 Top Chef finalist and one of the biggest culinary stars in Boston. Here Chinn creates all dessert and brunch offerings for the group’s Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant Tiger Mama, local barbecue mecca Sweet Cheeks Q, adult snack bar Fool’s Errand and just-opened Italian-American restaurant Orfano.
Her out-of-this world desserts range from Lemongrass Cream Cake at Tiger Mama to the signature Dee’s Crackle Bites at Fool’s Errand. Every step in the production process is planned carefully to accentuate the flavors and textures she wants to achieve. What’s a Crackle Bite, you may ask? Chinn starts with cubes of gooey peanut butter crunchy cereal that are dipped in milk chocolate caramel and ganache, wrapped in a dark chocolate shell and decked in gold. It’s no wonder Zagat billed Fool’s Errand as one of Boston’s most anticipated restaurants in 2018.
Working with panko makes Chinn happy because it is airy and flaky and keeps desserts light — with a surprise crunch. At Tiger Mama, desserts play with traditional Southeast Asian recipes but with a twist like Vietnamese Sweet Corn Pudding with sugar glazed blueberries, sesame crackers, brown butter corn and cilantro. Thai Tea Cremeux at Tiger Mama features tiger cake, chocolate malt cream, red currants and caramel sauce. By contrast, the Sweet Cheeks Q’s dessert menu is playful Americana at its best, offering mini seasonal pies, cakes in jars and whimsical childhood favorites like The Dirt Cup.
Next up — at Orfano, which opened Aug. 26 — are “boozy” desserts including tiramisu, over-the-top amaretto cannoli with cocoa nibs and candied almonds, and ricotta cheesecake pie with Sambuca cherry sauce. The pastry kitchen where Chinn works for all four restaurants has moved to a new space on the second floor of Orfano, the fourth concept for Faison and her wife and business partner, Kelly Walsh.Offering a “subversive” take on Italian American cuisine, Faison seeks to break traditions — like “if the women were gangsters, not just the nonnas all the time,” the pioneering chef told Boston magazine.
Chinn excels in the distinct challenge of managing desserts for four vastly different concepts, “which keeps me on my toes. I love it because I am always learning.”
From the moment she saw a 6-foot tall wedding cake on television as a child, Chinn wanted to be in pastry. In high school, she worked for free after school at a bakery because she enjoyed the tasks of working with dough and creating wonderful flavors. She went on to Southern New Hampshire University where she earned her associates degree in culinary arts with a concentration in pastry arts.
Her first years out of culinary school were spent as a pastry cook at The Bedford Village Inn in Bedford, New Hampshire. In summer 2004 she made a big leap to spend three summers on Nantucket, working at Topper’s at the Wauwinet Inn, while spending winters on the mainland. She used her winters as an opportunity to challenge herself; her first winter was spent in Palm Beach, Florida, working for Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud. The following winter she stayed close to Nantucket, working at No. 9 Park with Barbara Lynch in Boston. Once in Boston, Chinn got her big break by joining chef Ming Tsai and the Blue Ginger restaurant family, where she worked for more than a decade, starting as assistant pastry chef in 2006. Then Blue Ginger closed in 2017.
As fate would have it, Faison approached Chinn and asked: “What are you going to do?” Chinn said yes to a job offer and started the corporate pastry program for Faison’s restaurants. “She literally relieved all my stress,” Chinn says of Faison, who has earned the reputation as a hard-driving maverick. “We have a lot of different moving parts at the different restaurants, so staying organized is a big challenge. I love getting in chef Tiffani’s brain (we have the same birthday!) and learning from her. She really pushes me and gets me to think. Now it’s time to buckle up.”