EVERYONE HAS A STORY. TELL US HOW YOU KNEW YOU WANTED TO BECOME A CHEF.
WHAT WAS YOUR “LIGHT BULB” MOMENT?
There was a little Mexican restaurant in my hometown of Santa Barbara, California that my family and I frequented. The owner’s daughter would bring me out flan on the house. She never said a word, but the food spoke for itself. It was there I learned that food is a love language, and I wanted to make people feel the way that child’s hospitality made me feel loved.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SAVORY DISH?
That’s a toss-up between a good slice of pizza with ranch and a bean and cheese burrito with pico.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DESSERT?
Either flan or ice cream, depending on how I’m feeling! I have ice cream most evenings.
CHEF WHOSE STYLE OF COOKING YOU REALLY DIG?
For savory foods: Dan Snowden of Bad Hunter
For pastries: Nicole Guini of Blackbird
WHAT IS THE MOST REWARDING THING ABOUT YOUR PROFESSION?
Besides freshly spun ice cream? The people. The constant stream of personalities: the delivery drivers, the customers, my colleagues, the high school dishwasher. I’ve met some of the greatest people in this field. People who travel state to state to visit me, people who were in my wedding, people who inspire me. Who keep me sane in this chaotic world.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE CONSIDERING A SIMILAR CAREER PATH?
Believe in yourself, be kind to yourself, push yourself, and try new things. If it hasn’t been done, do it; if it has, do it better. Don’t listen when you’re told you’re wrong by a chef, chances are you just aren’t doing it their way. Be kind at all costs, be compassionate, courteous, and open, not just to everyone you come into contact with but to yourself. Remain teachable.
Don’t throw anything away! Some of my greatest dishes have come out of what at first seemed to be a failure, out of ingredients that were either left over or not being put to use.
Finally: cook everything with love, more love than you know what to do with. Cook inspired, cook with passion, taste everything twice and make every plate like it was going to the person you love most in the world and the cook or chef who you look up to most in the world.
NAME ONE DESSERT/PASTRY THAT REALLY MADE AN IMPRESSION ON YOU?
A pastry Chef named Dana Cree made an incredible chocolate and concord grape dessert on a tasting menu at Blackbird in Chicago that blew my mind; I had never seen that use of grapes and chocolate together before and it was really inspiring for me.
WHAT CELEBRITY WOULD YOU LIKE TO PREPARE A SPECIAL DESSERT FOR? AND WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I would make ice cream in a heartbeat for the whole team of the Los Angeles Kings. Any flavor they like!
HOW DOES THE TERM GLUTEN-FREE MAKE YOU FEEL?
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
The sky’s the limit. I’m just going to keep pushing myself, trying to bring people joy and we’ll see where I land.
LASTLY, WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN RELAXING?
It really depends on my mood. Sometimes I just want to cuddle with my husband and kitties on the couch with a good Marvel movie on, sometimes I like to read/write, and Ialso am a sucker for a good hike to a waterfall, which fortunately are not hard to find here in Western North Carolina!
Heather Gressett is the Executive Pastry Chef at both Chestnut and Corner Kitchen, destination restaurants in Asheville, NC. Having made her way to the Blue Ridge Mountains via the West Coast and Chicago (where she earned the nickname “Sugar Chef”), Chef Gressett is one of the best kept sweet secrets in the South, particularly due to her ability to bring joyful desserts to her patrons via surprising recipes, ingredients, and concepts.
Chestnut and Corner Kitchen
In 2018, Chef Heather Gressett joined Westmoreland & Scully, the owners of Asheville institutions Corner Kitchen and Chestnut, to head up their dessert offerings. As both restaurants aim to delight their patrons with each course, Chef Gressett made a natural fit due to her love for the most exciting and pleasurable course of all, dessert. Opened in 2004, Corner Kitchen was established in a now 120-year-old house in Asheville’s Biltmore Village (the Village was designed by Frederic Law Olmstead of NYC’s Central Park fame, and commissioned by George Vanderbilt when he came to Asheville and fell in love with the area), and Chestnut is a more recent addition to the Asheville culinary scene, popping up in downtown Asheville in 2012. Both locations serve lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch and are open seven days a week–more opportunities for Chef Gressett’s creations to delight customers. Corner Kitchen also serves breakfast. Both restaurants feature locally sourced ingredients from farms, bakeries, and breweries in town.
Early life and career:
When she was no more than three or four years old, Chef Heather Gressett remembers watching the movie Matilda and seeing the supernaturally gifted child cook pancakes with utter delight. She pointed at the screen and asked her dad to teach her to make them, and while she never got the hang of levitation like Matilda, cooking pancakes on weekend mornings with her father is where her culinary journey began: with joy, love, and simple comforts.
Throughout her career, Chef Gressett has sought to bring joy to people through food and believes that the treats of dessert can be the most joyful part of a meal. In her hometown of Santa Barbara, CA, her family frequented a small Mexican restaurant, and at the end of each meal the owner’s daughter would silently bring out a flan on the house for them to enjoy. Here, too, she discovered that for many, food is a “love language,” and resolved to bring that to others.
Chef Gressett got her first restaurant job at the age of 14 and had many throughout the coming years as she attended Santa Barbara City College’s culinary program, where she was chosen to visit Europe as part of her studies. At 21, she moved to Chicago to work with Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality Group.
Up to this point, Heather struggled with addiction, and this difficulty reached its peak soon after arriving in Chicago. The restaurant industry is demanding, hectic, and incredibly stressful, and this type of environment can lead many people down a rocky path as they try to deal with these challenges. “Any conversation about myself needs to also be a conversation about sobriety,” Chef Gressett says. She wants others to know that “addiction needn’t be so prevalent in the industry; preventing overworking, creating healthier working conditions, and in general people taking better care of themselves are all crucial for the future of the restaurant workers of the world,” and she hopes those struggling will seek and find the help they need like she did to move forward.
Between these struggles and after seeing firsthand food waste happening in Chicago where there were also so many going hungry, Chef Gressett wanted to put more positivity in the world and to help others. She founded the Chicago Bridge Project, which still operates to this day, partnering with area restaurants to use their excess resources to address the needs of vulnerable populations in the city.
On bringing everyone joy
Chef Gressett believes everyone should be able to enjoy dessert at the end of their meal. It’s a way to keep the conversation of the dinner going, continue the joy of the meal, and to treat oneself. But because of health and dietary restrictions, many people skip dessert (or sometimes they’ll feel too full, and a rich-sounding dessert seems too much). That’s why Chef Gressett is developing loads of healthy desserts that can meet everyone’s wants across the table. Of course, there are times when a simple scoop of chocolate ice cream is in order, but sometimes folks want a simpler dessert with wholesome ingredients that doesn’t have sugar added to it. She doesn’t see enough affordable desserts that highlight a delicious fruit or a whole-grain food, so she has taken it upon herself to make those so that everyone can leave her restaurants with a sweet treat and their bodies feeling good.
And true to her Chicago Bridge Project roots, a lot of the most successful desserts she’s put together have incorporated underutilized or extra ingredients that would otherwise go to waste in a restaurant. For example, her most recent dessert is a vanilla bean-infused house yogurt with grilled, cubed, and then frozen pineapple (to add a smoky, bright bite to the yogurt) and chia seeds for a crispy garnish. Delicious, and healthy. Heather believes in giving people what they want, and there’s absolutely a demand for these kinds of dessert offerings.
Tonka Bean Panna Cotta
Yields 6 servings
* 4 sheets bloomed gelatin
* 2 c heavy whipping cream
* 2 c milk
* ½ c sugar
* 1 tsp kosher salt
* 1 tonka bean or flavoring of choice, grated on a microplane (tonka bean can be ordered online)
- Place the gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water to soak for 5 minutes while you cook the cream. (If you’re using powdered gelatin, let it soak in about 1/4 cup of the remaining cream, and stir it into the hot cream when you take it off the heat.)
- In a saucepan with a heavy bottom, combine cream, milk, sugar, and grated tonka bean.
- Bring just to a boil.
- Take the pot off the heat, remove the sheet gelatin from the cold water(squeezing any excess water out), and stir it into the cream mixture until it’s dissolved.
- Strain the mixture to remove any chunks of tonka bean into a pitcher.
- Set into vessel of choice, at Chestnut we use glasses.
- Allow to get firm, about two hours and garnish with cereals, fruits or sauces of your choice!
For more information about Corner Kitchen and Chestnut, visit https://www.westmorelandscully.com/.