Pastry champ Chris Hanmer on ‘Top Chef’ and good ganache

The winner of ‘Top Chef Just Desserts’ teaches pastry magic in Las Vegas

Yes, those are completely made of chocolate. No, Chris Hanmer doesn’t snack on them when he’s hungry.
Photo: Bill Hughes

The small kitchen studio in the back of a specialty cooking shop in a nondescript Valley office park isn’t exactly where I expect to find the winner of Top Chef Just Desserts. But here is Chris Hanmer. The former Ritz-Carlton executive pastry chef and owner of the School of Pastry Design inside Chef Rubber can make sugar strike precise sculptural form and satisfy a sweet tooth (as well as the Bravo judges). Preparing for the TV competition? That was a little trickier.

Has your life changed since winning Top Chef Just Desserts?

It was surreal for so long. We filmed and then you can’t say anything for so long, and then the show starts and you still can’t say anything. You’re just waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I think the best word to describe it is a “release.”

A lot of Top Chef alums talk about the stress of the show—that even being a high-level chef doesn’t prepare you for it.

Nothing can prepare you for this show. It would be like, get ready for aliens to come down from space. … You can’t prepare for it. In the viewers’ lives, it’s a week apart. … But when we’re shooting the show it’s, “Wow, that was really intense. Oh my gosh, what’s coming up next?” Because it’s just back to back to back. We’re there for weeks, and there’s no breaks. … It was the hardest thing professionally that I’ve ever done.

Has it affected the way you teach?

The Details

School of Pastry Design
At Chef Rubber, 6627 Schuster St.

Yes and no. I really learned that you had to be flexible. Going into it I knew it was a marathon, so I wasn’t prepared for how flexible you had to be. Whether you’re on the top or the bottom, as long as you’re there, I didn’t care. I honestly didn’t care. I had no shame if I was on the bottom, and I had no tremendous ego boost if I was on the top. I’m like, I’m here and that’s all that matters. I‘m on the bottom, and I’m high-fiving on the way out, like, dude, I’m here to cook another day.

What’s the School of Pastry Design all about?

I’ve done everything from chocolate tastings for groups coming to Las Vegas—I’ve had 70 people here doing chocolate and wine tastings—to individual business owners that don’t have the time to go and take a three-day class somewhere or they just have a specific need. We come here and we actually work their problem. … My youngest client’s 15. She wanted to do chocolate and she lives in South Dakota. She came out and we did a four-hour class. I’m just like, “You know, you might want to rethink being a marine biologist, because you’re really good at 15 for chocolate.”

What made you switch from more traditional restaurant work to teaching?

Through my relationship with Chef Rubber, the owner would call me up and he’d go, “Hey, Chris, I got somebody that wants to do sugar, are you interested?” It grew till I’m doing it once a month, to twice a month, to I’m trying to look at my work schedule to see if I can do this. I was the executive pastry chef of the Ritz-Carlton at Lake Las Vegas, and when I found out it had closed we literally had 90 days from the time I found out to closing. I went and I talked to my wife and we said this is what we believe we’re supposed to be doing. We started everything in 90 days, from website to business license to everything. And here we are, coming on three years in April.

So you’re a recession success story?

Maybe, yea. It just keeps growing. The thing about economics that I kind of find is that it really makes people re-evaluate some aspects of their life. They say, I’ve been a lawyer or I’ve been working this 9-to-5 job, but it’s not what I love to do. And if I’m going to be working, I want to be doing something that I love. There are also a lot of success stories that I deal with, because my clients are success stories. They have chocolate shops or they have large manufacturers that are trying to get bigger. I’m seeing really organic growth. Regardless of Top Chef, I’m kind of growing.

What made you want to go into pastry?

A chef moved in next door to me when I was 15. He was chef at a country club, so I got a work permit and he was like, you can come and work on the weekends and just make $40 or $50. It kind of just spawned from that. … I was a shop-sponsored snowboarder in Southern California. I’m 19 years old and I’m riding up the lift on a beautiful day like this in Southern California, and I’m like, I wonder what’s going on at work today. What do I want to make or what can I do this weekend? That’s when I knew this is something that I really enjoy.

Snowboarding doesn’t really fit the reputation of pastry chefs. What do you think of pastry stereotypes?

In a lot of ways, the hot food chefs don’t always understand what we do, because when you’re a chef, you’re a little bit more free in certain ways. If we want to make a dessert, we can’t adjust as we go. ... We both love food the same, but I think that a pastry chef is a little more of a tactician.

When you’re building sculptural pieces, do you ever take a bite?

Not anymore. I look at this as if it were concrete or something. There’s no edible urge for me with these right now. ... I say that and then I have milk chocolate in the cabinet over here.

As far as pure pleasure goes, what’s your favorite dessert to eat?

I kind of … man … that’s so hard. Tropical flavors are my go-to. I see something with coconut, that’s it, game over. So whether it’s coconut tapioca or coconut sorbet, coconut mousse, coconut foam, coconut crusted. I’ll look at a dessert menu, I’m like, chocolate not so much. Not that it’s not interesting, but then I see coconut passion or coconut anything and I’m like, I’ll try that.

For the home pastry cook, what’s a must-have tool?

A scale, a scale, a scale. I’m on a one-man mission to get America to use a scale. It takes so much of the guesswork, it takes so much of the—for lack of a better term—fear out of pastry. … I want everybody to have a scale, and I want recipes to be formulated by a weight measurement. Once you start doing it, it opens up the world of what pastry can be.

My boyfriend is obsessed with chocolate. What can you teach me to make right now?

The best thing, the simplest thing, is to make a ganache. That’s just chocolate and cream. I make that for my wife. When it’s cold or room temperature, it’s like a truffle, so you can just spoon it out. When it’s warm, it becomes a sauce, so you can get chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream and just pour it over the top. ... If you have one cup of cream just put half a cup of chocolate. See I just did cups (laughs). It really is that simple. You warm up your cream, you pour it over your chocolate and you just mix it. You have an instant, rich, decadent chocolate sauce that you can do anything with.

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