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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Q&A With Slanted Door's Chucky Dugo, part 2: Saying No to Fusion and Yes to Klondike Bars

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2012 at 12:05 PM

Chucky Dugo, Slanted Door's head pastry chef, clearly receiving inspiration from the heavens. - ALANNA HALE
  • Alanna Hale
  • Chucky Dugo, Slanted Door's head pastry chef, clearly receiving inspiration from the heavens.

Chucky Dugo, pastry chef for Charles Phan's restaurants -- including Slanted Door, Out the Door, and Wo Hing General Store -- started his career in San Francisco, but talked his way into running a chain of patisseries in Taipei. Dugo has been a pastry chef for Charles Phan since the early days, though as he recounted in part one of this interview, he took a few years off to get his life together. Today, Dugo talks about what it's like to run an empire (of sorts), and tomorrow, he'll share a recipe with SFoodie readers.

SFoodie: What's the biggest challenge of being a pastry chef for a group of restaurants?

Dugo: The biggest challenge is that I don't have a designated pastry staff at any location except Slanted Door. There, I have a whole independent pastry team of six people, from platers to production staff, that allows me to do more technical things. With all the other locations, we have a commissary that just makes the bulk product for us, and things are then finished as they're ordered on-site. With desserts, it's generally the same concept, but the difference is that every location has a chef to finish every savory dish while pastry doesn't. Maybe the garde-manger or spring roll ladies are trying to plate my desserts. They can learn, but I have to start out with simpler desserts.

How do you align your desserts with each different location?

The demographics of each location are totally different. I'm still figuring out the Mission [where Wo Hing is situated] -- there's a sort of frat boy/sorority girl thing going on, but then there's also a hipster element. Overall, I think I might be able to put more experimental and interesting stuff here, since the neighborhood is more accepting. Out the Door on Bush Street is a completely different world. At that location, people will drink three or four glasses of wine but won't have dessert because they're concerned about calories.

The bottom line is that I want to sell desserts. I don't have a quota, but I have to make it profitable. So it's really about pleasing people's palates.

Do you find the need to Asian-ify your desserts?

I don't like to do that. I don't want to do an Eastern-Western thing: I'd rather do one or the other, and Charles' thing about dessert is that it doesn't have to be Asian at all. Ultimately, one of our guidelines is giving people what they want.

What do you see as the trends you're avoiding in dessert and pastry right now?

What's been beaten to death is the whole sort of modernist cuisine; the gel and the foam and the sphere. I really try to do desserts that create an emotional connection to people, whether it be taking them back to their childhood or just appeasing the palate. At the same, I try keep it simple. I think there's a way to keep desserts identifiable and familiar, but just give them an edge, whether it be with a [new] ingredient or my take on a classic technique.

Chucky Dugo's caramel apple with buckwheat streusel. - ALANNA HALE
  • Alanna Hale
  • Chucky Dugo's caramel apple with buckwheat streusel.

What's an example of this?

Take crème brûlée. It doesn't matter if it's 1980 or 2012, it's still an amazing thing if it's executed well. Instead of burning crème brûlée with a torch, I like to use a salamander. It's basically a branding iron - this heavy disk of metal with a long handle you keep on the fire - so when you burn the top of the crème brûlée the custard stays completely cold but the top gets this incredibly complex, caramelized, smoky shell. Simple little things like that.

Is there a dessert that you are particularly proud of from any point in your career?

Ice creams are the most fun for me. Ice cream satisfies on so many levels-from childhood memories to the textural experience. It's cold, it's dense, it's sweet, it's creamy, it melts, it just so many different things at the same time. But I am really, really specific about texture.

What makes an ice cream perfect?

I like a dense, chewy ice cream that doesn't have stabilizers or gums. It has to be solid but still creamy, which is about catching the ice cream at the perfect temperature. Some chefs like it very smooth and easy to shape into a quenelle, but I don't like it like that. I like it hard.

I hate to say it, but lately I've been kind of obsessed with Klondike Bars -- mostly for the snap of the chocolate. The chocolate actually doesn't taste that bad, but the ice cream inside is horrible of course. Wait, do we have to include that?

Alanna Hale is a writer and photographer whose work can be found at Follow us on Twitter at @sfoodie.

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