CREATIVE PEAKS: Looks to Devour

By on July 19, 2017

Pastry chef Rhonda Ashton is at the helm of the Four Seasons sweet empire.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Rhonda Ashton doesn’t allow a half strawberry and a mint leaf in her kitchen. The typical garnishes on desserts, don’t make sense, she said.

Ashton is the executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons. The desserts she creates must look as good as they taste, but she says the artistry that goes into the presentation must still make sense. She doesn’t garnish for the sake of garnishing. It must enhance the dessert, both in how it looks, but also how it tastes. In the culinary world, the two are almost impossible to separate.

“You eat with your eyes,” Ashton said. “If it doesn’t look good, you don’t want to eat it.”

In her decades in the business, Ashton has indeed mastered creating dishes that look as good as they taste.

Her culinary career began when she was a teenager in Australia. She didn’t cook, or especially love food. Her mom baked on the weekends and she enjoyed helping, but that was it. Then she met one of her sister’s friends who was a chef. It seemed like a cool job, so at 16, she did a work experience project in a hotel casino.

She spent the first eight and a half days in the kitchen and the last day and a half with the pastry chef. She made her first dessert—black forest cake—and that was it. She knew that was what she wanted to do.

“I still can’t cook,” Ashton admitted. “I’ve only ever done pastry my entire career.”

That career began with a four-year apprenticeship and culinary school in Australia, before she joined the Four Seasons staff in 2004. She worked at Whistler, on Maui and in Toronto and Egypt and arrived in Jackson Hole in 2015.

One of her favorite parts of the job is creating the dessert menu, where she enjoys creative freedom and collaborates with her team. She doesn’t think of a dessert without also considering aesthetics.

“When I’m writing a menu, it’s not just how it’s going to taste, but it’s how it’s going to look, what plate it’s going to go on and how easy is it going to be to serve,” she said.

Sometimes, Ashton dreams up a certain look or sees a garnish that inspires her to build a dessert around it. Other times, she knows she wants a certain flavor and must figure out how to make it look nice.

Geographic place also factors into the presentation. When she worked in Hawaii, she used tropical fruits. In Jackson Hole, she creates warmer desserts and uses huckleberries when they are in season.

Whatever she chooses to make, presentation is imperative and it’s also a reflection of personal style. Ashton likes a deconstructed look. Her creations are not too formal, but they are neat, not spread across the plate, she said. She likes things that look pretty. And she factors in where they are going to be served. Something for Handle Bar, for example, gets a more rustic look than something for the Westbank Grill.

Ashton also must create a way for a dessert to look like a sculpted piece of art that takes only seconds to put together in the kitchen. Each piece of garnish must be laid out and ready to assemble. It can take five or six steps to put a dessert together—after everything’s been made and prepped. Each piece must be layered in the correct order for it to look just right.

It takes an artistic eye, but it’s a skill that is mostly honed in practice, Ashton said.

When she started as a pastry chef she didn’t enjoy plating desserts. It was trial and error figuring out what looked good. She had little experiences with garnishes and sauces. It took years for her to develop her own style and feel as comfortable in the presentation as she was in the recipes.

“It’s always an evolution,” she said. “Everyone has misses.”

She still sometimes must tweak her desserts. She created one dessert for a wine dinner, but discovered when the servers took it out, it fell over. The rounded bottom rolled to one side. It tasted delicious, but it didn’t really work if the servers couldn’t get it to the diners, she said. So Ashton tweaked it using her sense for culinary science.

She flattened the bottom and added more whipped cream to secure it so it could stand. This ensured it would look as good as it tasted when it arrived at the table.

Ashton would know. While she doesn’t eat desserts outside of her kitchen, she does have a sweet tooth and she tastes every recipe she creates. “But even after all these years I still can’t tell you a favorite pastry,” she said. PJH

About Kelsey Dayton

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