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Top Chefs: Peter Brett

The connection between looking good and tasting good

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Peter Brett’s training at the College of Fine Arts has helped him create desserts that are pleasing to the eye. Photo by Chris Hartlove

What are the essential elements of a great chef? As this week’s snapshots of five great chefs illustrate, the answers run from soup to nuts, or when it comes to fields of study, from education to graphic arts. The common ingredient: Boston University, which has been cooking up culinary talent for decades, sometimes in unexpected corners. The culinary arts program, started with help from America’s first top chef, Julia Child (Hon.’76), has delivered many successes, and the School of Hospitality Administration has prepared many more for rewarding careers in the big leagues of the restaurant business.

How does it work? Every day this week, one of BU’s best-known chefs tells us about getting from here to there.

The connection between a major in graphic design and a career as a pastry chef might seem tenuous. But Peter Brett, whose daily efforts fulfill the sweetest dreams of diners at Washington, D.C.’s Circle Bistro and Notti Bianche, knows that when it comes to desserts, appearances count.

“My art training has helped me make things pleasing to the eye in terms of composition, color, and arrangement,” says Brett (CFA’76).

He says he has loved to bake since his childhood in Rhode Island and would have forgone the design detour if he had believed anyone would pay him to do what he loved.

After graduating from L’Academie de Cuisine in 1989, where he studied under White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, Brett spent the next 15 years working in hotels, among them the Tabard Inn and Park Hyatt, baking pastries, desserts, even wedding cakes. It was, he says, a labor of love, and it was rewarded with high praise from publications like the Washingtonian and the Washington Post, which called his cheesecake the dreamiest in town.

Brett’s dessert philosophy blends the classics — such as chocolate — with whatever is fresh and exciting. “I do one chocolate dessert at each restaurant, but I don’t go overboard,” he says. “I prefer a fruit dessert with whatever’s in season. In my profession you never get bored, because the seasons always change.”

At Circle Bistro and Notti Bianche, the menu changes every six to eight weeks to take best advantage of local produce Brett gets from a nearby organic farm. One constant, though, is his signature chocolate bread pudding with chocolate sorbet — “very creamy and light,” he says, “and the sorbet is an adult version of a Fudgsicle.”

Even with taste paramount, art is never far behind. In 2006, Brett launched his own wedding cake business, called Peter Bakes, where he turns out colorful, multitiered concoctions draped in gilt roses and fondant vines. And he was one of 15 chefs asked to create a log-cabin-themed cake for last February’s Lincoln Bicentennial celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, attended by members of Congress and the president. His contribution? A cake made of red marzipan logs and a blue fondant roof, sprinkled with white stars.

Peter Brett’s Chocolate Sorbet
5 cups water
2¼ cups (1 pound) sugar
1 cup (4 ounces) cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Bring water and sugar to a boil. Whisk in cocoa powder, salt, and cinnamon. Bring back to a boil while stirring, and then strain through a fine sieve. Chill overnight. Stir in vanilla extract and process in an ice cream machine.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2009 Bostonia.

1 Comments

One Comment on Top Chefs: Peter Brett

  • Anonymous on 08.27.2009 at 9:08 am

    Missing photos?

    It would be nice to see some pastry photos!

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