From Little Rock to Paris and Back
Pastry Chef Tandra Watkins’ Unexpected Journey to The Capital Hotel
Tandra Watkins didn’t grow up on a farm, but she is closer to being farm-bred than most.
She is descended on both sides from old Iowa farm families, and though the realities of modern-day farm economics prompted her father to choose a career in the military instead, he loved the farm life and made sure the family had a garden plot, wherever they were based. When her parents retired to Cabot, Arkansas when Tandra and her siblings were still young, that garden was a whopping three acres.
In addition to hard work, good home cooking was another wholesome country-style value the household lived by. “I came from a very frugal family who grew their own produce, canned, hunted, fished, and made their own clothes… I have the pictures to prove that!” says Tandra. The women in her family were known for their canning and baking abilities. Her mother and grandmother specialized in pies and holiday goodies, and her Aunt Betty and Aunt Marilyn baked up a storm when they were in the kitchen. “I remember that they could make anything, and it was always great. These ladies had an arsenal of Jell-O salad recipes -- which, by the way, were served with lunch and dinner every day. That is definitely a culinary art form that I would like to see come back.”
Her dad was a great cook, as well, and Tandra’s first experiences in the kitchen were at her father’s side. He instilled in her his own insatiable curiosity, which made it fun to be with him in the kitchen, helping. “His rule was that you don’t have to love everything, but you do have to try everything,” she remembers. One defining moment for the future pastry chef was when, chaperoning a Girl Scout camping trip, her father astonished everyone by baking a cake over the campfire. “He was just amazing like that.”
A naturally good cook, Tandra started her professional life in local family-owned restaurants, as a prep cook; before long, she was catering private events with friends. And then, her husband’s job took them to France. “I had always been a huge admirer of Julia Child,” she explains. “I grew up watching her show, even as a child it was so entertaining.” There I was in Paris – so I investigated Le Cordon Bleu.” When her husband was transferred to Lisbon, Tandra stayed on in Paris pursuing her dream. “I didn’t exactly love spending the year away from my husband and son,” she recalls, “not to mention the fact that I didn’t speak French -- but how many opportunities do you get to do something like that? I was used to moving around, being dropped in to challenging situations, and adapting, so I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to do this!’” Tandra was unwittingly following in Julia Child’s footsteps: American expat following her husband’s job to Paris; Le Cordon Bleu; a woman succeeding in a male dominated profession.
It was an intense, exciting challenge – that instantly revealed to Tandra her true passion: “I love cooking, and have always been a good cook, but the thing that excites me the most is pastry,” she admits. She fell in love with its history in French culture, and was riveted by the stories associated with each dessert. It fulfills her creative drive, too – “If I wasn’t doing this, I’m sure I’d be doing something in the arts.” With her diploma in hand, she rejoined her family in Lisbon and filled out her education with short stages in pastry shops in France and Portugal, catering private dinners and events for her husband’s company along the way.
Returning to Little Rock in 2007, Tandra reached out to chef Lee Richardson at The Capital Hotel, which was then under renovation. She blinked, and found herself in charge of the pastry kitchen, the most modern she’d ever set foot in, by far. “Ashley’s was my learning ground,” she admits, “it was an unconventional, and in a way, not an ideal progression. It would have been nice to have had solid tutelage under someone, but there was no one around, so I just made it work with what I had.”
Tandra’s responsibilities as pastry chef at the grand historic hotel include -- in addition to her dessert menu at Ashley’s, and collaboration with the team at Ashley’s on tasting menus -- suite service, private dining and banquets, the Capital Bar & Grill, and custom cakes for Little Rock’s society weddings. Local patrons flock to Ashley’s for breakfast for her signature croissants and chocolate croissants [just like Paris!]
Some of her desserts adhere to scrumptious southern tradition; others are more ‘fiddly,’ as she puts it, requiring more refinement and finesse. And don’t forget creativity.
Her Banana Pain Perdu with Salty Bacon was created with Elvis in mind. When she set out to create her own version of Apple Stack Cake for fall, it was influenced by McDonald’s deep-fried apple pies – hers are filled with locally grown Golden Delicious Apples and served with an Apple Financier Cake, Four-Spice Ice Cream with Buckwheat Streusel and Dulce de Leche – all enhanced by an aromatic splash of Apple Brandy.
Tandra’s openness to adventure holds true in the kitchen. “I love learning. I’m always interested in the new techniques that are driving food these days, I definitely think it’s important to learn about them and play around with new ideas.” Her investigation into molecular gastronomy, for example, lead her to create a fanciful Chocolate Covered Pretzel dessert for the chef’s tasting menu, featuring a milk chocolate cube, an elastic chocolate ganache set with agar and gellan, crushed pretzels, peanut butter powder, and chocolate pretzel macarons filled with chocolate and peanut butter.
What is the personal dessert preference of this gifted farm-bred, Paris-trained pastry chef? “I adore pies,” she states. “A good piece of pie is pure bliss – and I’ll always have one on the menu. Don’t believe me? Then come on in and try one.”