Pastry Chef Brooks Headley
Lidia's Sweet Pea Sformato with Tri-Star Strawberries and Strawberry Gelato »




Pastry Chef Brooks Headley

Del Posto | New York


Brooks Headley didn’t intend to become a pastry chef. A punk rock drummer from a food-obsessed Calabrian family, with a bachelor's degree in English language and literature, Headley literally fell into restaurant work at age 27. Before no time (and with no formal training) he had caught the pastry bug and, with the help of a seemingly preternatural ability, Headley was in deep in the Washington, DC restaurant world. After working at Galileo da Roberto Donna, The Ritz-Carlton, and Tosca, Headley moved to Los Angeles where he spent time in the kitchen under master bread baker Nancy Silverton at Campanile.

Unable to stay away from the East coast, Headley crossed the country again to return to DC, this time to assume a position at acclaimed Komi, where he ran the pastry program. He made his New York debut briefly at Compass, where he became known for imaginative renditions of classic desserts, as in his signature deconstructed key lime pie. But as soon as he discovered that Del Posto was in need of a pastry chef, he leaped at the opportunity to join the Batali-Bastianich family, work under Executive Chef Mark Ladner, and return to his Italian roots.

At Del Posto, Headley melds his innovative techniques with classic Italian flavors for desserts that are forward-thinking, highly seasonal, and comforting. He often incorporates vegetables into the desserts (something Lidia Bastianich demands), as in Lidia's Sweet Pea Sformato with Tri-Star Strawberries and Strawberry Gelato. In 2009 Headley was selected as a finalist in the Pastry Scoop Golden Scoop Awards in the national category of "Best Dessert Menu." He also recently traveled to Japan to teach Italian dessert classes at the Hankyu Department Store in Osaka.


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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Brooks Headley: It was completely accidental. I randomly got a job at a place that just happened to be the best Italian restaurant in Washington, DC at the time. I had never thought of doing it professionally. I knew nothing about desserts, but I loved everything about food.

AB: Based on your experience, would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
BH: It depends on the person really. I never went to culinary school so I don't really have any framework to know what that would be like. It's a lot harder if you don't go because you're forced to read a lot and teach yourself. You have to immerse yourself in whatever restaurant you're working in to gain as much information as possible. I have had staff that come in from culinary school and it doesn't necessarily make them better cooks. I've got prep cooks who never went to school and can often cook circles around the folks with culinary degrees.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
BH: Work your butt off at the best places you can and read constantly. Read everything—stuff you don't even care about—just to know what others are doing. Go to the bookstore and sit there for four hours every day for three years. Kitchen Arts and Letters at 93rd Street and Lexington Avenue is a temple. I always urge my cooks to go hang out there on their days off.

AB: Who is the coolest chef you have worked with?
BH: Definitely Mark Ladner. He’s the best.

AB: Who are your pastry heroes?
BH: Nancy Silverton. I also think Meredith [Kurtzman]’s gelato is totally insane. I strive to make mine as good as hers someday. And it’s not necessarily pastry, but I really like [Chef] Marc Vetri, from Philadelphia. His style is awesome.

AB: What is your philosophy on pastry?
BH: Not too sweet, not too sticky. The main thing is that when people start and end the meal it's a seamless progression; it shouldn’t seem like the dessert came from another restaurant. The first thing I do with a new cook is walk him through the appetizers and pasta dishes; I reinforce that desserts should have the same style and feel. They have to fit with the rest of the menu. I work really closely with [Executive Chef] Mark Ladner to make sure his vision is also my vision.

AB: How do you develop a dessert?
BH: I would say that the way my desserts look now has changed in the one and a half years I’ve been here. It has evolved more towards Chef Ladner and how he plates them. It’s very natural stuff; everything has to be flowing and natural. It's all created in conjunction with savory.

AB: What are your three tips for pastry success?
BH: Read a lot, work like crazy, and be as professional as you can possibly be in every kitchen.

AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
BH: I like whatever is new and in season. We just got nectarines so I'm thinking about nectarines and champagne vinegar; strawberry and peas, since the strawberries just came in; chocolate and cherry.

AB: Is there an ingredient that you feel is underappreciated or under-utilized?
BH: Powdered sugar. I think it’s awesome in a classy way and extremely underrated these days.

AB: At StarChefs we publish technique features for other chefs to learn from. Tell me about a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way.
BH: As far as techniques go I'm pretty traditional. I don't invent new techniques. It’s hard to put into words, but for sorbets you can't have recipes—all fruit is different. You have to trust your palate. I'm not good with recipes.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community? How do you see beyond the four walls of your restaurant?
BH: I'm constantly eating at other restaurants to see what's going on and exchanging ideas with other chefs in town to remain as up to date as possible.

AB: What languages do you speak?
BH: Kitchen Spanish and not so great Russian (I took it for four years in high school—a long time ago.).

AB: What are your favorite kitchen tools?
BH: Propane torch, parchment paper, and 10X shakers (powdered sugar is so underrated these days!).

AB: What is your most important kitchen rule?
BH: Salt—use it! Always! Pastry chefs are terrified of it, and it drives me crazy—don’t be scared! Yes, put it in the sorbet base, too! 

AB: Have you taken any steps to become a sustainable restaurant?
BH: We recycle everything; we compost all organic waste; we transform our used fryer oil into fuel at a biodiesel fill-up station in the restaurant (it powers two company vehicles!); we have light timers on all employee bathrooms and walk-in coolers; we have all but eliminated bottled water and instead use our own; we have high-powered hand dryers in employee bathrooms and we even make sure that paper towels are not wasted at staff meal. Want me to go on? It’s pretty awesome. My inner punk rocker is very satisfied and proud to work at Del Posto.

AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
BH: Probably the biggest challenge is that [Del Posto is] a really big restaurant. On Saturday nights we can do upwards of 400 covers along with banquets. On any given night we might have a bunch of private events gong on alongside regular a la carte service. It’s a matter of maintaining quality at a high volume.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
BH: I would say 100% that the management of people is way harder than the cooking part.

AB: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
BH: If we get through service and totally kill it, and all the guests leave happy, and the staff is psyched, then we accomplish greatness, daily.

AB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
BH: I probably would have travelled and cooked more than I have. It's something that I kind of missed out on, going to Italy and working for a year or to Spain and working for a year. I'd still love to do it.

AB: What interests do you have outside of food?
BH: I was a drummer for years before I started cooking professionally, and now I just annoy the entire staff with my incessant tapping—on mixing bowls, marble slabs, cutting boards, sheet pans. Seriously—ask 'em!

AB: What does success mean for you? What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
BH: I'd say absolutely at Del Posto, evolving the food here as much as possible. Right now I'm completely 100% satisfied being a part of Del Posto. My long term goals absolutely include Del Posto.


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   Published: September 2009