I first fell hard for Jenn Batt’s desserts last spring at Las Puertas, where she is resident pastry chef. It was a verrine of yogurt-honey panna cotta that did me in.
“Perfect,” I thought to myself before it arrived, taking stock of my willpower and waistline. “It’s just panna cotta. I’ll be able to take a few bites, get my sugar fix, and push my plate away.”
Except it wasn’t just panna cotta. It was a composition—a study in visual, textural, and gustatory consonance. If the custard was a delicately sour, snow-colored canvas, then the poppyseed-flecked, yellow-centered linzer rose like a burst of sun from its yielding surface. The scatter of olive cake and wispy edible flowers served as organic counterpoints to the cookie’s strong geometric form and a reminder that with the spring thaw comes new growth. On the palate, it was equally artful—and playful. Flakey salt crackled undertooth. The cookie begged to be broken up by hand, the pieces employed as makeshift panna cotta scoops or otherwise crumbled over the custard’s pristine surface. It was as refined a dessert as I’ve ever had in Western New York without being tight or stodgy. What’ more, it had a purpose beyond satiating a sweet tooth. It expressed something in its own right.
Batt, a native of Williamsville, always knew she wanted to pursue something artistic as a profession. And though she dabbled in painting, her love of cooking and desire to produce something readily consumable ultimately led her to pastry and the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. Dessert became her creative outlet of choice.
On a precious night off in late summer, I had dinner with Batt at The Dapper Goose, where she told me, earnestly, that despite the long hours, being a pastry chef doesn’t feel like work.
“It’s actually therapeutic to me,” she said between sips of cocktail.
Not that the profession is without challenges, especially in a city like Buffalo, where dessert is too often something a restaurant buys wholesale and resells to its guests. When Batt moved back to the area after the CIA, it was difficult for her to find a job at all, let alone one that jived with her ethos and allowed her to practice the skills she had so dutifully learned. Most places she worked at took shortcuts and played it safe conceptually.
“Honestly, I think I learned what not to do,” Batt said of some of her early jobs. “Maybe that has helped in the long run. But at the time it was hard to be optimistic.”
It was until she landed a job as pastry chef in the M&T executive dining room that Batt found the freedom to hone her style and express herself through her desserts. And that reinvigorated her excitement not only for the profession but also in Buffalo’s potential to incubate her career.
That career path fatefully led her to the now-defunct IN industry night events, where she met chef Victor Parra Gonzalez. Eventually, he contacted her to gauge her interest in helming the dessert program at his then-unopened restaurant, Las Puertas. Despite the suddenness of it all, Batt took a leap of faith and decided to pursue the opportunity. So far, is has proven to be a fortuitous decision.
“Cooking wise, we have really good chemistry. We are on the same page. Previous employers didn’t understand when I wanted to do something unique, or they were unwilling to take the chance.”
Now, Batt has the freedom to push the boundaries of what Buffalo diners have come to expect from dessert and to showcase the seriousness of the profession that has become her life’s work.
Since Las Puertas opened, she has consistently thrilled me with her plates. On my most recent visit, I was particularly charmed by a stratified cake that seemed to reflect of the seasonal moment we currently find ourselves in—this place between summer and fall, when the sights and smells of our environment teeter somewhere between bright and fresh, and muted and rich. Layers of thick layers of brownie, black sesame mousse, matcha mousse, and glossy ganache offered a visually arresting display of deep cocoas, pale gray, and mossy green. Visually, it invoked the Brannan-filtered earth tones of a damp, leaf strewn lawn after a soaking rain. That earthy, grassy invocation was replicated in its flavor profile, where the chocolate played a grounding, supporting role to matcha’s vegetal notes. A flourish of black raspberry cremeaux was reminiscent of the fruit-forward red wines favored over crisp summer whites on chilly, damp evenings. It made me excited for the transition at hand.
As Batt and I wrapped up our dinner, our conversation about inspiration and influences (farmers’ markets and travel, naturally) turned to more philosophical topics, like why dessert is so often an afterthought and why many people don’t take pastry as seriously as it is. When I asked what she wants for the future, she paused before responding.
“I want people to save room for dessert.”
And with that, we ordered ice cream.