The Hand that Feeds You - Shelby Sieg, The Pritchard
Few things in life feel as blissful as biting into an airy macaron. Perhaps similar satisfaction can be achieved by unrolling a warm cinnamon roll, or by peeling a croissant apart flaky layer by flaky layer before allowing yourself to take that first sumptuous bite. Appreciating the craft of a baked treat can evoke supreme happiness, especially when it has been made with expert hands. But turning a simple torte or tart into appreciable art takes years of practice, training, and trial-and-error to perfect recipes that seem simple on the surface.
Take the macarons that Shelby Sieg helped develop at Belle Kitchen, where she was formerly executive pastry chef. “The challenge is doing it enough times to know what you’re doing…more so than any other pastry I’ve ever experimented with, [macarons] are the most finicky,” Shelby explains. “If it’s ten percent more humid one day than the day before, they’re going to come out differently. Your oven running a few degrees hotter or colder because you opened the door to put them in. Mixing the egg white forty-five seconds longer than you did on the previous batch. Literally every second on those counts, and pinpointing every part of that has been a several-month's challenge.”
When so much exacting attention to detail is required, discipline is a salient virtue and Shelby is quite familiar with self-discipline. Growing up the daughter of an Air Force general, strict order was a formative part of her upbringing and it shows in her kitchen. “When you see somebody else in the kitchen going, ‘Well, this is good enough’- I don’t want ‘good enough.’ If it’s not something I would be proud to put out, then I’m not putting it out. No matter where I work, I don’t want people to come in there and think, ‘Oh well, they were having an off-day’ or something like that. For me, it’s about reputation, and I think you don’t have a lot else in life. Not only reputation of how you behave in life, but also the food and the consistency of product I put out is important to me.”
Cooking for people was also an essential part of her growing up experience. When she was younger, she would help her mother prepare large meals for military parties, often serving forty to fifty people. Although she enjoyed preparing these feasts, cooking professionally didn’t occur to her until she had already begun college.
She left the University of Oklahoma to study in Scottsdale, Arizona, earning her associate degree in patisserie and baking. After graduating, she took her first job at the Gaylord Texan resort hotel near Dallas. The experience of helping her mother with those large Air Force parties hardly prepared her for the intense, high-volume banquet services she was now cooking. Sometimes, huge events such as Mary Kay conventions would require preparation for over 5,000 people.
Shelby was eventually promoted to pastry chef at the hotel’s fine dining steak house, and after four years at the Gaylord, she decided to move to New York City to pursue new opportunities there. “That was intense, and… otherworldly, I don’t know how to describe it sometimes. It was incredibly intense.”
After a stint at Ciano, a now-shuttered Italian restaurant in the ritzy Gramercy Park neighborhood, she accepted a position at Marea. Located in Central Park South, the chic seafood restaurant had just won the 2010 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, and went on to earn two Michelin stars. It was the ultimate training ground. “I went from a place in Dallas where I had one cook and one or two interns to a restaurant where we had ten to eleven people just on the pastry staff. It was a big change, but I learned so much in that restaurant.”
Eventually, she made her way back to Oklahoma City and helped open The George, chef Josh Valentine’s short-lived steakhouse atop the Founder’s Tower. The high-end restaurant did much to elevate Oklahoma City’s food scene, but was plagued with problems from the start, closing barely a year after opening.
As fate would have it, Shelby’s baking experience fit right in with Belle Kitchen. Although they’re known most for their macarons and donuts, they offer several other sweet treats, including the unique ice cream flavors Shelby created for the bakery. “I’ve made a study of it for about eight years now, down to the molecular structure and the freezing points of different sugars. It’s what drives me, it’s what I’m passionate about, and going forward it’s something I’d like to get into.”
The flavors she creates aren’t typical. “I like ones with a savory edge to them. It sounds odd, but doing a bay leaf ice cream has been really popular. It’s got this really floral, herb-y taste to it.”
Recently, Shelby has transitioned to become the executive chef for the Plaza District’s newest restaurant for wine and small plate dishes, The Pritchard.