Greg Baxtrom's Brooklyn restaurant Maison Yaki has been made available to black food professionals for a series of two-week pop-ups. The initiative offers them the platform to showcase their culinary skills and food philosophies, and allows them to enrich the local community with a true and representative expression of its food identity.
The penultimate event in the ongoing Black Entrepreneur Pop-Up series stars pastry chef, Camari Mick, who's making things sweet as she arrives hot on the heels of the food and wine duo Joe Smalls and Kilolo Strobert, until 11 October.
As we talk on the phone from New York, Mick's already well into her groove. She's halfway through her guest pop-up and she tells us "it's going great" as she sets about prepping for the day ahead. Her sister has come to help out, although Mick confesses she is more of an "extra mouth" than an extra pair of hands. "She'll cut something in half, then she eats half, she's one of those."
Mick's fortnight takeout menu naturally showcases her talent for pastry with a selection of desserts, including pavlova with pear sorbet and whipped ricotta and a vegan panna cotta, as well as a couple of savoury dishes and snacks.
But her real tour de force and number one best-seller every night so far has been the fig and date sticky toffee pudding. "It’s reaaaally goood," she giggles. "It’s something that’s very familiar to a lot of people. They know sticky toffee pudding, but then they’re like - date and soy ice cream, what is that, I didn’t try it?" To top the dessert off, she uses a double-brewed soy sauce. "It’s very rich. If I didn’t tell you it was a soy sauce, you'd be like, it’s an amazing flavour but what is it?"
Pennsylvanian born Mick, who defines herself as "strictly pastry", took up baking at a young age. "When I was younger I was a chubby girl. I loved sweets, I loved to eat. My dad’s Jamaican-born and my mom's Brooklyn-born, so they're both really really good cooks, but neither of them could bake," she explains.
She filled the gap by baking at weekends and then at high school, drumming up business selling baked cupcakes and cobbler's pie to teachers. It was with surprise that her father learnt she had ideas of becoming a forensic pathologist. "He was like, why? You like to bake, you’re good at baking and you’re already making money at it, so why not do a pastry chef course?” She went on to study pastry arts at college in Philadelphia and hasn't looked back since.
A series of roles in some high-end kitchens fine-tuned her skills upon graduation, with a brief detour working in a bake shop helping her to realise she loved the pace of fine dining. From Philadelphia she went to Nantucket, and finally New York, to be closer to her sister and family. Here she worked in Le Bernadin and db Bistro Moderne and even did a two-month stage at Eleven Madison Park. "I got a taste of 3-Michelin-star and I was like, wow, this is intense,” she says. Her final landing place was at Thomas Keller's TAK Room, before it shuttered a couple of months ago.
Post-Covid, she's moved back in with her parents "doing personal R and D for her personal weight gain," she jokes. Fortunately, her parents are hugely influential in her approach to cooking, doubling up as resident critics. Her mother, who doesn't have a sweet tooth, is her biggest challenge. "The pavlova dish with ricotta was inspired by her, where the only sweetness on the dish comes from the meringue," she says, adding that she knew she was onto something when she and her mother literally ate it all and didn't want to share it with her father. The sticky toffee pudding, on the other hand, was in honour of her dad, who has always loved his cakes warm.
Mick's culture is Jamaican, but her inspirations include French and Asian. "I like to do my research. I don't want to just appropriate somebody's culture. I like to do a mix of things." And there's nothing she enjoys more than surprising her parents with new flavours, and always ensuring her dishes look elegant.
If the Maison Yaki Series is about giving black entrepreneurs a platform to showcase their skills and develop a future in the culinary industry, Mick is the ideal candidate. In the near future she's looking for a new position working with bread and viennoiserie, and then she plans to put that learning into practice in her own place, under name of The Tasting Spoon. She's given herself five years to get her project up and running and already has a vision of how it will look and feel.
"In the morning I want to sell different types of viennoiserie, like a matcha and black sesame croissant, and at night we’re going to transform into a dessert bar where you can have three or five-course tastings of dessert or come in for a simple slice of pecan pie or tiramisu," she explains.
When Baxtrom approached her for the pop-up, it gave her the opportunity she needed without the financial outlay or risk. She knows from experience it is hard to break even, let alone make a profit. "Just the exposure in itself has been a blessing, and I actually already have a few job leads because of it," she says.
Mick knows her role as a black and female pastry chef comes with responsibility. "I have a few pastry cooks that I’ve worked with and inspired so much. If I asked them they will follow me and work for me. That type of responsibility for how I carry myself in the kitchen and how I work – I take a lot of pride in that."
"In my future shop, I want it to be a learning environment. I felt in the fine-dining places, a lot of times people were shutting me out, like chefs didn't want to share their recipes with me. So what should have been a learning environment felt hard to get through to. I feel like I had to work twice as hard to get half of what they got. I've busted my ass to get where I am."
"I'm so thankful for Greg to see my talent and offer me this opportunity, and reach out to other people, because he believes in me. I've never really had a mentor per se in the industry, because there's nobody who looks like me. I've honestly only ever worked with a few other black people."
"I don't want to say I'm a pioneer, but I've been getting a lot of great feedback from everyone about my desserts and about me in general."
And if Camari Mick has gained the visibility she deserves, it's a credit to the Maison Yaki Series and it's a credit to her and her family. Watch this space.