Sweet Success

Aureole pastry chef Megan Romano infuses desserts with artist’s sensibility

Homegrown food and art always surrounded Megan Romano in the quaint home in which she was raised in North Haven, Conn. Not far beyond the front door, snap peas, strawberries, squash and blueberries sprouted in a small garden tended by her mother. Down in the basement, artwork emerged from the canvases and acrylic paint in her mother’s makeshift studio.

“My mom, she’s a very adventuresome cook. Things exploded sometimes and didn’t always turn out right, but she was curious and everything tasted great,” Romano remembers. “She was also an artist. Beautiful paintings line the halls of our house. She is a very visual person, and I took a lot from her.”

How these two talents flourished and merged in Romano’s young mind shaped who she is today: the executive pastry chef known for her chocolates and desserts at the Michelin-rated Aureole in Mandalay Bay and Charlie Palmer Steak in the Four Seasons.

“The combination of art and food somehow clicked,” Romano says.

Nearing graduation at Northwestern University, where she was a communications major, Romano began looking for a job that involved activities she enjoyed doing in her free time. This lead her to make the short trip to Chicago, where she applied at a restaurant she had never heard of—Charlie Trotter’s. With no experience, Romano was just looking to get her foot in the door.

“Had I known [who Charlie Trotter was] and I had researched it, I would have been like, You should not be here, you’re so out of your class,” she recalls. Trotter, finding her serious lack of experience amusing, had Romano come into his restaurant every Tuesday to work for free as a commis—basically an unpaid culinary intern.

After her graduation three months later, and with Trotter’s recommendation, Romano was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America in New York and moved back East. But then, on one fateful night before school started, Trotter introduced his budding protégé to Charlie Palmer. After learning that she would be attending the CIA, Palmer extended an invitation to spend a day in the kitchen of his New York restaurant, Aureole.

“The stuff I was learning in that one day was amazing,” says Romano, who never ended up going to the CIA. “I just rolled with it and realized that [Aureole] was my school. It was very physical, but it came at the perfect time.”

Palmer was impressed with Romano’s work ethic and skills, so he sent her along with her husband, Joe (a chef and fellow alumnus of Aureole in New York City), to open a concept restaurant, Aqua Terra, in Palm Beach, Fla. After that, Romano earned her post at Aureole and moved to Las Vegas in 1999.

Since then, she has steadily evolved her craft, with a focus on using seasonal ingredients to create her own line of desserts.

“I do like to incorporate things that you might not expect,” says Romano, who uses more savory elements than the typical pastry chef. “There’s an avocado-tequila sorbet that is awesome. I would like you to finish the dessert and not get bored with it or not think it’s sickeningly sweet. And although I want them to be beautiful, my main focus is on flavor.”

Before that first bite, your eyes will devour the delicate, elegant design that the chef incorporates into her plating. “I do think that I draw on my fine arts background when cooking,” Romano says.  “As early as I can remember, I watched my mom create beautiful works of art on canvas at home using oils, acrylic paints. I think that I inherited her eye for detail. My style is pretty straightforward without a lot of gimmicks. I focus on presenting the dessert in a way that reinforces my cooking method and the integrity of the ingredients.” It’s those amazing flavors, recipes and tips that the award-winning chef recently put together in her self-published dessert book, It’s a Sweet Life ($40, ChefMeganRomano.com). It was also a chance to bring her early influences of artistic expression and food experimentation full circle.

“It has been very rewarding to summarize years of work into a piece of artwork,” Romano says. “If nothing else, I think the product is far better than if I hadn’t put my name on it. It’s the process of the artist, at some point you want to express yourself and you want people to know that you’re behind it.”

7 Things Megan Romano Can’t Live Without

Cooking with my kids in the kitchen. It was once a real chore—extra work, extra cleanup—but now they know the ropes. They enjoy good food and always want a hand in the project!

Intense, flavorful dark chocolate. I love the intensity of chocolate, where your best bet for leaving your mark is to simply play along with this bold ingredient. My favorite pairings are tipsy truffles, salted-lime margarita and cabernet fleur de sel.

Caymus Select wine. It is a great excuse to spend time with my husband, Joe Doesn’t get much better than that.

Concord grape sorbet. It is to die for! It is a fleeting indulgence as it appears in farmers markets for only a few weeks each year.

Starbucks Frappuccino. I’m addicted to it! One sip and my day is off to a quick start.

A breathe of fresh air. It works well for our highly energetic family, as we hit the great outdoors in Red Rock to blow off some steam.

Travel. This summer, we hit the road to Bozeman, Mont., to soak in the spectacular views. It fuels my body and soul and becomes my inspiration for creating art in the kitchen.

Daily workout. The other man in my life, Jake—a 90-pound yellow Lab—reminds me of his morning run by sticking his wet nose in my face. Wakes me up every time!