Have Cake, Eat It Too

This independent pastry chef’s true calling is to share his sweet passion with others

It’s been nearly three months since Chris Hanmer was declared the winner of Top Chef Just Desserts Season 2, but he seems to still be on a high. He’s bubbly, energetic and excited about his hectic schedule: Presenting a showcase at the Food & Wine Cayman Cookout (part of his Top Chef prize), followed by consulting trips to Florida to discuss Kosher-for-Passover desserts, and in the midst of that, he still teaches classes at the School of Pastry Design, which he owns and operates. He’s the guy true sweets-lovers consult when they want to elevate their own dessert-making skills.

Hanmer, 33, has been cooking for 17 years, with 15 of them in pastry. “Once I saw what you could do with pastry,” he exclaims, “I went, ‘Wait, that’s chocolate? That’s flour, sugar and butter?’ I was hooked.” This dessert-making addiction led to his positions as assistant pastry chef at Bellagio, then executive pastry chef at Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas before opening his school in 2010.

The school is in an industrial area just west of the Strip, an unassuming building. But enter its doors, and beyond the shelves of chef’s equipment, you’ll encounter what it is that Hanmer does best, and get a better of idea of how he won Top Chef, as well as a gold medal in the World Pastry Team Championships, the Olympics of his industry. Delicately balanced decorative chocolate pieces rest on one table, and spectacular sugar sculptures are placed throughout the room.

Hanmer describes his style as being emotionally driven, which is evident in these works of art. “If you look around the room you can see that some things are inspired by floral, by design—my style changes based on my mood,” he says.

Part of why Hanmer decided to try for Top Chef Just Desserts was to draw more nonprofessional, but still aspiring, pastry chefs to his school. “I’m known in the industry for my professional accolades and things like that,” he says. “But [the show] really did kind of open up a lot of people to what I do here, and make stuff like this.”

Several times a week, Hanmer teaches classes in chocolate, as well as pastries and sugar. While he does offer instruction to professional members of the restaurant industry, it’s working with the nonprofessionals he finds most fulfilling. “I think my nonprofessional clients are really just so open because it’s such a passion for them. They really love to do it. They are so excited to be here to learn that one skill they saw on TV, magazine or book. Their fulfillment level is really strong.”

But he treats the amateurs the same as the seasoned kitchen veterans; he always begins with the basics. “I really start with what I would teach my professionals.” Take Hanmer’s chocolate classes, for example. Before making elaborate chocolate creations, “We’ll learn to temper chocolate first. How does it work? What do you need to make it happen?”

With his insane travel and work schedule, Hanmer somehow makes it happen. Hanmer’s 8-month-old daughter, Carys, who was born with a congenital heart defect and had surgery to successfully repair it, is now a healthy and social baby, and definitely keeping he and his wife, Caryn, busy. “Because of her heart condition, the first six months, we couldn’t bring her out in public because the risk of infection was too great. Now that she is fully repaired and healthy, she loves being around people.”

When Hanmer himself is out and about, people sometimes stop him not only to let him know they recognize him, but also to share that his showing has been inspiration, and ultimately he knows that’s exactly why he did the show: to inspire people to want to cook. But every once in a while, it still hits him: “Sometimes I’ll be walking with my wife, and I’ll say ‘I won Top Chef! Isn’t that crazy?’”

Ain’t It Sweet?

On his dish in the finale of Top Chef Just Desserts. For his final plated dish, Hanmer made an upscale almond cake with banana caramel, banana ice cream and mango sauce, an homage to his and Caryn’s Jamaican honeymoon. “Everything you ate and everything you drank was fruity and tropical.”

On overplayed desserts. Hanmer doesn’t think that one dessert is necessarily overplayed, but he would like to see deconstructed desserts go by the wayside. He paraphrases Alexander McQueen, saying that before you can deconstruct something you have to know how to construct it perfectly. “They say, ‘Here’s the trend, I’m going to jump in it. I don’t know how to make it well to start, but I’ll deconstruct it.’”

On the pressure of dessert. Believe it or not, dessert can often make, or break, or even make up for a meal. “Every chef I’ve worked for has said, ‘We’re doing the filet, the lobster and the truffle soup. Now you make the Wow.’ What’s the first thing that happens in a restaurant if something goes poorly? ‘We’re going to take care of you with dessert.’ Dessert is the finale and also the savior.”

Comeback dessert. Even though it seems to be ubiquitous on menus already, Hanmer insists crème brûlée is making a comeback. Good crème brûlée, he stresses. “There are very few things like a crème brûlée when it’s just been baked and it’s just cooled down to room temperature and you try that custard—it’s so rich, so full of vanilla. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it.”