When you think of Yardbird Southern Kitchen & Bar, elegance isn’t the first word that comes to mind. The Miami import is known for its fried chicken and other Southern-comfort cooking, and quality whiskey. Yet when pastry chef Keris Kuwana presents a tasting of her down-home desserts (many of them bourbon-infused), they all possess some unexpected sophistication that betrays their creator’s fine-dining background.
You’ll see it in the sculpted chocolate and brushed syrup that come on her pecan pie plate, the way a lone Nilla Wafer is positioned within the curve of a paper-thin banana slice atop the banana pudding, and the spider web of crystalized sugar decorating the bread pudding. It’s there in the light dusting of bitter cocoa powder and precisely arranged macerated berries that adorn her red velvet cheesecake, and the cream cheese mousse and strutting chocolate rooster perched atop it.
“I loved it. I loved it so much that I decided to dedicate my life to it.” – Keris Kuwana on baking
Yardbird has a history of scooping up chefs with fine- dining experience to take their familiar concepts to the next level. But Kuwana’s background is particularly diverse, even in this town, where culinary lines are increasingly becoming blurred. Her career, which began in Hawaii but developed in our Valley, has frequently flip-flopped between the simple and the exotic, the suburbs and the Strip. And she’s made these transitions effortlessly, consistently providing just the right sweet treats to satisfy any clientele.
The chef got her first taste of baking for an audience in the Aloha State at the age of 18, when her friends had an unlikely dream to open a bakeshop. “An Indian dude, whose wife is Colombian,” she says. “And some Indians don’t eat eggs. He wanted to open up a cookie company, but couldn’t taste a darn thing. And with his wife being Colombian, she’d never even heard of these sugar cookies.”
The store opened the week before Christmas and, Kuwana says, despite her lack of formal training, “I loved it. I loved it so much that I decided to dedicate my life to it.”
From there, she went on to stage (apprentice) for Hawaiian regional cuisine pioneer Alan Wong preparing breads. In addition to it being a great learning experience, that was when she first discovered how physically demanding her chosen career could be. “I had never burned or cut myself more in my life than I did then,” she says, laughing.
That didn’t deter her dreams. Moving to Las Vegas in 2008, Kuwana quickly secured a job at the Summerlin outpost of fellow Hawaiian Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant, Roy’s, and began attending Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. By the time Kuwana graduated, she’d progressed to a pastry chef position at Roy’s.
In 2012, Kuwana learned the restaurant was preparing to close its Summerlin location and move to East Flamingo Road. At about the same time, her then-boyfriend, Ehren Watada, and his brother, Lorin, were launching a new Henderson restaurant called Bachi Burger. So she joined them to create desserts including Portuguese doughnuts, guava cake and Kahlua tiramisu, and to lend a hand with the savory dishes.
When that personal relationship ended, Kuwana decided to further pursue fine dining. After spending time at Wynn’s Alex and Mandalay Bay’s Aureole, she followed Aureole pastry chef Megan Romano to Romano’s west side bakery, Chocolate & Spice, describing her time there as “the best two years of my life.” Hand surgery brought on by kitchen work briefly sidelined Kuwana, but after healing, she returned to Aureole and sister restaurant Charlie Palmer Steak before landing the gig at Yardbird.
Kuwana says she loves the new position for many reasons. First, she cites her team—not just for their skills, but also for their understanding of her ongoing medical concerns and their willingness to lighten her physical load. She’s thrilled to have added five new desserts to the menu during her short time at the restaurant. And while she’s never been to the American South to sample its cuisine in its native context (she was chastised by her staff for saying “vanilla wafers” rather than “Nilla”), she feels the dessert program is a perfect fit for her personal sensibility and experience.
“I’m happy with a nice fudge brownie and some vanilla ice cream,” she says. “Or my husband and I will go to BJ’s and have a pizookie—something simple. It doesn’t have to be crazy, but people want to be wowed. And I learned from Megan Romano that you can take some of the simplest stuff and turn it into something a little bit fancier. And that’s what we do here. It feels like home to me.”
No offense to my mom, but I never had desserts like this at home. On my next visit, I’ll have to take her to Yardbird to see what she thinks.