Chef Chat: Alexa Clark, a Pastry Chef With a Mission

A sweet touch comes to Viaggio in Wayne.

Alexa Clark on Saturday finished her first week at Viaggio, the upscale, high-toned, Italian-accented restaurant in Wayne piloted by the talented young chef Robbie Felice. Clark, 29, and fresh off two-and-a-half years as pastry chef at Common Lot, the Garden State Culinary Arts award-winning restaurant in Millburn, didn’t waste time making her mark at Viaggio: She introduced three new desserts to its menu in week one.

The Warwick, NY, native “always loved baking. When I was in high school, I remember sitting in the kitchen with my grandma and she asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. She said, ‘Alexa, do what you love.’ Well, I loved watching TV and baking! So I ended up going to ICE in New York City” —a.k.a., the Institute of Culinary Education. She loved culinary school, loved her externships in the city at Tribeca Treats and Bluefin, did a stint at a wholesale bakery called No Nut Nation—and then went to Myrtle Beach for six months.

When she returned home, she got a job at Local Seasonal Kitchen in Ramsey, working under pastry chef Jessica Marrota. Her learning curve soared. When Marrota left to start her Gypsy Pop business, the chef-owner Steve Santoro offered Clark the top pastry job. Sadly, Santoro was diagnosed with cancer and Local Seasonal closed. Clark interviewed with Ehren Ryan, just as he was opening Common Lot. There she found a home, another mentor and a brave new world of pastries.

Table Hopping: How did you develop desserts at Common Lot?

Alexa Clark: In the beginning, Ehren guided me; then I had more free reign. Sometimes he’d give me an idea, we’d discuss and review as I developed it until I’d come up with a complete idea. It was a collaboration. It was such a nice atmosphere—I felt extremely comfortable.

TH: What are a couple of the most memorable desserts you did at Common Lot?

AC: The dark chocolate semifreddo with roasted cocoa and cocoa nibs inside. It had creaminess and crunch. And a glaze on top. On the side, I’d do a bergamot curd and some blood orange. I also loved the rice pudding—because, before Common Lot, I hated rice pudding! But doing it there made me love it. It was creamy, but not overdone, not mushy, and had some bite to it. The sorbets we did—seasonal sorbets on the side—brought out the freshness. They changed all the time.

TH: What’s it like at Viaggio?

AC: I used to eat there a lot, and I love the restaurant—rustic Italian. The first week, I did a panna cotta with honey and mascarpone, plus a honeycomb that is a tribute to Common Lot, rhubarb and a honey tuile. So simple, so delicious. I don’t like panna cottas that are like jello; I wanted mine to be creamy.

Honey Mascarpone Panna Cotta, with rhubarb and honeycomb

I also did a dark chocolate budino, with a flourless cake crumble, strawberry jam and dehydrated chocolate mousse that gives it a bit of a crunch. And a little Maldon (sea salt) on top.

Chocolate Budino, with strawberry jam and dehydrated mousse

When I worked at Local Seasonal, I learned to make a perfect budino. At Viaggio, I’m upping the ante on it. I’m very excited to be here; Robbie has plans to open another place eventually.

TH: There are a quite a few young, talented chefs in New Jersey right now.

AC: Yes! I’ve been in New Jersey for five years now, and I’m noticing a big difference. There are new restaurants and new people popping up. Heirloom Kitchen, with Dave Viana, is one of my favorites, too. It’s exciting to be part of a culture that’s really starting to take off. I love that I’m here at the birth of something that’s more than pizza—although I love Dan Richer and Razza (in Jersey City). It’s so amazing. The Flaky Tart (in Atlantic Highlands), too. Marie Jackson was the first pastry chef from New Jersey to be Beard [Award] nominated. I’d go there then and eat and eat. Love that place.

TH: Are you finding talent on the farms as well?

AC: Yes, very much. Robbie works with The New Jersey Farm in Sussex County. At Common Lot, we bought from PK’s Four Brothers Farm in Bernardsville. They’re young brothers and recently started. They have the best chickens. Best, most delicious ever. They do lamb and pork, too.

Clark pauses to mention her boyfriend, the chef Jay Hung, whom she met at Common Lot, who is now fish chef at daPesca, the new high-end seafood restaurant within Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown. That restaurant is fed by fishes from Local 130, the Jersey-centric seafood wholoesaler-retailer.

TH: What do you want to see happen—in New Jersey restaurants, in pastry?

AC: I’d like to see emphasis on pastry in restaurants. I like working in restaurants because there’s an opportunity there to be part of a team with many parts. You can work closely with other chefs in a restaurant, and bring different components to a complete meal. Desserts can be nostalgic: what grandma made. They always should be fun and delicious. And wouldn’t it be awesome to bring together pastry chefs in New Jersey? To have something that connects pastry chefs? I do.

Viaggio is at 1055 Hamburg Turnpike in Wayne. It’s open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday; dinner only Saturday and Sunday. 973-706-7277; viaggioristorante.com.

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