Vanessa Tristan has a thirst for knowledge. She understands that learning takes place not only in the classroom, but the kitchen as well.
The pantry-cook-turned-executive-pastry-chef of The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas, has carved out her own niche by establishing the club’s first-ever baking and pastry program. As Tristan looks back at her already-storied career, she attests to her constant quest for learning and reveals how pastry became her jam.
Whetting Her Appetite
Cooking has been in Tristan’s blood ever since she was a child, having grown up with a mom who often prepared home-cooked meals. “I used to pull up a chair next to the stove and just look and sometimes even help her,” she recalls. As Tristan logged more time in the kitchen, she joined a culinary team during high school and eventually took her first paying job as a cashier in a university dining hall—her first paying gig in food service.
It wasn’t until Tristan had worked for three solid years in the industry that she decided to officially enroll in culinary school. “At this point, I knew that I truly enjoyed cooking,” she says. “I was passionate about it, and I knew it was going to be my career.” Her culinary instructors encouraged Tristan to expand her creativity and try new things, but she was still left wanting more.
After completing her education, Tristan decided to pursue the country club food circuit and applied for a job as a sous chef at Carlton Woods. “I had no experience with fine dining, but I knew I was dedicated and willing to learn,” she offers. While the opportunity did not pan out, it opened the door for a new one as pantry cook—a position that further exposed Tristan to all things culinary, from the hot line and pantry, to baking and pastry.
Once Tristan began to assume more pastry-related responsibilities at the club, she realized that this was quickly becoming her specialty and wanted to make it her own. “[Executive] Chef Wes [Tyler] and [Executive Sous] Chef Adam [Jemmott] always supported me through my journey, but there was only so much they could teach me when it came to baking and pastry,” she says. So back to culinary school she went, juggling classes with her full-time job. Undaunted by the heavy workload, Tristan credits a full team of support from her supervisors and her family for getting her through this stage of her career. “I couldn’t have done it without them—and I honestly wouldn’t have done it any other way,” she admits.
Taste Maker, Game Changer
With her newly earned certification firmly under her belt, Tristan was able to harness what she had learned at school and brought it back to the kitchen. She began baking more breads, using more French techniques and switching up recipes. In fact, when asked how she would characterize herself as a chef, Tristan notes the change in her style and attitude. “I’m usually more by the book; I like to stay true to things, but working in the industry, taking risks, is part of the job,” she explains. “Getting out of that comfort zone and pushing boundaries is what helps a chef be a chef.” At the same time, Tristan also knows when to let someone else take the lead and has no issues relinquishing control when necessary.
Building Carlton Woods’ pastry program from the ground up has enabled Tristan to flex her creative muscles. She is no stranger to trial and error and admits to pushing herself until she is satisfied with the results. Such persistence has enabled her to perfect a variety of products, from sourdough, to bon bons—both of which have become menu mainstays. Speaking of chocolate, Tristan completed a Valrhona workshop this past summer under the tutelage of chocolatier and Chef Gonzo Jimenez. “It made me realize how baking, pastry and chocolate work are infinite,” she says. “There will always be something new, fresh and exciting to make!”
Tristan’s enthusiasm has bubbled over into her current work, focusing on seasonal gourmet pastries and desserts for a la carte service and special events. While she has laid the groundwork for a flourishing pastry program, her attitude remains humble as she recalls her early days. “I remember walking into our dry storage and not even having chocolate in stock, and now I have a whole area designated for baking and pastry,” she notes. “I’m just really proud of how much the program has grown. We’ve all worked hard for it, and I’m excited to offer a lot more to our members.”
Gearing up for a busy end to the calendar year, the ever-engaged chef aspires to continue learning. Tristan plans to keep growing Carlton Woods’ baking and pastry program, as well as concentrate on her personal goal of attaining the ACF’s pastry chef of the year award. When she has a moment to pause and refresh herself, perhaps she can sit down and enjoy a slice of her favorite dessert: homemade flan. “I don’t have much of a sweet tooth,” she says, “so flan is just the right amount of sweet.”
Editor’s note: The Club at Carlton Woods’ Vanessa Tristan, CEPC Executive Pastry Chef, and Wes Tyler, CEC, CCA, WCMC, CCCD Executive Chef, will present on the significance of an in-house pastry program at the 2024 Chef to Chef Conference in Austin, Texas. See agenda here. Register here. Register by Dec. 31 for early-bird pricing.