Food lovers never run out of things to argue about. But in Charlotte’s restaurant kitchens, there's one opinion hardly anyone will fight over:
Pastry chef Ashley Bivens Boyd deserves more credit than she gets.
Her influence is turning up in restaurants all over the city, in sophisticated touches like unusual produce, locally raised ingredients and plates that are composed as carefully as paintings.
For a while, she was doing desserts at two restaurants 27 miles apart – 300 East, owned by her mother, Catherine Coulter, and Heritage Food + Drink in Waxhaw, owned by Paul Verica. At the same time, she was training, teaching and influencing pastry chefs who have gone on to other restaurants, taking her lessons with them.
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That’s why it was bittersweet when venerable Southern Living magazine released its annual list, The Best of the South, in March: The best-desserts category included Heritage, but credited the desserts to Verica, with no mention of Boyd.
It was like something from a dusty Hollywood movie: In Charlotte, so hungry for culinary acclaim that you can practically hear chefs mumbling “James Beard award” in their sleep, a pastry chef's work gets recognition from a national magazine. But the spotlight is shone on someone else.
"We certainly meant no disrespect to the talented Ms. Boyd," said Sid Evans, the editor-in-chief of the magazine. Readers had voted for Heritage in the magazine's annual poll, so the magazine credited Verica as the restaurant's chef/owner. The listing was later corrected, at least online, after The Observer pointed out the error.
It wasn't fair. But maybe it's a good time to take a good look at what's happening on our dessert plates: Herb-flecked meringues. Sweet pea purees. Strong, lemony sorrel turned into sherbet. Plates that look like Van Gogh paintings, with vivid swaths of sauce and stars of tiny white meringues. All are Boyd’s signature moves, now copied – with her blessing – at many other restaurants.
“She’s basically an icon,” says Megan Lambert, a senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University.
“My guess is that every pastry chef in town aspires to her level of well-thought-out texture, flavor, color and respect for beautiful ingredients. How could we not?”
Look closely at these desserts, from Haymaker, The Asbury, Bonterra, Pine Island Country Club and 300 East. You’ll see Boyd’s fingerprints all over them.
Miranda Brown, The Asbury: White chocolate panna cotta topped with a fennel gel, and pickled shaved fennel and apple relish.
“I’m really proud of it,” says Brown, who was Boyd’s sous chef at 300 East before going to The Asbury, the restaurant at The Dunhill Hotel. “It’s the most Ashley-inspired. She’d take really fresh herbs and stuff like carrots and sorrel. I try to think about it like Ashley would think about it.” Boyd taught her that some things, like sorrel, will turn dark if you heat them. To set the green color of herbs, she blanches things like fresh sorrel, basil and mint, then shocks them in ice water.
For Brown’s panna cotta, she knew she couldn’t heat fennel juice. Instead, she uses it to make a pale green gel for the top, then uses more fennel in the topping.
“It’s really light. I put it on the menu in winter, but I really like it for spring.”
Ashley Anna Tuttle, Haymaker: Strawberry shortcake with roasted white chocolate milk crumble, compressed strawberries and elder flowers, almond crunch and strawberry wine sorbet.
When Tuttle came to Charlotte from Denver, she went to work at Amelie’s. But she started working one day a week for Boyd, mostly at 300 East and sometimes at Heritage, because she wanted to learn pastry in a restaurant setting as well as a bakery.
She uses several of Boyd’s techniques, particularly crispy meringues and crumbles to add textures to plates, like thyme shortbread broken into bits or the milk powder with roasted white chocolate.
“It’s not just the straight ingredient, it’s making it into another form. It’s showcasing the ingredient.”
TJay Jones, Bonterra: Creamsicle Panna Cotta, with a blood orange gel, vanilla bean panna cotta and a basil coulis, topped with candied orange peel.
Jones wasn’t a pastry chef when he had to take over the desserts from the departing Jamie Suddoth. Boyd worked with him, teaching him “gastro techniques that I wasn’t privy to – gels and foams, plate presentation.” She helped him work through the elements to elevate his panna cotta.
“Panna cotta is pretty simple, but when you add those other things, you get a dessert on the level of a Bonterra. It’s kind of a palate cleanser – it offsets the sweet.”
Joy Turner, executive chef at the Pine Island Country Club: Peanut butter cheesecake with chocolate crumbs, crushed pretzels and chantilly cream.
“She is absolutely influential on how I look at plates,” says Turner, who worked at Heritage, plating the desserts from components that Boyd would bring to the restaurant for later.
“Anytime I put a new dessert on the menu, it’s Ashley. She’s so unique in what she does. There is an Ashley look.”
Laney Jahkel-Parrish, assistant pastry chef at 300 East: White chocolate cheesecake.
Jahkel-Parrish started as Boyd’s intern before getting promoted to her current role as “pastry sous.” While much of her job is executing the desserts Boyd creates, she also gets to do daily special desserts. The one she’ll always keep in her repertoire, she says, is Boyd’s white chocolate cheesecake. It’s usually baked in a round pan without a crust and can be changed with the seasons, like the version on the menu now with a strawberry swirl and dots of sweet pea puree.
“It’s magical,” she says. “I have tried a lot of different kinds of cheesecake. It’s a formula she has perfected. The white chocolate has a silkiness to it. It’s not that cloyingly sweet.”
The other thing she’ll always keep, she says, is Boyd’s approach to designing plates: Boyd often sketches them before she plates them, using techniques from her years as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Our art is edible,” Jahkel-Parrish says. “She has that artist intensity to her. I want to be in her brain. She just sees things. The food is art. That is her paint and her canvas. It’s so deliberate and intentional. There’s nothing left to chance.”
Kathleen Purvis' 704-358-5236.
Ashley Boyd’s Bag of Tricks
When you order dessert around Charlotte, see if you spot these:
▪ Herbs and vegetables. From carrots and celery to rosemary and thyme, you'll see a lot of locally grown produce that isn't typical for dessert. At Heritage, Boyd once made ice cream sandwiches with celery sorbet and cinnamon raisin cake, served with celery powder, pickled grapes and compressed celery.
▪ Naturally flavored gels, usually in pastel colors. Many of Boyd's desserts have a shiny layer on top, usually made from local produce set with agar. It adds color, texture and a cooling flavor.
▪ Unusual dairy products. Boyd often reaches for locally produced goat's milk instead of cow’s milk and fresh goat cheese in place of cream cheese. It adds a haunting tanginess to things like butter cream and her legendary cheesecakes.
▪ Crumbles. There’s usually something on the plate to add texture and contrast, from toasted grains like buckwheat to crumbled shortbread.
▪ Dessert sauces with vivid colors, often painted across the plate and topped with small, star-like meringues.
▪ Plates composed like paintings, with design elements like white space, height and dramatic colors.