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Food and Drink

Conversation: UAA’s new pastry professor talks about her sweet journey with food and teaching

  • Author: Marc Lester
  • Updated: April 17
  • Published April 15

Kellie Puff drips chocolate from a mold back into a warming pan. Puff hosted a chocolate workshop at the UAA Campus Bookstore on April 4, 2019. A first-year assistant professor in UAA’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality program, she showed about 40 people how to create Easter-themed chocolate eggs and bunnies. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Chef Kellie Puff hosted a workshop, and it was sweet.

Puff’s chocolate workshop April 4 drew about 40 people to the UAA Campus Bookstore, where she discussed different kinds of chocolate, equipment and molds to create Easter-themed bunnies and eggs. At the conclusion of the free class, attendees each got a generous sample.

Puff is a first-year assistant professor of baking and pastry arts at UAA’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Administration program. Before that, she worked with Orso, Kincaid Grill and City Diner. She also taught baking and pastry arts at King Career Center (now called King Tech High School) for 10 years and also taught at Allen and Petersen’s cooking school.

As her students devoured her chocolate samples, Puff spoke with ADN about the delicious journey of her life. The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Tell me about your background with pastries?

I’ve loved baking since I was a little girl. My mom hated it, so she was really happy when I took an interest in it. ... Everybody had an Easy-Bake Oven, but I didn’t and I wanted one so bad. ... So my mom, she went out and bought the kit that you used to make the cakes in the Easy-Bake Oven. So, I had the little pans and the little mixes and the little spatula. And she taught me how to use the big oven. Eight years old, with my big oven mitts on and pulling cakes in and out of the oven. ... And then she showed me how to measure and how to read a recipe.

And so I took over baking for the family and that developed into my teen years. I had no idea that culinary was something that I could do as a profession. They didn’t have that kind of vocational education in my high school at the time. I figured it out at my 10-year high school reunion. I made all the pastries for opening night. People thought it was done by a professional. I was so excited. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.”

And that same week, UAA had sent out a fall flyer, and on the front of it was the culinary program. They highlighted it. I had no idea there was a program here. I toured it. I was hooked. I was like, “I gotta do this. This is the place I need to be. I love this.”

Kellie Puff, left, hosted a chocolate workshop at the UAA Campus Bookstore on April 4, 2019. Student Kyle Furuuchi assists at right. (Marc Lester / ADN)

It was a total career change for you?

Total. And I had kids in diapers. There was a lot of juggling. I was working, raising babies. ... We made it work. ... I looked at my sons and thought, I could come up with all kinds of reasons not to do this, but I want to show them that you can do anything you set your mind to.

There’s a lot of obstacles and a lot of hard times that you go through in the process, but in the end it pays off. And it has. I’ve gone so many places with this career that I never dreamed I would’ve gone to.

Will you highlight just a couple of them for me?

I got to do a hands-on intensive class in Oaxaca, Mexico, with Rick Bayless, who owns Topolobompo and Frontera Grill in Chicago ... just a huge culinary force. ... I got to learn cooking from him and I got to cook alongside him ...

I got to meet the Galloping Gourmet ... Graham Kerr. I got to work with him.

Why do you think, of all the different culinary arts, you’re drawn to pastries and desserts?

As a kid I was a really picky eater. I hated onions. I would find them in everything, and I’d pull them out and I’d have a pile of onions on my napkin. I always loved sweet things and I’ve always been intrigued by contrasting flavors and textures. And so, I think I was born with it.

They also seem to make people happy in a different way.

They do. Well some people, not so much. They’re so afraid of eating something sweet, it’s almost like it’s a bad thing. It’s like, oh my goodness, everything in moderation. You don’t have to eat the whole cake. Have a slice. Enjoy it.

Visitors to Kellie Puff's chocolate workshop reach for samples of her work. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Watching you today, it looks like you’re pretty enthusiastic, not only about the product but also about teaching. Tell me about teaching.

I love it. I got my first dabble into the teaching side of this when I started working at Allen and Petersen. I went home after a class and I was like, “What is wrong with my jaw?” I realized I had been laughing and smiling so much that my face hurt and it was tired. ... It’s such a blast when you make those connections with people and you inspire them. You can see the light going on and they’re like, “I’m going to go home and try this.”

... Then transitioning into working with high school students, kids are scary. But then you realize, they’re just kids. They’re just people too. There’s usually a reason why they’re being grumpy and snarky. Just have some patience for them.

I feel like I’ve had a lot of impact on some youth over the years. I really enjoy being a strong female figure for the girls coming through the program, and just showing them that you can be feminine and strong and smart and successful in this industry as a woman.

A traditionally very male-dominated industry?

It is.

Still?

Yes, although when you look at our program, you’ll see that we have a lot more females than we do males in our classes.

So the future looks a little different?

It does. It’s just kitchens are intimidating, because it’s fast-paced. It’s hot. It’s a pirate ship of people. You’ve got a guy with an ankle bracelet on one side of you and another guy getting his master’s degree on the other. You just don’t know. It’s just an interesting mix of people and it can be really intimidating to women. And so I try to tell them, “They’re all just people. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”

Tell me about your first year in the university program?

Oh my goodness. I thought I knew everything about teaching, and then I started teaching adults. ... I was used to doing two-hour classes over at KCC. Here I’m doing five-hour classes, and then I have overlap three days a week, so I’m doing seven hours of instruction nonstop. It takes a lot of energy. ...

That has been my big learning curve here. It’s a high-energy job and I love it and I have a lot of creative freedom. And I love having this huge bakery to spread out and teach students in, but I gotta take care of myself and keep that pace up.

Today you wanted to teach about molding (chocolate) into eggs and molding bunnies. If somebody missed your workshop today wanted to get started, what are a couple tips?

The big thing is getting high-quality chocolate, making sure that you’re not buying the bars of chocolate from the grocery store. You need to invest a little bit of money in your chocolate. ... Invest in a thermometer. Just start playing with the chocolate. Each type of chocolate and each brand of chocolate has its own personality and acts very differently. ...

If you’re just starting out, pick out a chocolate that you like by flavor and then start melting it down and seeing what you can do with it in tempering. Don’t spend a lot of money on molds. Use some of those cheaper plastic molds. Just polish them with a microfiber cloth. And start playing with fillings and ganaches and buttercreams and stuff.

If someone wants to try the work that your students do, where can they go and how can they sample it?

They can sample my students’ work in two ways.

We run a bakery cart Tuesday through Thursday, just outside of the entrance of Lucy’s in the Cuddy Center. We open at 9 and we close at 11. You’re going to see a lot of croissants and danishes, muffins, scones, cookies. Everything is fresh-baked that morning. A lot of times it’s still warm when we put it in the baskets. ...

If you want to see what the advanced students are up to, make a reservation at Lucy’s. You can go online to Open Table and reserve or call in to make a reservation. We’re open Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 to 1:30. Last seating is 12:15 (p.m.).

Kyle Furuuchi holds a paper piping bag as Kellie Puff fills it with melted chocolate. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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