Love & Learn | MJ’s Seasonally Sweet & Relentlessly Prolific Pastry Program

Snapshot of now via #MGFDpastry

Snapshot of now via #MGFDpastry on Instagram. They’ve been busy.

MJ spending some stage time with master baker Tomas Strulovic.

MJ being a sponge for all things bakery, staging with True Loaf’s Tomas Strulovic.

There’s no “i” in pastry, and Maria Jose “MJ” Garcia will be the first one to tell you.  We last checked in with our pastry chef at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink to learn about her department’s regular role in the ella display case — namely the café’s daily donut.  Today’s angle zooms out to capture the scope of what’s going on these days at Michael’s Genuine (a lot), and how — in addition to the invaluable supportive role it plays within our growing organization — pastry is driving much of the research and development in our flagship kitchen.

MJ maintains that to become really good at what you do, you have to have really good team that works hard together to grow, referring to the chemistry and commitment of pastry assistants Alexandra Sarria (lead) and Chelsea Hillier, with their support staff.  “We can always get 10 times better, as we mature as cooks,” she explains. “But these girls have challenged themselves really hard and trusted me with their careers. They have the foundation; they respect their roots and sometimes that’s all you need.”

Always learn

Always learning new techniques (for our benefit! Thanks MJ!)

You first need to know that MJ grew up in kitchens — her father owned eight restaurants from Venezuela to Miami — so it became a place where she felt most comfortable.  The family is originally from Galicia, Spain and spending several months out of the year abroad in her youth set MJ on a path where travel and the experience of other cultures, especially the European way of life, played a formative role.  She studied philosophy and then started teaching, saving to pay her way through culinary school, her ultimate passion. It would propel her to the U.S. from Venezuela in search of the level of gastronomy and environment necessary to develop her craft and gain experience working for the best.

Moving to Miami in 2010, MJ enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu and began researching local restaurants and chefs. Self described as “obsessive” when it comes to details, she was drawn to pastry because of the precision and technique it requires. “I had more confidence, enjoyed the control of flavors and understood the chemistry,” she explains. “The different components and how they interact and work together is so specific as compared to the culinary part of the kitchen.”

She had heard of Michael Schwartz, his pioneering style of food focused around local ingredients in season at flagship neighborhood bistro Michael’s Genuine.  So MJ just decided one day to show up on the restaurant’s doorstep, and it paid off.  She would do anything to be in that kitchen and ended up staying on as an intern for six months under the guidance of then acclaimed James Beard nominated pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith. In fact, she completed another internship, this time the one she needed for school credit, at South Beach’s Raleigh Hotel.

Looking back on her influences and how they shape her approach today, MJ contends the simple, traditional desserts that she experienced in Spain, Italy and France — those born from recipes perfected over time — are her benchmark as a pastry chef.  MJ thinks and develops desserts in terms of “food flow”,  how she describes cooking with the seasons, that biological clock that makes so many food cultures across Europe tick.  She also wants the sweets developed for the menu to be delicate, just sweet enough and most importantly not over-complicated.  Her dad was the kind of person who would drive miles to get the perfect bread.  She recognized and admired that in Michael and also early on in the Michael’s Genuine kitchen under then chef de cuisine Bradley Herron — the importance of sourcing — to look for quality or the person who does it the best.  “We just want to do one thing well with each dessert using good quality ingredients — not a lot of things and not over the top.”


Miami winter on a plate: Almond Absinthe Cake from January 5, 2016

She points to Almond Absinthe Cake with Florida strawberries and tangerine curd, a dessert that went on last winter as encapsulating her approach.  “It respects seasonality of South Florida with freshness, combined with this nut flour-based cake which is traditional to the region where my dad is from. And a subtle hint of sweet licorice flavor reminds me of my teenage years!”

The seasons also perform another function for Genuine pastry — creating a feeder system and momentum for new menu items.  There’s a lot of planning that goes into the process, about a month ahead, sometimes more. She’ll get the team together to sit down and talk about what’s coming in, sharing ideas and then testing them, putting things out as specials to see what’s working and what’s not in the dining room. Big seasonal crops for South Florida – like citrus for instance – are long and abundant, so MJ particularly flags this annual challenge in advance as an opportunity to keep things interesting. “We can’t enter a season guessing,” she asserts.

Vegetarian ice cream! Vanilla Kulfi with citrus, ginger, rosewater and pistachios

Vegetarian ice cream as beautiful to eat as it is to look at! Vanilla Kulfi with citrus, ginger, rosewater and pistachios, from March.

mgfd-new-dessert-sectionsAs for her style, she’s always followed her instincts, an approach that has proved fruitful in life and in the kitchen with her husband and chef de cuisine at Cypress Tavern, Max Makowski.  “As a chef, you have a passport to do whatever you want and seek out new opportunities to learn.”  They’ve never been afraid of change and taking chances, following their guts to learn whether it be in Seattle or Denver, where MJ moved for two years before returning to Genuine in her current position. They decided to get to married and Max had established himself in the Rocky Mountain capital as a Sous Chef.  Then their curious, inquisitive and beautiful daughter Mia arrived (now two years old and very patient of Mom’s phone interview time!)  MJ was ready to try something different and found it in a vegan bakery. “It’s one more step of thought process,” she explains.  “Interchanging dairy elements that work in pastry for something vegan that behaves in the same way… That was interesting to me. You just have to work out the puzzle.”

Stay updated on the latest specials at the #MGFDpastry feed, and click here for the dessert menu.  We dare you to find a repeat in the mosaics above!

For This Pastry Team, Working Smart Means Cross Training with Donuts


The 9 a.m. donut handoff! Ella GM Sandra Pepin receives the goodies from MGFD’s pastry chef MJ Garcia.

Every morning Pastry Chef MJ Garcia gets into Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink around 5:45 a.m. and takes survey of her stock.  Then it’s time to cross train.

“If I ran a special that had pastry cream the day before, I’ll use it for a donut at Ella,” she explains.  “The other day we did butterscotch pudding here, so that became the filling for a chocolate glazed there.”

Restaurants like Michael’s flagship with its vast menu and myriad meal periods require a lot of rotation of product. MJ’s cross training routine makes for a fit operation, one with limited waste not at the expense of creativity. It’s a canvas that offers an outlet for new ideas to develop with discipline and structure because they are built on making something special from what’s around. “If you think about it from the culinary side, donuts are like the soup,” she points out.

Since our light and airy café first opened in late spring last year, the “Ella Daily Donut” (#elladailydonut on Instagram) has become a fixture in the display case, coveted for its surprising array of flavors and formats.  It was around the time MJ rejoined The Genuine Hospitality Group after a four year hiatus from Miami in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with husband (and now Cypress Tavern Chef de Cuisine) Max Makowski.  Her first placement was at ella, where she learned a tremendous deal about desserts in a retail environment, not to mention the benefit of direct customer feedback at the counter.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 1.32.19 PM

Rainbow of Flavors: Here, lemon and coconut ensconced on their perch in the morning light.

“I noticed things… saw the pastries and how they were behaving.  Fresh fruit like strawberries will look fantastic in the morning but they wilt and go pale by the evening,” she recalls observing.  “You have to think how many hours a particular donut is going to stand up.  At 7 p.m. closing it has to look as good at as it did at opening. So you have boundaries.”


Sometimes the donuts would be too big or too little.  MJ made note of all these things at ella, and translated them to improvements on that offering, not to mention best practices for her department at large at Michael’s Genuine.

“You have to keep a lot of factors in mind while you do these seemingly simple things,” she continues. “Yeasted donuts are more irregular in the way the dough behaves and there is more room for error.  It can overproof which creates big air pockets which can explode in the frier!  You also have to be careful not to overwork the dough which will develop gluten and produce a tough, dense result.”


Lemon Meringue donut in all her oozy glory; the perfect ratio of filling to fried dough dusted in sugar and laden with sticky, caramelized meringue topping.

The preparation of the yeasted dough is a one day process with bulk cold fermentation in large tubs to develop flavor, refrigerating overnight. Then she rolls it out and punches it, and waits an hour before frying. But as important as the foundation may be, the ultimate test is in the merchandising… read: decoration.

“Decoration is everything,” MJ agrees.  “We eat with our eyes, so when building the donut we play with color, texture and form, from punched or filled, to toppings like chocolate crunch balls and Oreo cookie crumbles.  If I made lemon lavender syrup and I have lemon juice, I’ll make a Lemon glaze and add coconut flakes. People love cookies and cream, and chocolate always makes sense on weekends!”

MJ says her team, helmed by pastry assistants Alexandra Sarria (lead) and Chelsea Hillier, “harass the Instagram” for feedback from customers, as well as those who post their own photos of the donuts. This feedback mechanism is invaluable, since they aren’t at the café to interact when people are eating them.

“Cypress sometimes gets leftovers, so my husband will let me know how they are and what his team thinks. It’s hard sometimes, so we take what we can.  Of course there’s the morning crew at Genuine. Those guys are a great source of feedback, especially when you catch them sneaking the scraps!”

A Brunch Menu of Bottomless Indulgences Saturday 2.20 at Cypress Tavern

Indulge Brunch_presenter drink and sweet

CT_Indulge Brunch MenuCypress Tavern’s Indulge Brunch is Saturday, February 20. We are so excited to finally share the menu! Enjoy a family-style brunch with 3 courses of multiple dishes, a choice between two special bottomless cocktails for the occasion, and a goody bag curated by Indulge magazine celebrating its new food issue with our chocolate truffles and more. It’s all included for $79 per person plus tax and gratuity. We are booking through ticketed reservations, so guests can pick an available time from 11am-3pm to indulge; it doesn’t all start at once. Join chefs Michael, Bradley and Max for a super decadent and delicious meal, 4 weeks from today. Tables are going to look insane, so book now to ensure you’re at one of them! CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS!


Here’s What’s for Dinner at ella after 2!


Ella_after 2_menu_finalOne week from this Thursday, Michael heads behind the counter for ella after dinner service again.  He just finished the menu, and wine director Mr. Eric Larkee the wines. We definitely aren’t in Hanoi anymore!  There are a few spots left at 9:15 and 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 27.  Click here to snag a ticket before they’re gone!

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 9.47.25 AM

Stumbling upon MGFD pastry chef Amy Kalinowski’s first round of hempseed baklava testing!

[RECIPE] Check Mate! Chocolate Chess Pie

It was seriously too good not to share. Last night we OMG’d at O Cinema for the last time this summer thanks to an incredible performance by Harry’s Pizzeria chef de cuisine Daniel Ramirez. The menu was a piece of Michigan food history like hand-held pasty pies  — akin to empanadas closer to home — made into pot pie for family style service.   When Danny mentioned this to Devin, a pastry cook at MGFD, duck fat crust was born.

I was on dessert duty again, this time parchment liner-free (thanks Chef!) and had the self control-rattling task of portioning out MGFD pastry chef Amy Kalinowski’s decadent chocolate chess pie. I knew things would get messy based on past experience with two sheet trays of Banoffee, so this time crema was going to be dolloped to plate.  A triumph!  Chess pie is actually chest pie. Like pies you can stack in a chest for safe keeping.  It’s a southern thing, a piece of food culture that lost the t over time.

Luckily for us here, a guest returned from the theater with a request.  Seconds?  No, a slice of altruism!  She inquired about the recipe, a sweet ending to the meal she will produce this weekend for some very lucky home-bound summer campers.  So here you have it: Danny’s adaptation of Amy’s dessert (with her approval of course!) currently on the menu at MGFD, for your home kitchen.  After a summer at the mess hall, this might actually be dangerous.  Proceed at your own risk!

OMG’d Chocolate Chess Pie

Yields 2, 12-inch pies

2 1/2 cups butter, melted
3 cups semi-sweet dark chocolate, melted
25 ounces evaporated milk
10 whole eggs
2 tablespoons vanilla paste (or 1 vanilla bean)
2 tablespoons coffee extract
5.5 cups of sugar
1 cup cocoa powder
2 packs Oreo cookies
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 pound melted butter

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, beat the eggs, evaporated milk, vanilla, and coffee extract for 2-3 minutes on medium speed until incorporated.  In a separate bowl sift the dry ingredients.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and whisk to incorporate. Set aside in the refrigerator covered with plastic wrap while you make the crust. Pulverize the oreos in a food processor, like bread crumb size and in a large bowl mix with flour and melted butter by hand until the consistency of wet sand.  Spray pie tins with lots of pam coating. Press the oreo crust into the pans. Make sure it’s nice and tight, and even thickness, about 1/2 inch throughout.  Pour in the batter to fill. It doesn’t rise so do be scared to fill your pans to the level you want. Bake for 30-45 minutes. It should be firm with slight wiggle to it.  Let cool on a rack for about a hour.  Enjoy topped with whipped cream and berries, vanilla ice cream or simply powdered sugar for chocolate heaven. Any way you slice it, you can’t go wrong!