Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The German term “Gesamtkunstwerk” describes a creative result where different art forms – and, often, portions of the artist’s psyche itself – are combined to create a “total work of art.”
Santa Fe’s best approximation of the edible Gesamtkunstwerk happens five nights a week atop a 24-by-48-inch Boos block in the kitchen at Paloma. In that cramped corner, Paloma’s executive pastry chef Jessica Brewer, 29, is turning out the most inventive, seasonal and addictive desserts in the state.
“You get the sweet, you get the crunch, the salt. The texture, acidity, sourness, creaminess. All of these things matter,” says Brewer, describing her culinary worldview. The Clark Kent-bespectacled, sleeve-tattooed, self-professed heavy-metalhead, video-game fanatic and science nerd is a third-generation chef and proud graduate of the Santa Fe Community College Culinary Arts program. To eat her desserts – whether they’re weekly specials derived from the wild recesses of her obsessive brain, or the three stalwarts on the permanent Paloma menu – is to experience as many sensations as possible.
Think of the restaurant critic in Pixar’s “Ratatouille” when he takes a single bite of the titular dish and is utterly transported on a tide of flavors and memories. (Brewer gets a faraway look on her face while describing the influential scene. Later, she states flatly, “I want to win a James Beard award someday.”)
The odds – or rather, sheer virtuosity – are in her favor. Dessert groupies track Brewer’s movements on the Paloma Instagram, where her specials are lovingly showcased. Her recent hits all share flavor profiles with both Paloma’s signature Mexico-influenced entrees and Santa Fe classics. For a pavlova with passionfruit curd, mango, kiwi, roasted pineapple and vanilla Chantilly, Brewer schooled herself in the tricky, turpentine-meets-citrus taste of the herb epazote, which infuses the meringue. A blackberry blue-corn cake with buttermilk sweet-corn sherbet, honey crémeux and sesame brittle came to her in a dream about a crescent moon. Inspired by the shape, she envisioned a moody dessert that darkly crept its way around the plate.
As for Paloma’s popular loaded carrot cake with roasted pineapple, caramel, raisins and pecans, it first presented itself to Brewer as a problem to solve. “It came from one bad piece of carrot cake I came across. I used to like the one they had at Whole Foods. It was heavy on stuff. I like my stuff to be full of other stuff,” Brewer remembers.
“I went back to try it again one day and it was not good. You get a craving and, if it’s bad, you can’t get it out of your system. You crave it worse than before. I came in and told Nathan (Mayes, Paloma executive chef and partner), ‘Listen, I need to make carrot cake.’ I did, and he was like, ‘This is the best carrot cake I’ve ever had. It’s going on the menu.’ It’s got stuff!”
Brewer is a sterling example of homegrown talent. She trained as a regular chef at Santa Fe Community College under such local luminaries as Palace Prime chef Rocky Durham and Santa Fe School of Cooking instructor Michelle (Mica) Chavez. But, after a 2009 externship with former Santacafé pastry chef Cindy Sheptow, she became hooked on the combination of science and culinary wisdom that baking presents. At 19, she was hired to create desserts at Terra at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado. After stints at The Compound, Eloisa and the Kakawa Chocolate House (“I needed to learn more about chocolate,” Brewer explains), she came to Paloma in 2019.
She says the Santa Fe restaurant scene is filled with supportive mentors who have become friends. But the swift rise to the top of her game has not always been easy. “Stigmatically, all women are pastry,” she says of the overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. “Being a woman in the kitchen sucks if you’re in the wrong place. You can walk into something already feeling inferior. If you’re working on the line in the wrong place, they’ll be like, ‘Go make cakes.’ ”
Brewer says she once interviewed for a sous chef position at “a very respectable place downtown.”
“I walked in and the chef looked me up and down. He didn’t introduce himself and just said, ‘Have you ever even worked a grill?’ I was like, ‘You called me.’ He didn’t even entertain my existence or think I had any value at all because I was a woman.”
Amidst a nurturing kitchen environment at Paloma, Brewer has found her groove. “This is the first place that they let me be creative because they respect me,” she says. Paloma’s owner Marja Martin “can hand me a plate she just bought. I can put whatever the hell I want on there.” She describes one source of inspiration. “Say the plate is flat with sharp edges. I want to do something that’s tall. White plates, I want to put something bright on there, or use the edges. I found my style here.”
She describes the rest of Paloma’s kitchen staff as “family.” One literally is. Her younger brother, one of three siblings who are all culinary professionals, now assists her on the garde manger, helping to plate her creations.
Brewer leads the way to Paloma’s walk-in fridge to explain a work in progress, pulling out a burnt-orange edible flower. Color and beauty spark other ideas, she explains. She lays out her vision of a horchata cheesecake with blue-corn graham-cracker crust, mirror-glazed on top with an orange-colored pop of the Freshies apricots she’s been obsessing over. She pulls out her phone to show another mirrored dessert. Its mesmerizing shellac is reminiscent of a candy-painted lowrider. Like all of Brewer’s total works of art, it’s inspired, ultra-local and of the moment.
“It gives you this feeling that, if you eat it, it might make you happy,” she grins.