Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Fifteen years ago, kurt fogle manned the counter at the kringle-slinging O&H Danish Bakery in his hometown of Racine. He was a 16-year-old toting a mixing bowl of dreams that didn’t include loading jelly donuts into boxes. While attending Chicago’s prestigious French Pastry School, he pulled off the croquembouche of coups, becoming assistant to the one and only Jacquy Pfeiffer, the school’s co-founder, widely considered one of the world’s finest pastry craftsmen. After training under the major players of pâte à choux, Fogle took his blender and blowtorch to the InterContinental Milwaukee Hotel, then to the Pfister Hotel. Now, the 31-year-old is two-plus years into a tenure as executive pastry chef for SURG Restaurant Group, overseeing three pastry chefs and the dessert menus for six restaurants. Known for stunning plates marrying science and artistry, the onetime Rocky Rococo general manager is still a man of simple tastes – cookie dough ice cream and a chicken sandwich with pickles and mayo.
How did you find your way to the French Pastry School?
My sister and I were at Windy City Sweets in Chicago. It’s a candy store, but there was a guy in the back corner hand-dipping chocolates. I was like, “That is what I want to do. I want to make candy.” I said to the guy, “What do I have to do to get a job doing that?” The guy goes, “Did you go to school?” I said, “Well, no. But I’m thinking about going.” And he said, “There are two French guys in the Loop. They have a school where they just do pastry. Look them up.” So I went home and Googled “French, pastry and school,” and voilà!
Your first job after pastry school was working for Robert Ash, then the executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel. You thought your dessert “coffee and doughnuts” was pretty innovative at the time?
I wanted to do a cappuccino crème brûlée with fresh fried doughnuts to order. We made raspberry jam, which we put in jars served with little demitasse spoons. And we baked the cappuccino crème brûlée in oversized coffee mugs. Which was, at that point, a huge victory for me. I didn’t know or had even seen The French Laundry Cookbook. The day I got it, I was like, “Oh, great. Thomas Keller did this dessert 10 years ago.” Anybody who knows who he is and would see my menu would think that I ripped him off.
But the dessert was very much experiential. What inspires you to create something new?
Sentiment is a huge one for me. Coffee and doughnuts is a match made in heaven. What kind of doughnut do you see? Jelly? Picture sugar falling down someone’s shirt. Jam squirting out the back, running down their hand. You picture a diner. You think of the guy sitting there with a cigarette, an ashtray, a cup of coffee, a jelly doughnut, his napkin tucked into his shirt. If I did that dessert again, I might try to introduce the smokiness of the diner as an element. But that’s how the process works. It’s building one thing after another. But you have to stop yourself. If you keep going, then it just becomes weird.
You seem to switch up desserts often. Do you have a philosophy on the longevity of a certain dish?
As soon as I love a dessert and we’ve made it enough times that we really understand how the mechanics work, we get rid of it. Time to go.
Do you think the dessert menus at SURG have a signature look?
We’re a better restaurant group if our desserts are not just all the same; you can see my desserts from a mile away, if you watch what I do. Once I throw the other pastry chefs in there, and they’re contributing, then there’s dexterity, and you can’t put your finger on it. I have the three best chefs I think I could ever hope for. They make me look like a chump in the kitchen. But they make me look like a superstar to the outside world.
Where will we see you 10 years from now?
I’ve tried planning, and as soon as I let go of that, all these great things started happening. I’d like to teach. I’d like to pass on all the tricks I’ve picked up. I’d like to have my own place, like a breakfast and lunch place, open 7 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. But the universe has a better plan for me than I could ever come up with.
Is there truly happiness in desserts?
You hear people say, “I’m going to go live my life. I’m getting out of work and going to live my life.” I’m like, “Sucker, I figured out a way to get paid for my hobby, 50 hours a week! And then when I’m done with that, I get to go do whatever the hell I want!” Be courageous enough to follow your dreams, because I’m living proof that if you do that, it can really work out.