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Nancy Silverton’s peanut butter cookie made by Renata Ameni.
Natalie Black/Saga

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The Desserts That Changed a Life

Pastry chef Renata Ameni of Saga pays tribute to the icons of pastry who have influenced her work

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Most people think of dessert as a mood you sometimes find yourself in. But for pastry chefs, it’s a permanent condition. It’s also a life’s work.

At Crown Shy — the understatedly elegant Fidi restaurant — executive pastry chef Ameni developed “Icons of Pastry”. The nine-week celebration that began at the end of September and runs through November 19 recognizes the life’s work of nine legendary pastry chefs who have influenced her. These are her idols, the chefs whose cookbooks she turned to for knowledge, and they’re the technicians who laid the foundations for contemporary restaurant dessert as we know it.

Twenty years ago, Ameni got a job at a classically French pastry shop in her hometown of São Paulo. After four years there, she moved to the U.S., to the Ritz-Carlton in Denver (and later, Naples, Florida). Then it was on to Jean-Georges in New York City, until she left for Eleven Madison Park where she worked on Angela Pinkerton’s team, and, five years later, took over as pastry chef. She took a break from New York to step in for Stephanie Prida at Manresa in Los Gatos, California. Finally, she returned to the East Coast and developed the pastry program at Crown Shy and, when it opened two years later in 2021, Saga. Today, she’s in charge of both.

“When I got here, there were no Latinos, not in the pastry world,” she says. Culturally, she had no one to identify with or as a role model. But there were these women and for her, coming from a famously chauvinist society, that was something new and empowering to behold. “I really looked up to them … I wanted to be where they were,” she continues. “They’re so important. They’re super, super important, and sometimes they get forgotten.”

During the series, the restaurant’s dessert menu features three of her ice creams and one sorbet in addition to her composed desserts. The menu will list, for example, her satsuma ice cream, because diners love it too much to switch it out. The second ice cream might be a riff on Mozza chef Nancy Silverton’s life-changing peanut butter cookie that led to her new cookbook. Or, in late September, it could have been a new interpretation of the ingenious (then vegan) pineapple-banana split that Karen DeMasco — now at Gramercy Tavern, again, 20 years later—created for Abc-V.

Karen DeMasco’s pineana split.
Natalie Black/Saga

For the inaugural sundae of her program, Ameni remixed the chocolate mousse, walnut-pecan crust and whipped cream of one of many of Emily Luchetti’s triumphs, the French silk. Luchetti first caught the attention of San Francisco diners and critics during her tenure as the executive pastry chef at Jeremiah Tower’s fabled Stars restaurant.

French silk on a pedestal.
The French silk dessert from Emily Luchetti.
Natalie Black/Saga

Next week, it’s Claudia Fleming’s turn for adulation: Ameni chose the chocolate caramel tart fro the Union Square Hospitality Group pastry director. Fleming developed the dessert while at Gramercy Tavern and it became a phenomenon, copied and tweaked around the country — and across the pond, even in France, the place from whence most revered pastry traditions were birthed.

In Ameni’s hands, it is transformed into a salted caramel ice cream with a gooey, bittersweet swirl placed on a disc of chocolate tart crust then coated in chocolate (it’s magic shell, a playful wink). You may detect a trace of malt, and you’ll probably see some nuts in there somewhere, too, because Fleming told her she’s been adding peanuts when she makes it now, which she still does.

Claudia Fleming’s chocolate salted caramel tart from Ameni.
Natalie Black/Saga

Ameni chose each of the icons herself, and her criteria were a combination of personal preference, and diversity of approach. That’s why she selected cookbook author and writer Dorie Greenspan, who doesn’t work in restaurants, but who canonized cookies with her take on the French sablé, or Elizabeth Faulkner, who pioneered the application of molecular gastronomy to pastry in this country relatively early on.

Natalie Black/Saga
Natalie Black/Saga
Natalie Black/Saga

Joanne Chang’s pecan sticky bun.

These are not collaborations, exactly, although the featured chefs were in on the plot, and all readily gave Ameni their permission and input on which of their creations she might revisit. When Joanne Chang of Boston-born Flour Bakery (and the restaurant Myers + Chang) received Ameni’s email explaining the series and asking if she was on board, it was a “pinch-me” moment and she responded immediately, with a “yes.”

“You never think that other people are influenced by you… You are just influenced by others” she said over email. As for which of Chang’s chef-d’oeuvres her Crown Shy disciple would churn around, “I sent [Ameni] a list of our favorite best sellers with ideas of how they might translate into an ice cream dessert. I had secretly hoped she would pick our sticky bun since it is the dessert we are best known for. I was thrilled she said that was the one she wanted to work with.”

Angela Pinkerton’s passionfruit meringue pie.
Natalie Black/Saga

Currently based in the Hudson Valley, Pinkerton was “overjoyed” when her mentee and former employee at Eleven Madison Square Park reached out about the project. The two are still good friends. “She asked if she could use one of my recipes from Pie Society as inspiration, and I chose which pie,” Pinkerton says, adding that they went with her brûléed meringue-topped passionfruit-bay leaf masterpiece.

Gina DePalma’s honey and pine nut tart.
Natalie Black/Saga

Sadly, the featured chef who is most in jeopardy of being forgotten is the one who isn’t here to see Ameni’s work and taste it at the restaurant. Gina DePalma, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef of Babbo died in 2015, at the age of 49. Last week, her beloved honey pine-nut tart, the one that graced the cover of her cookbook Dolce Italiano, became ice cream — a generous burnt honey-mascarpone citrus scoop, with toppings: nuggets of orange-and-thyme-laced pine nut-tart filling, shards of crust and a puckering, syrupy drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar. DePalma’s legacy lives on through those like Ameni who bring her work into the present and make it new again.

And it’s how the life’s work of one pastry chef (or nine) gets folded into that of another, and in turn, passed on to us, the diners, to become the desserts of our lives, when we’re in the mood.

Renata Ameni, pastry chef of Saga.
Natalie Black, Saga

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