It is hard to not be a little jealous of pastry chef, writer and teacher Lisa Donovan, as everything she does seems to become a wild success. She began her career in the restaurant industry as a waitress at Margot Café and Bar in Nashville, Tennessee, eventually migrating to the back of the house where she began as a pastry chef alongside chefs like Tandy Wilson, Sean Brock and Margot McCormack. After more than a decade of baking, she stepped out of the daily grind of the professional kitchen and started a monthly Sunday supper dinner series in Nashville called Buttermilk Road. The series was a smash hit.
Today, Chef Donovan has moved her dinner series to locations across the country where she works with a superstar list of chefs. She keeps her baking skills fine-tuned with an online bakeshop that is as popular as everything else she does. To illustrate the lengths fans will go to get their hands on one of her creations, consider the store’s method for delivering orders for July Fourth. Chef Donovan made only 100 pies for the day, and the lucky pie lovers whose orders made the cut were emailed a top-secret pick up location. Part James Bond, part bakeshop, and 100% brilliant.
Who better to give us some advice on baking pie for the holidays? We reached out to Chef Donovan to get some pie tips (and a bonus pie recipe too!) and to find out what is going on in her ever-changing world.
Chocolate Chess Pie
From Lisa Donovan of Buttermilk Road in Nashville, Tennessee
TLP: What inspired you to create the Buttermilk Road dinner series?
LD: I was transitioning out of my tenure as pastry chef at City House here in Nashville with every intention of going to grad school to finally get my MFA. At City House, my favorite days were our Sunday Suppers where all the chefs were able to divert from the regular menu to play around with fun ideas and, in general, have fun to feed people a different menu that was not normally available during the week. I knew I was going to miss cooking for large groups of people, became so inspired by the movement of welcoming a whole city to a Sunday Supper table and decided that it would be the way I could both write and study literature and cook for people. It ended up taking off so gang-busters that the grad school applications never even got completed. They were such fun and so well received.
TLP: What led you to teaching?
LD: My baking classes came about simply because people started asking for them. So much of my career has been a series of really amazing doors opening to me that I never even would have imagined for myself. I am doing some private classes currently if my schedule allows, but I’m mostly trying to focus all of my efforts on this book and my writing so that I can very dedicatedly feed that part of my brain and cultivate that future. I’m trying to be intentional about my efforts which is hard when you’ve been in survival mode for so, so long!
TLP: What advice do you have for people wanting to make pies over the holidays?
LD: Do it with some kids. Let it be messy and fun. Eat the raw pie dough. Play some ELO and dance while you do it. Drink some wine. Pie tastes better when it’s made by happy people.
TLP: Besides pumpkin, what are pies that you like to serve at Thanksgiving?
LD: I love sweet potato way more than pumpkin. And I think a simple nutmeg buttermilk pie is so lovely. Most people think of Christmas when nutmeg is introduced but I love it during Thanksgiving.
TLP: You have had so many amazing experiences over the last few years with different chefs. Can you tell me about a couple of people or events whom have really inspired you?
LD: Ashley Christensen, who is always an inspiration, has a penchant for curating some of the most badass events with some of the most inspiring women I’ll likely ever know. Earlier this year we did a dinner in Ralieigh with Alex Raij, a sharp and smart ally who is maybe one of the smartest damn chefs I’ve ever met in my life, Vivian Howard, who reminds me constantly that simplicity and focus on a singular ingredient is masterful, Andrea Reusing, who is bold and strong and wise and whom I adore as a woman and friend, Rebecca Wilcombe, one of the most badass cooks I’ve ever met who has become a dear friend and is someone with whom I can talk out chefly growing pains with, the incomparable Ashley and, somehow, ME. I find myself standing in a kitchen with these women completely knocked on my ass. I’m honored to call them all friends and I’m so lucky that I get to cook alongside of each and every one of them. Those moments are the ones that teach me the most about who I am as a person beyond being a cook. Next week, thanks again to Ashley, I’ll be cooking with her, Anne Quatrano, Gabrielle Hamilton, Cheetie Kumar and Natalie Chanin. It’s going to be such an amazing time!