David Guas, a sweet-talking guy from New Orleans

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

David Guas never intended to be a pastry chef. The native of New Orleans never planned to make his home in Washington. And he certainly never imagined he'd have a consulting company and a cookbook called "DamGoodSweet."

And yet, here he is: David Guas, the New Orleans dessert guy.

It's not that Guas isn't ambitious. At 24, he was named the opening pastry chef at DC Coast; over the years he expanded his responsibilities to include the desserts at four more Washington restaurants. But Guas is a man who rides a Harley, goes duck hunting and thinks nothing of single-handedly building a "swamp shack," a one-room house for his two sons complete with camouflage curtains. "If you had told me 12 years ago that I'd be doing this," he said as he effortlessly slid a sweet potato tart tatin from the oven of his McLean home, "I'd have said, no way."

Just as well. Guas, 34, might have abandoned the beignets and Doberge cake that this year he hopes might make him a household name. "DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style" (Taunton Press) will be published next month. The title comes from his e-mail address, which a friend picked out for him more than a decade ago. (Someone had already taken the version with the "n.") Next year, Guas will open his much-awaited Bayou Bakery, a lounge and coffee house -- the location is still undetermined -- serving Louisiana favorites that fans are too busy to make at home.

Branding himself a New Orleans chef might seem tricky for Guas. The field is already crowded: There's Big Easy legend Paul Prudhomme, TV pioneer Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, Donald Link and Susan Spicer, all of whom have the advantage of actually living in New Orleans. The dessert field is surprisingly empty, however. There's the slim "New Orleans Classic Desserts" (Penguin Press, 2007), a collection of recipes, but that's about it.

Classic is not what Guas is selling. In regular appearances on the "Today" show, he has made smoothies and spicy-sour fruit tarts as well as the expected beignets. The book has recipes for traditional desserts, but Guas puts his own stamp on each. The red velvet cake has more cocoa powder to give it a richer chocolate flavor; the bread pudding is accompanied by salted caramel sauce. (Both desserts are less sweet than the originals.) Some, such as the sweet potato tart tatin, are entirely new creations. Popular in New Orleans, a tatin is an upside-down tart of caramelized fruit, usually apples. Guas developed his recipe for Washington's Latin-inspired Ceiba. The result manages to taste homey, especially with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and unique.

Still, "DamGoodSweet" can teach New Orleans novices a thing about tradition. For one, Guas is quite clear about how he thinks you should pronounce things. It's EEE-clair, not eh-CLAIR; Peh-CAHN pie and Praw-LEEN. (Please don't say PRAY-leen.) Guas also explains the origin of the Doberge (that's DOUGH-bash) half and half: half a lemon-filled vanilla layer cake and half a chocolate-filled vanilla layer cake, sandwiched together and traditionally covered in fondant. Growing up, Guas says, the best Doberge cakes came from New Orleans bakeries Gambino's and Haydel's. The half and half can also apply to po boys, as in, "I'll have a shrimp and oyster po boy, half and half."

As with many chefs, Guas's decision to document his memories and his food was inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. His parents' home in Lakeview, one of the city's hardest-hit areas, was deluged with 14 feet of water and destroyed.

The book sets down Guas's first recollections of cooking and eating dessert: being awakened by his grandfather's musical car horn to go McKenzie's, a local chain, for EEE-clairs. It also charts his winding path to pastry. After graduating from culinary school, he applied for a job at the Windsor Court Hotel, then the best restaurant in New Orleans. The savory kitchen had no openings, so he took a job piping meringue into lemon tartlets and turning out hundreds of spicy cheese straws each day. After he'd spent two years on the job, the executive chef, Jeff Tunks, asked him to join a little project he was launching in Washington. When DC Coast opened in 1998, Guas was the head pastry chef.

Guas always planned to return to New Orleans. But life got in the way. In 1999, he married local public relations maven Simone Rathle. He helped Tunks expand his restaurant empire with TenPenh, Ceiba, Acadiana and PassionFish. The book, he said, will help him connect his children to his own heritage. "Especially because my kids aren't from there -- they were born at Sibley -- I wanted something they could have," Guas said. "That was the motivation."

Guas said he also hopes to re-create his New Orleans at the new Bayou Bakery. He is uneasy about announcing when or where it will open; he worked for months to take over the old Murky Coffee space in Clarendon, but after long negotiations the deal fell through in July. He hopes to announce the new location by early November.

Bayou will open early for coffee and pastries: beignets, of course, but also a selection of savory options such as bacon-and-chive scones (with bacon from legendary Tennessee smoker Allan Benton) and egg-and-cheese biscuits. At lunch there will be a couple of soups, such as the corn-and-crab and artichoke-and-oyster soups he grew up with, plus "Frenchuletta" sandwiches: muffulettas on house-made French bread.

At dinner, there will be what Guas called "glorified Southern tapas," which thankfully does not mean yet another cheese and charcuterie plate. Instead, he'll serve spicy cheese straws and hog head cheese, Guas's version of a classic Cajun pâté, paired with an Abita beer from the famous Louisiana brewery.

Until then, Guas is doing a little of everything: promoting his book, consulting and catering. Starting in November, he will launch a weekly online chat, dubbed the Sweet Swap, to help solve holiday dessert emergencies. (To participate, visit his Web site, http://www.damgoodsweet.com, on Sundays in November and December from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.) All the things that make him the go-to New Orleans dessert expert.

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