You’ve got to start somewhere: Alyx Abreu’s first baking stint was recreating Great Depression-themed cookies for a high school class in South Jersey. The 31-year-old Hyde Park resident moved here with her husband in 2012 to study at Le Cordon Bleu, but she says that her most valuable training came from jobs at places like Party Favors, Milk Street Café, and Formaggio Kitchen. She’s worked for Himmel Hospitality since 2019, first at Post 390, then Bistro du Midi, and now Banks Fish House.
How did you get started cooking?
I’m originally from South Jersey, a little place called Vineland. I started cooking at a young age, tying into Latin culture. Both of my parents are Puerto Rican, and my father was born there. Food is a big part of the culture. Growing up, it was always, you know, making sure that everyone was well-fed and that there was good food on the table. I was in the kitchen pretty young, helping out and doing what I could. I think that was the start of my passion for cooking.
What are some early dishes that you remember eating growing up that really inspired your love of food?
I switched from savory to baking pretty early on, because I figured I’d keep eating everything if I was in savory all the time. My big family gatherings always have a big pot of rice. My grandmother taught me how to cook that pretty early on; it was her secret recipe. Things like pernil, roasted pork shoulder, were pretty common. My mom taught me how to make meatloaf and all kinds of classics — pasta, things that were pretty simple. But she always let me do my own little spin on things.
Weirdly enough, it was a school project in high school. We were asked to make a dessert based on the Great Depression, which I know sounds depressing. So I found a recipe for these cookies that were popular — well, not popular, but that you could make during that time with rations using molasses and oats and stuff like that. And so I made that for my class, and they really enjoyed it. And I was like, “Oh, well, I could get away with this.” So every year for projects or classes, if there was an option to bake something with a cake or cookies, that was always my go-to. It ignited a passion feeding people and baking, and I love the scientific backing of baking, where you need to weigh everything and everything is very precise.
Luckily, my high school supported a vocational program, so I did a culinary arts and hospitality course and really excelled at bread and pastries. Interestingly enough, my first culinary job was at a supermarket as a cake decorator. Pickings were a little slim in South Jersey, but I’ve had a lot of different experiences. I also worked at an English tea room, which was a lot of fun but a very strange experience for a teenager.
What was your impression of the Boston food scene when you got here from South Jersey?
It was dynamic. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before; there are so many different cultures and cuisines. I mean, back home, we had Applebee’s and Chili’s. And there was sushi. When I came up here, I was able to try so much more: good Italian food in the North End; hot pot. Now that’s a yearly tradition. It was all very, very exciting for me. … It was so different from my hometown.
What was it like to make pastries at Formaggio Kitchen? I mean, they are known mainly for cheese.
So I’d worked for Milk Street Café for about five years and was looking to spread my wings a little bit. I had a few other jobs; I worked at the Institute of Contemporary Art for a little bit doing their pastries and the New England Soup Factory, doing some cookies and brownies for them. I can’t sit still for too long. [Formaggio] was so wildly different than what I had been doing for the past five years.
They had an in-house bake shop where they would do cakes, cookies, special orders, pies galore. It was very interesting. It was a much smaller scale; it was the place that made me move from high-volume, high-traffic ... to smaller things, taking your time, finer ingredients, more rustic recipes. It really gave me a chance to get in there with my hands and decorate things. And, obviously, I had an entire store full of produce I had never seen and ingredients that I had never seen. So that gave me a real opportunity to learn more about the ingredients and learn more about the product that I was making.
In order to be a pastry chef, do you need professional training? Or is it really about talent and creativity?
Not to quote “Ratatouille,” but I think anybody can be in pastry. I think that it really takes an eye for detail. As long as you’re organized, detail-oriented, and patient, which is the number-one thing above all, I think anybody can learn.
How did you get your current job?
A recruiter reached out to me while I was at Formaggio. The commute from Hyde Park to Cambridge was insane. So the idea of a job a little bit closer really stood out to me. I went in for an interview with the executive chef at Post 390. I fell in love with the restaurant. I fell in love with the vibe. I did a tasting for them, and they offered me the job, which I jumped at. And it was so different.
Let’s back up for a minute: a tasting! I’m picturing a reality show.
It does have a reality show vibe. There was a full room of people tasting my pastries, which was very nerve-wracking. I had done stages before, little practice runs in a restaurant where they kind of see what you can do. But a tasting was a whole different animal. They asked for me to make three separate things. I believe it was two or three actual desserts and then something for private events, mini pastries, something like that.
If I remember correctly, I did an Earl Grey panna cotta with a lemon lavender biscotti. And then I think I did a coffee mocha bombe sort of situation. It was a lot of fun. They gave me all of the ingredients. I got to come in and see how the kitchen worked while I was doing my own thing. It’s either a “yes, we like it” or “no, we don’t.”
And they [invited me] in for dinner afterward. I don’t know if that’s standard, but they certainly did here. They had me in for dinner so I could try the food and everything like that. And, that night, I got an e-mail offer saying that they enjoyed it.
What’s the difference between working at a bakery and being a pastry chef at a restaurant?
It’s good to see people in real time enjoying the food that you’re putting out. Usually, when you’re in a bakery, or if you’re in catering, the food is going somewhere else. You don’t really get to see the reactions, right? And when you’re at a restaurant, you get immediate reactions. … It’s just a more lively, vibrant place.
Are people spending money on dessert? What does the public want these days?
I think the public wants to see new and exciting things. I think there aren’t a ton of restaurants that have as extensive of a pastry program as we have here. I mean, we do pastries, the bread, you know, all the little things in between. I think if people are spending money on a good meal, if they’re going out somewhere nice, if they have elevated dining, I think they want to see desserts that are reflective of that — things that are artistic and new, but familiar, if that makes any sense. For instance, we have a chocolate cake on our menu, but it has three different types of Valhrona chocolate in it. It’s got a brown sugar sauce, a brown sugar ice cream. There’s different components that people are familiar with, but we use these elevated techniques and ingredients to make it into something you haven’t quite had before.
Does your Puerto Rican background influence your culinary outlook, your creativity, or your recipes?
Whenever I can, I try to weasel in something from my youth onto the menu. Coquito, for instance, is a Puerto Rican eggnog that we have during the holidays. You just have it at every gathering around Christmastime. Last year, I put coquito cheesecake on the menu, because why not? It’s delicious. People enjoy it, there’s coconut, there’s cinnamon, and it gives me a sense of familiarity. You know, during the holidays, there are certain things that you eat and certain things that you do, and my family is very far away. So the little things that can tie me back to my roots I think are really nice. You know, food is a big part of our culture. So just being able to see people and know that they’re enjoying it is kind of a big thing.
Where do you eat when you’re not working?
Parla in the North End. That has been my and my husband’s restaurant every year for our anniversary, almost since we moved up here.
The cocktail main menu is insane. Their beverage program is phenomenal, and it’s just a lot of fun. It’s a very small, sort of intimate setting.
Also, it might have changed hands, but Hot Pot Buffet in Chinatown. Since we don’t have family up here, we sort of adopted traditions with my friends, and we open presents, and we go out for Chinese food and a movie. It’s one of my absolute favorite traditions.
What about in Hyde Park? I get a lot of criticism about not writing about that neighborhood enough! What are the local places that you love?
There’s a place called Burritos Pizzeria, and it’s our go-to. They have amazing Spanish food there. They have amazing pizza, wings, calzones, you name it. Whenever we order, I always get a fried pork platter. There’s also Triple Eatery, which is a Chinese food place. In my opinion, it’s the best takeout Chinese food in the area hands-down.
What piece of advice would you give to a baker at home who’s trying to up their game a little bit?
For one, patience is key. I know it sucks and sometimes you want to get things done immediately. But, especially when you’re working with bread or mousses or things that are gelatin-set, you just have to practice patience. My other tip: Definitely get a digital scale. They’re super cheap at Target. If you want to up your game to professional level, move away from measuring with cups. Move away from eyeballing. If you measure everything out, you’re going to get the same exact product every single time, and that really will make a world of a difference.
Have you ever had a complete disaster in the kitchen?
I can distinctly remember at Milk Street, they used to sell breakfast breads, which are loaves of a sweet kind of muffin bread. I did a huge batch of 30 loaves of bread, and I forgot to put leavener in there. So it was 30 loaves of the densest, most awful bread you can imagine. That was a rough day for me.