Desserts can present a challenge at a place like Bourbon Steak, the fancy steakhouse located in Georgetown’s Four Seasons hotel. After a dinner of rib eye or filet mignon, “it’s hard to have the guests want dessert,” says Santanna Salas, the restaurant’s new pastry chef.
At 23, Salas brings five years of experience working with pastry and a keen palate to the kitchen at Bourbon Steak. For Salas, palate is the most important quality for any chef to have – “to make sure your standard is going out, you have to taste everything,” she says.
Salas got her start competing in cooking competitions in high school, and worked at Michael Mina Bellagio as a baker and assistant pastry chef during college. “I wanted to be a sports nutritionist,” Salas says of her college days. “It was a way to incorporate food into my work. But I fell in love with being in a kitchen.” She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a Bachelors in food and nutrition, but has continued to pursue her passion for pastry.
Salas overcomes the challenge of luring diners to the dessert menu after heavy dinners by keeping things light – she creates refreshing desserts that play on old favorites. “Classics, with a twist” is how she describes her approach to pastry, and it shows.
Her butterscotch pot de creme is brought down to earth with Macallan 18 Whisky, and paired with pumpkin spice cake and pepitas. Her favorite dessert on the menu is also on the lighter side – the passionfruit panna cotta, flavored with lemongrass from the restaurant’s kitchen garden, and served with a coconut sorbet.
Salas’ tiramisu has the flavors of the original with a lighter touch: she forgoes the ladyfingers for an espresso sponge cake, and serves it with mascarpone mousse and cocoa sorbet. “When I think of tiramisu, I think of something heavy,” Salas says, “but this is really light and refreshing. For a steakhouse, that’s what you have to do.”
Other desserts on the menu include a coconut candy bar – a high-class reinterpretation of an almond joy – which layers milk chocolate, praline caramel, and almonds. A caramel apple is served with cinnamon ice cream, and a bitter chocolate cake is served with hazelnut ice cream, and milk and honey ganache. As for the upcoming winter dessert menu? Salas would like to do a dessert with carrots, and experiment with holiday spices, like eggnog.
Right now, Salas is still settling into life in DC, where, she says, the smaller restaurant community and cold weather is a big change from Vegas. “I eventually want to open up my own bakery,” Salas says of her future plans, but right now she’s keeping an open mind and seeing where opportunity leads her. After all, “I never thought five years ago I’d be working at one of the best restaurants in DC as a pastry chef.”