The decor at 1789 is steeped in history – the restaurant is housed in a Federal period house, and inside you’ll find fine china plates, upholstered wooden chairs, detailed woodwork, and walls covered in historical prints. But the desserts coming out of the kitchen under the skilled direction of pastry chef Travis Olson, are anything but old-fashioned. Think fresh, seasonal ingredients, innovative flavors, and modern updates of classic American desserts.
A dedicated student in high school, Olson found his career path after a disillusioning half semester at the University of Virginia. After leaving school, he quickly enrolled in the professional program at L’Academie de Cuisine, and graduated in 2001. After nine-months assisting pastry chef David Guas, Olson started working at Clyde’s Restaurant Group. He did stints at different Group restaurants, including the Clyde’s in Georgetown, Gallery Place and Willow Creek, before moving to his current job as pastry chef at 1789.
Olson’s passion for pastry started early, however, at the age of twelve, when his family moved to England while his mother pursued a PhD at Oxford in ornithology (both of his parents work for the Smithsonian). “I didn’t have any friends,” Olson explained, “so I just started baking. I was ambitious – I made éclairs, Sacher-Torte, profiteroles” and other fancy, European desserts.
Today, Olson’s approach to pastry is distinctly American. “I like making those classic American desserts – pies, cakes, shortbreads,” he says. The desserts at 1789 certainly reflect this. Olson’s favorite dessert on the menu is the pineapple split, which pairs caramelized pineapple with vanilla ice cream, butter cookies, and a sauce made from candied ginger. The caramel banana bread pudding also uses classic American flavors, but updates them with the addition of eggnog ice cream and a medjool date puree. For a coconut dessert he takes an American staple – the pound cake – and makes it into something new and seasonal: buttered pieces of coconut pound cake are heated on a griddle and served with caramel sauce, warm pink grapefruit, and tangerine ice cream.
Olson isn’t a big fan of all-chocolate desserts; chocolate is “my least favorite ingredient to work with” he says. He’s not into “the whole concept of death by chocolate” in desserts, preferring to pair chocolate with different flavors to lighten the dish. Case in point – the chocolate dessert on the 1789 menu is a dark chocolate cake topped with caramelized meringue, served with peppermint ice cream and pulled peppermint sugar threads. Yes, there are chocolate truffles on the dessert menu, but they’re breaded, deep-fried, and served with white chocolate semifreddo, fresh citrus, and spun sugar.
Olson also doesn’t like to deconstruct desserts, which is a trendy offering on dessert menus these days. “When you deconstruct things, it takes away,” he says. “My desserts don’t feature those little components. I like to make desserts that are fulfilling – not too prissy or architectural.” Instead, Olson tries to make desserts that work together as a whole, where the flavors and concept are “inherent to the ingredients, not imposed upon the ingredients.”
This approach may be why Olson was nominated for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s Pastry Chef of the Year award in 2009, less than a year after starting at 1789. Olson also thinks that his mentors, most of which have been chefs, have given him a different approach to pastry. “I’m less constrained by recipes,” he says. “My approach to ingredients and how to combine them, I was taught by chefs.”
Winter is a difficult time for Olson to design a menu, since most fruit is out of season. “What inspires me the most is fresh fruit,” he says, and the restaurant has relationships with local farmers and orchards to supply their produce. But he’s not thinking about the summer menu yet. “I always want to look ahead and have a plan, and then the fruit starts coming in and it all changes,” he explains.
Well, at least this gives DC pastry fans something to look forward to this summer.