We were living in Arizona but traveling often to Ohio for work. It was a Sunday morning, and we were watching a baking competition show on the Food Network, immediately spotted “the pastry chef from Columbus” and started rooting for him. His name is Aaron and I met him a couple years later at a tasting dinner he hosted in a restaurant he used to lead the Pastry Program at.
Right now, I’m enjoying dinner with him. Aaron invited me to hang out at the Friends and Family soft launch event of Agni, the new restaurant of Chef Avishar in the German Village.
Pastry Chef Aaron is passionate, experienced and a creative soul. This article is the fourth and last delivery of my “4 Chefs to look out for in Columbus Ohio this 2023” blog series, an effort to spotlight my favorite Chefs in town.
I hope you enjoy.
What’s your name and where are you from?
My name is Aaron Clouse, and I'm from Sycamore, Ohio. I have lived in Chicago, San Francisco and Cincinnati doing consulting jobs, but it’ll be my 10th year in Columbus in July 2023.
This is probably me romanticizing Pastry Chefs but, do you remember the exact moment you decided to become a Chef?
When I was a kid, my mom used to do wedding cakes in the house, imagine a Wilton decorating box kind of cakes, this is one of the big influences in my life.
But I do have a moment or period in my life that I can share with you. Every Christmas, my mom and dad would make cookie boxes for all our neighbors. I remember they made ten different kinds of cookies and every room of the house smelled like wonderland. This memory is definitely one of the sparks that led me to become a chef, I think.
What is your favorite pastry to make?
Undoubtedly, my favorite pastry to make is a croissant. The reason is simple to me, there is a technical skillset involved and I like the challenge of it and the methodical aspect of them.
When it comes to croissants, there are reasons for every single step, there are “whys” and “hows” that you must be careful with (otherwise structure and flavor will be impacted). For me, it’s the organized steps and almost melodic process that gets me, I enjoy feeling the dough coming together and being layered up with the most delicious ingredients of them all, butter.
At the end of the day, I just like the idea of putting a bunch of butter inside something and being like…wow!
Is there something that you do not enjoy making? Either on the pastry world, savory one or even an ingredient that you don’t enjoy as much.
Cake pops. I just find them a little lame (laughs). Everything about it bothers me. You would take all this time to make a nice, layered cake with the perfect sponge and the perfect everything, and then you destroy it in the mixer and add icing to it and just turn it into balls?
My first job out of pastry school was at a cake shop and I imagine myself doing this big and amazing wedding cakes. And then during my first week, my boss walks in and tells me: “Okay, I need 1500 cake pops by the end of the day”. And there was young Aaron during an 8 hour shift, mashing cake into little balls.
What is your signature dish and what do you love about it?
Five years ago, I did a lemon meringue pie croissant for an event, which was just the regular triangle croissant rolled up, and then I put lemon curd on the inside and dipped the whole thing with Italian meringue, then torched it and served it. It was fun.
I feel like your current croissant carnival is an evolution of yourself but 5 years ago.
Yes, I would say so, this is my 2.0. I did it five years ago when I was not as focused as I am now. 2.0 Aaron is now thinking about how to make this dish better. What changes need to happen to get there… Yuzu versus lemon? Marshmallow cream instead of actual meringue? This has been an evolution as you say.
I have tried several versions of Aaron’s croissant. All of them are wonderful; my personal favorite you ask? The Yuzu one.
Aaron mentioned he wants to keep exploring with deconstructed croissants soon, maybe we’ll see a new series of plated desserts? We don’t know yet.
Aaron, I know you have a savory side of you. When you are composing savory dishes, do you tend to incorporate pastry into them? Or do you try to separate realms as people say.
Absolutely, and the opposite way too. In pastry, I like utilizing savory elements. I don't like dishes that are only-sweet, so I always tend to play on the “barely on the sweet side” of the road.
If you could say you only had one source of inspiration to cook or create new dishes and menus, what would that inspiration be?
This will probably sound odd, but the forest is inspirational to me. I have this obsession with Alice in Wonderland where I find it mythical. I don't know, the mushrooms and the moss and the wood and everything else. On this little, microscopic level, I think that's just, like, such a weird, interesting thing.
I've done four or five different dishes, sweet and savory that all resonated from that thought process and inspiration. I don't know why. I don't know. It's just interesting to me, the idea of a little micro planet, shrunken down and so, trying to recreate things like moss with cake, little edible mushrooms with chocolate and stuff like that. I love my miniature worlds.
When it comes to comfort food… Any favorites? Cravings?
Cinnamon rolls. My parents didn't cook a lot when we were kids, so I feel like I have more comfort food that I've developed in my adulthood just because my childhood was simple in terms of home cooked meals, think about hot dogs and chicken nuggets. But the one thing that my mom always really made well were cinnamon rolls; every Saturday or Sunday. It reminds me of home and simplicity in the best possible way.
As I’ve gotten older, I would say Filipino food has become my new favorite comfort food. I really enjoy a good chicken adobo.
What is the ONE piece of advice you can give a home cook?
I will give you two. First off, get good butter, find the one with the highest fat content if you’re trying to make pastries. Second, eggs don’t need to be refrigerated. If I know I'm baking, I'll pull them out hours and hours ahead of time and let them sit or even the night before. Because when you add a cold egg to something, it defeats part of the process of cooking, you're raising temperatures up right? And so, the room temperature helps. And it also helps the protein inside the egg yolk and the egg white and everything rises and acts better.
Now, if you could only eat one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be? Just one dish, not ingredients.
Let me think about it… Just one? Orange chicken. Fully spicy. It must be spicy. No, I changed it. Pad Thai. Pad Thai. That's my final answer. Have you tried Bendi (Bendi Wok N Bar)? Theirs is my favorite.
What is the biggest change you have seen in the food and restaurant industry in the past few years?
I think things are moving more towards the owner-operator side of things which is amazing. I feel like because of that, a lot of chefs are becoming much more prevalent, owning their own restaurants, really creating a theme, creating everything exactly how they want versus a corporate mandate.
Another aspect that I see is barely happening is the perception towards Pastry Chefs. I've been told so many times in my career that I'm not a real chef because I'm in Pastry. Not allowed to be on the chef's lists because I'm not a real chef. Or I shouldn't be even nominated for this because I'm not a real chef. My job utilizes more science, more math, more baking, more creativity than a lot of jobs in the industry. And nobody speaks up about it, and I'm tired of it. This is definitely a change that needs a faster pace in the industry.
What are you more excited about in 2023? Any specific things or projects that you are excited about?
Starting a new job (at Parable Coffee) has been super exciting. I think for the first time in a very long time, I'm set up with a company that also shares that same vision to challenge what a business is, challenge what a coffee shop is, challenge what a bakery is.
I think for me, 2023 is all about a season of growth and just putting out all the crazy ideas I've had for so long that I haven't had the opportunity to execute. I think it's what I'm the most excited about. Version 2.0 on some desserts I've done in the past, that now I have the time and the energy and the thought process behind it, the growth behind it, because I have not been the greatest when it comes to the politics of the industry, especially in Columbus. I've pissed off some chefs. I've pissed off some people. Do I regret any of it? No. Only because it's gotten me to where I'm at. And I appreciate the struggle that was, and because I think if I would have done things differently, I wouldn't have the mindset I do now, which I appreciate having.
2023 is a time of focus, growth, and creativity for me. And that excites me very much.