If you have ever searched for authentic Italian pastries and desserts in Houston, you've probably been sorely disappointed. Although the Bayou City is home to many bakeries that make cupcakes, cakes, cookies and other American sweet shops, it is seriously in need of establishments dedicated to creating cannoli, tiramisu, pignoli, rainbow cookies and other Italian specialties.
After making a midlife career change to become a pastry chef, Drew Rogers set his sights on opening his own shop, with a goal of making the classic Italian pastries he grew up eating in New Jersey. But, the process of establishing Drew's Pastry Place has not been the one Rogers imagined.
"I went to work for Houston Country Club after [culinary school]," Rogers says. "The week I graduated I got a job offer at Houston Country Club -- which was great -- under a Master Chef, and his name was Chef Fritze Gitschner. And at the time were only 58 or 59 Master Chefs in the world and he was ranked in the top ten. So, for me to work under him my first gig out of school was incredible and I learned a whole lot from him. I was there for three-and-a-half years."
Rogers' parents knew that he wanted to open his own bakery, so they offered to assist him in creating, designing and opening Drew's Pastry Place in Vintage Park, a true family business. Rogers decided to audition for Next Great Baker on TLC, but was not selected as a finalist -- he was a runner-up. However, this misfortune might have been a blessing in disguise.
"When Buddy [Valastro] decided to start this new series, Bakery Boss, they were looking for bakeries that were not performing like they should," Rogers says. "So, they sent me an email asking if I was interested and I said, 'Yeah I'd be interested in going forward.' So they sent me a questionnaire and one of the questions was, 'How do you think Buddy can help you?' I just sent back to them, 'Well, if I knew that, I wouldn't need him here.' And I got a call the next day."
After several Skype interviews, phone calls and visits to the bakery, TLC decided to cast Drew's Pastry Place as one of the 13 bakeries to appear in the first season.
"The filming was like eight days and nine to nine. We were closed for those whole eight days and now they are editing it all down to 42 minutes," Rogers says. "I don't know what it's going to look like, except for the 30 seconds that they've shown so far on their website."
(The episode will air on TLC tonight at 9 p.m.)
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Rogers initially opened Drew's Pastry Place as an Italian bakery where people could eat the sweets and treats he grew up eating. He has mastered his cannoli recipe after years of perfecting and sells a variety of products based on recipes from his mother, grandmother and uncle, but never felt the need (or desire) to sell products Houstonians are familiar with. Thanks to Valastro, aka Cake Boss, Rogers made space in his shop for a few American desserts.
"My thought was always -- and this is what Buddy opened my eyes to -- my thought was always I wanted to get an Italian pastry shop like I grew up going to, like in New York and New Jersey, and just transplant it here," Rogers says. "Well, that sounds good and everything, and it didn't -- it hasn't worked that way because people here in Houston didn't grow up with what I grew up with. So, they're looking at certain things going, 'What the heck is that?' But one of the things that Buddy said was you need to tailor your stuff; you can have that stuff, but you need to also tailor it to the Southern people. Like of course we had pecan pie, but the cobbler, cookies the shape of Texas and the star where Houston is, and just different things like that. Then, of course, cupcakes, and that was the big thing."
Rogers thought cupcakes were a fad whose time was over, so he put up a thick wall to the idea of selling the item in his store. To him, making cupcakes was not the way he wanted to use his culinary degree; he wanted to make Italian pastries, despite recommendations from his wife for the past five years.
"... Buddy was like, you have to do it, and he asked me why. And I told him like I said -- I didn't go to school to make cupcakes. And I said any monkey can make cupcakes and he looked at me and he said, 'This monkey makes 10,000 cupcakes a week.' It was a real eye opener for me," Rogers says. "So, obviously, I broke down and started doing cupcakes and they have been selling like crazy. And I have to admit that I was wrong, and my wife was right and Buddy was right."
But, adding cupcakes to his list of products sold in the shop hasn't stopped Rogers from adding his personal touch to the miniature cakes.
"The other thing is that he wanted me to come up with a signature cupcake since I was so adamant about not doing it," he says. "He had told us right before that that my cannoli, my tiramisu and my rainbow cookies, he ranked them a nine out of ten, and for him to do that, him of all people, that made me feel great. So, then he said, 'I want you to make a signature cupcake, right now, while I'm standing here come up with your own cupcake.' Well, it was just a no-brainer to me, a cannoli cupcake. I cut the center out of the cupcake, I put some simple syrup in there, and then the cannoli filling in it, and then on top with the chocolate chips and broken pieces of cannoli shell."
Valastro told Rogers that he didn't even have a cannoli cupcake. With the taste approval from the Cake Boss, Rogers added the cannoli cupcake (along with other flavors) to his pastry case and has had problems keeping them on the shelves.
Despite the popularity of the cupcakes, Rogers says his favorite item to make is his cannoli.
"Because I see how people enjoy my cannoli, I love making my cannoli cream," he says. "I mean, every time I have to make it, it's not like, 'Ugh, more?' It's like, 'Yeah!' It's so smooth and it tastes really good. Nobody knows my recipe; not my mom, not my wife. I'm the only one that makes it. I've been coming up with it for the last six years. I think I have perfected it."
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Not only did Valastro help Rogers create his own cupcake and redesign his bakery, but he also gave him several recipes, including a few new ones to be unveiled after the show airs.
"We are rolling one out that's called a Key Lime Bomb. And that's one that he gave me," Rogers says. "It's like a key lime pie but it's in a half-round, like a sphere, and then it has a crust on the bottom, a flat part, and it's got some Chantilly cream on top, and I don't like key lime pie, but I like that. And everybody that tried it the night of our re-launch went crazy over it and want to know where it is, but I wasn't going to roll it out until the episode."
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Ask Rogers if he thought the Bakery Boss experience would have gone the way it did, and he'll tell you "absolutely not".
"I didn't think it was going to go this way because we butt heads a little bit and I think very highly of Buddy. He's a very smart guy, he's great at what he does, and I have always watched his shows and thought the world of him. So, for me to A) disagree with him and B) argue with him, kind of bummed me out after I thought about it, but in the long run it obviously came out the right way," Rogers says. "He was very nice to my family, very nice to me. He was really genuinely concerned about this place and really about my wife and I because it has been a struggle [and] it wasn't making it right like that. He really put his heart into this."
Now that Drew's Pastry Place has been remodeled, redesigned and re-energized to sell new products alongside the classics Rogers used to establish his business, the pastry chef is excited about the future of his Italian bakery in Vintage Park.
"I would love to expand somehow so I could offer more and there would be more seating. But, I don't know yet. I think I just got to get a grip after this airs and then go from there.