Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Rebecca Masson of
Fluff Bake Bar

We haven't had a Chef Chat with Becky Masson since 2010 and a whole heck of a lot has happened since then. Here are just a few highlights. 

In 2011, she competed on "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and represented Houston admirably, despite not winning. Not too much later, for the first time Fluff Bake Bar found permanent retail placement for its desserts at Revival Market and Inversion. In 2013, the Kickstarter intended to fund Fluff Bake Bar looked for weeks like it wasn't going to succeed and ended up getting the last big chunk of cash needed on the very last day. 

With any luck, Fluff Bake Bar may even be open in time for Thansgiving. Cross your fingers that the City of Houston approvals and permitting go through quickly so we can all order pies. 

In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we get some in-depth information about Masson's roots: how she went from being a Colorado snowboard bum to the Cordon Bleu and then to Michelin-starred restaurants in France and New York. How did she get to Houston? Read on and find out, then come back for Part 2 tomorrow to find out how Houston almost lost her again. 

EOW: When did you first get the idea that you wanted to cook or bake?

RM: I don't have that story that I grew up in the kitchen with my mom. My parents got divorced and I lived with my dad. He knew how to make three things: pork chops, loose meat tacos and spaghetti.

So, baking was never really a thing. I went to the University of Wyoming for my undergrad and worked at a coffee shop. I was a barista before baristas were cool. A chef named John Guerin came in and bought the place (Coal Creek Coffee). He built a kitchen and we started making everything in-house: breakfast pastries, bread, soups and sandwiches.

He said "Come bake with me." I looked at him like he was nuts because baking started at 4 a.m. As a college kid, I didn't go to bed until 4 a.m.

Finally, I went. I fell in love with it. It's funny, because I don't particularly enjoy making bread anymore, but I remember those mornings fondly. Between 4 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. in the morning, it was just me and a really loud radio. I'd have a dozen or so doughs going in different stages. I still love the smell of yeast.

EOW: Where did you go after college?

RM: After school, I moved to Breckenridge to be a snowboard bum and I told my family I'd only do it a year and then be an accountant after that. I stayed five years and I kept baking.

I started looking for schools. I found the Ritz Ecoffier in Paris and Le Cordon Bleu on the Internet. I said, "What the hell." So, I sent an application to Le Cordon Bleu. One day, I picked up my mail. There was an envelope. It said "Mademoiselle Rebecca Masson..." I was like, "What the is this?"

I'd been accepted to Le Cordon Bleu. I called my dad and said, "I got into culinary school" He said, "Really? Which one?" I said, "Oh... the Cordon Bleu in Paris." "Texas?" "No, France."

My dad, aunt and I flew to France and my dad made sure my apartment was okay. I had one room with a little bathroom.

He and my aunt hung around for about a week. I took them to the airport and watched them go through security and thought "I live in a foreign country where I don't speak the language. I don't know anyone and I'm about to start school." At that moment, I just lost it. I stood in the middle of the airport bawling. People were coming up to me asking in French if I was okay and I'm like "I don't understand youuuuu!"

EOW: I'm sure it was terrifying. RM: It was traumatic! But once I got going in school it was fine. I started learning French. I got through school and it was time to pick an internship. I picked The Bristol. I was warned that it was a really tough kitchen. I said, "I can handle anything!"

So, they sent me there. The executive chef said, "I'm going to practice English on you and you're going to practice French on me." My first day was terrifying. The executive sous chef grabbed a cake out of the oven and hurled it across the kitchen because someone messed up. EOW: What did you do?

RM: When my three months were up, I said "I don't want to go home yet." They said, "OK. We'll get your Visa extended." I stayed seven more months. I was there when they got their second Michelin star. They threw a huge party.

They were going to sponsor a visa for me to stay longer, but you had to sit in France for six months with no work or school. So, I was like "Well, I've already spent two years of my grandma's money. I've got to go."

The executive chef was going to New York to cook a dinner at the French consulate. He said, "Why don't you come with us?" We ate at Daniel. We ate at Jean-Georges. We worked in [François] Payard's kitchen. I had no clue who these people were. Everywhere we went, the pastry sous chef said "She needs a job," and I was like, "I'm going back to Breckenridge and opening a bakery. I don't know what you're talking about."

I tried out for DB Bistro for Daniel [Boulud]. François Payard called me at home. I went "Eeny, meeny, miney, mo," and picked Daniel. I went to Colorado, packed a suitcase, moved to New York and started working at DB Bistro.

EOW: How long were you there?

RM: I worked at DB Bistro for a year and got a promotion to Daniel. My first job as a pastry chef was at the opening of The Biltmore Room with a guy named Gary Robins, who, at the time, was pretty well-known in New York. It was an interesting job. I never knew what was going to happen from day to day.

EOW: Wow.

RM: Yeah, it was interesting. We got really great reviews. The owner of The Red Cat, Jimmy Bradley, came in to eat one night. He was friends with the general manager and asked who the pastry chef was. I did a tasting for him and made risotto fritters, which is like a yeasty ball with al dente risotto folded in. It's the doughnut that got me the job.

I worked for him about two years. In The Red Hat Cookbook, about half the desserts in there are mine. I think that's pretty cool.

EOW: That is pretty cool!

RM: I thought it was time to move on to something bigger and better. That's not always the bright move. I took the opening pastry chef job at BLT Prime with Laurent Tourondel. At the same time, I had a shitty French boyfriend who I found out was cheating on me. Within 48 hours, I left New York.

I went to Denver for a mental health break and decided I needed to start looking for a job where I was happy in the kitchen. I didn't care what city it was in. I just wanted a job where I could work, believe in it and be happy.

I went on a bunch of interviews: L.A., Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and Boston. I came to Houston and interviewed with Ryan Pera at *17. (Author's note: Pera is now the chef-owner at Coltivare and Revival Market.)

I ate dinner there and loved the food. The next day, I went in to do my tasting. Tracy Hartman was his sous chef. When there are two girls in a kitchen, one of two things happen. You either hate each other and are out for blood or you fall in love. I tell Ryan I took the job because of him, but it was really because of Tracy. We just clicked in five minutes.

So, I did a tasting for Ryan, left Houston and went to Philadelphia. I interviewed at Morimoto and it was so funny. I was in the kitchen doing stuff for the tasting and thinking "This place reeks of fish. All I smell is fish and I can't handle it."

I went back to the hotel room and there was an email from Ryan that said "We really loved you. We love your food. We would like to have you here [at *17]. P.S.- Morimoto's smells bad." That's it. I'm going to Houston!

Come back tomorrrow for Part 2 to find out what happened when Masson moved to Houston, and why she stayed.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook