Ham Bones and Ice Cream
Chaval's Ilma Lopez dishes on sweet innovation
Celebrated pastry chef Ilma Lopez is no stranger to innovation. Her resume includes working at db bistro moderne in New York and El Bulli in Spain. She’s earned James Beard accolades for her inventive confections served at restaurants she and her husband, savory chef Damian Sansonetti, have owned in Portland. Stepping out of the ongoing cycle of adapting processes at their current restaurant, Chaval, to weather the pandemic, she chatted with edible MAINE editor Christine Burns Rudalevige about the magic she finds in egg yolks, her favorite spoon, kindness, and the coast of Maine. The conversation has been edited for length and flow.
Tell me about your journey to become a pastry chef.
It started in medical school in Venezuela. I cooked with my grandma growing up. She was amazing. She made buttercream by hand. When I was in college, I started to think about becoming a pastry chef. My mother wouldn’t let me quit school immediately. She said I could work at night at the restaurant while going to school in the day. If after a year I had good grades and still wanted to work in restaurants, I could drop out of medical school. I did just that. Yes. And then came to the U.S. for pastry school.
Describe your style as a pastry chef.
My husband calls me Last Minute Lopez. I’m always running around taking care of our little one and the 20,000 things we need to do at the restaurant. So often it feels like I walk into a restaurant, find out what the [savory] special of the day is, run into the walk-in, grab a bunch of things, and put them together for a dessert. That’s true, but it’s intentional. I feel it’s super important that the pastry and savory are tied together.
What is your favorite simple dessert?
Custards. They are my favorite things to eat.
How do you innovate on custard?
To make our Spanish Sundae, I take the bones of all the serrano ham we use on the menu, roast them, and use them to flavor the milk for the ice cream. I make caramel made with [rendered] fat. There is chocolate cake in the Sundae, savory whipped cream and crispy jamon on top.
I also think caviar is underused in desserts. We have Browne Trading four blocks from the restaurant, so we can get it so easily. We knew [owner] Rod Mitchell since we bought products from him when we worked in New York. He’s the one that convinced us to first visit Maine. And when we got here to Portland, I was like, “Dude, we have to live here.” We wanted a place next to the ocean, a place you could easily have relationships with the farmers, a place that our daughter can call home. Even if she moves out in 20 years, she can always come back.
What are some of your favorite ways ingredients interact?
The coolest thing is that baking soda turns carrots green. You can surprise people with that chemistry in many ways in cakes and tarts. But more practically, you can change the texture of so many desserts using eggs. The proteins in the yolks are magic.
Are you a gadget person?
I feel the three things I can’t work without are an offset spatula, piping bags, and my silver spoon. It’s a particular [soup] spoon that I’ve had since I worked at db bistro. If my lucky spoon is not in my bain-marie, I can’t work. It’s my perfect tool.
What would be a great gift for a budding pastry chef who wants to innovate in the kitchen?
You mean besides a special spoon? In addition to the offset spatula and the piping bags (oh, and maybe a Microplane grater), I would say gelatin sheets, because they are so much easier to use than the powder, and a couple of $6 paring knives. They last forever, and you can beat them up and not feel badly because you only paid $6 for them.
Are there any food science books you’re always referring to?
I love The Flavor Bible. It’s basically a list of ingredients and everything you can pair with them. It’s just inspiration, no set directions.
As a local chef leading the charge against childhood hunger in Maine, how have organizations like Full Plates Full Potential had to change things up?
At the same time the restaurants were closing in March,
so were the schools. We got a call from the Portland Public Schools saying they needed help covering a couple days of breakfasts and lunches for the kids. We paired up chefs with schools located near their restaurants and made it happen. Six thousand meals in two days. It was awesome.
But we still can’t have the big events we’ve had in the past to raise the money we need to feed the children. Gathering in large groups is just not the right thing to do right now. We have done some online events and they were good. And we’re partnering with Maine companies like Wyman’s. So we put blueberries on the menu one weekend, and Full Plates Full Potential got a donation from Wyman’s whenever those items sold. We’re trying everything we can to bring in only about a quarter of what we did before the pandemic, even as there are more kids who need food.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to contribute to Full Plates Full Potential while learning more about Chef Lopez’s adventures cooking with her grandmother in her native Venezuela, buy the children’s book Kalamata’s First Adventure Book from a local bookseller and a portion of the proceeds will go to help end child hunger in Maine.