“You want to know my secret?” Liana Sinclair — pastry chef and goddess, currently to be found slinging rich, moreish, and glorious pies at Supperland in Plaza Midwood — leaned over her pimento cheese burger on a warm Saturday night at 300 East, almost daring us to reply. Here she was, on a rare night off, fresh from Texas, already taking the Charlotte food scene by storm, and she was about to share the secret of her success. I may have nodded yes, or I may have stopped breathing altogether.
“It’s that I don’t have a sweet tooth,” she finally explained.
The lines across my forehead must have given away my shock, but it turned out I was in good hands, as this cunning pastry chef once worked as an aesthetician.
Long before that, Liana made her US debut on a JFK tarmac, arriving from South Korea at 5 months old to be adopted by a Mormon family in upstate New York.
“I was the good kid growing up,” she told me. “Straight A student. A really conservative family, though. My dad wanted me to go to a regular college to be a lawyer or a doctor, which I tried — for, like, a week or two.”
And that’s how she ended up as an aesthetician. “I dropped out of college, went back home, and then went to school to be an aesthetician. I don’t know, I was working at a spa, like doing facials and stuff.” She could see the stereotype in my eyes. “I wasn’t doing nails, Tim.”
“I didn’t say anything,” I replied, reaching over to grab another piece of toasted, buttery baguette and a spoonful of goat cheese — silky and oozing — to slather on top.
Liana’s rules of the kitchen
We were at 300 East — and we were hungry. When I suggested the venue for dinner, Liana didn’t hesitate to accept. “All the people I’ve met so far have told me I needed to come here.”
Nearly everyone in Charlotte who does pastry, she was told, has spent time at the Dilworth institution, so as the new pastry chef in town, a visit was a foregone conclusion.
Because the photographer was late, we didn’t know whether to wait or go ahead and order, so we compromised and opted for the goat cheese appetizer. “God, this is good,” she said.
There was a time 12 years ago when things could have turned out differently. Liana almost took the savory path with her culinary career, but explained, “I am way too neurotic to go savory.”
She felt more at ease in pastry, with her Type A personality. “You know what savory cooking is like, right? Throw a bunch of stuff together and kind of adjust it, and it will be nice. But pastry — pastry is like science.”
“So you can tell your dad you’re a scientist after all!” I interjected.
“Exactly,” she said. “I’m a food scientist. Yes, you can play with the rules once you know all the rules and you, like, know how things work. But you can’t just take the baking soda out of something and hope that things turn out OK. There are rules.”
Sometimes those rules are unspoken. When I offered a suggestion about a certain dish on Supperland’s savory menu that would require use of a freezer, she recoiled like a cat taking issue with its own shadow.
“No, that’s not going to happen. That is my freezer. There are unspoken rules in the kitchen, like about the freezer. And Liana’s table. Someone fucking took my tape from my table yesterday. Can you believe that?”
The tape, it really does need to be said, is blue painter’s tape — the kind used when finishing accent walls at home or, in Liana’s case, for making labels.
“She’s like, ‘I just need a piece,’ and I said, ‘Please don’t touch my tape’ in a way that made her think I’m crazy. Because she doesn’t know the unspoken rules.”
A meal at 300 East
By then the photographer had arrived, and we ordered our mains. Liana’s pimento cheese burger was triumphantly plated in a way that suggested the need for its own orchestral accompaniment. She tore through it with gusto.
Our photographer, Kenty Chung, went with roast chicken — a well-seasoned plate of protein that was perfect, in his case, for building up the triceps he uses to hold his camera aloft. (I would be lying if I said Liana was the one who pointed them out to the room.)
I, however, was less enthusiastic about my shrimp cakes, which tasted to me more like cornmeal flavored with shrimp, but it was hard to focus for too long on them, as Liana was not ready to put the tale of the blue tape behind us.
“There are some things that I’m very neurotic about, and Chef Chris (Rogienski) and the guys in the kitchen get it; they don’t bother me about it. Like, my blue tape. You have to cut the tape. I don’t like ripped tape. A couple of people have grabbed my tape. But I’m like, ‘OK, first of all, put my tape down. And second of all, where are your scissors?’ It has to be cut at a 90-degree angle.”
“Does cutting the tape at a 90-degree angle make your brie bites taste better?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “And no, it makes me more organized. Those brie bites are very, very organized. And that’s another thing: Chef Chris appreciates my pastry crazy, but he also knows that, like, I’m organized — and neurotic.”
I may tease her about the brie bites, which I’ve written about previously, but her desserts are truly something else. Liana’s neuroses are immediately apparent, and in hindsight, so is her no-sweet-tooth secret.
What else other than neuroses and OCD could explain the type of laser-focused precision required to make mini balls of peaches that are so uniformly shaped and smooth that, were they metal, they might be deemed the product of advanced alien technology?
And the clever way she pickles them — as though in deference to the fruit itself, a way to maintain its true flavor, so that you can taste the fruit and appreciate the fruit, which is only possible as a component in a dessert that is not so sugar-forward.
Or that cornbread pudding. Or even those chocolate chip cookies, which look like fat hockey pucks. Without sacks of sugar, Liana chef-ifies in other ways to make those ingredients shine, and Charlotte is here for it.
That was a concern of hers before she drove to North Carolina from Texas with her dog Drake. (I tease her again, “You mean to tell me that you, the pastry chef, stopped in New Orleans and didn’t go to Café du Monde for the beignets?”)
What’s for dessert?
Her impression of Charlotte at first was that the locals would only go for a certain kind of dessert. (“Ahem. We’re called Charlotteans.”)
The sweet kind, for example, that arrived to our table at the end of our meal: 300 East’s signature brownie.
“See, this is the kind of stuff I think people want to eat, though,” she said. “They want stuff that reminds them of their childhood.”
And, indeed, this brownie was, summed up by a single word, nostalgic.
“It’s also a damn great brownie. That texture!” I said.
The second dessert, I could tell, was much more aligned to Liana’s pastry sensibilities: an eggy cherry clafoutis with flecks of candied flair, the technique on display, the lower sugar usage. “This is like my personality,” she said.
Aside from introducing Charlotte to bold desserts that are less sweet than those normally eaten around town, Liana also wants to introduce new flavors.
“I’m Korean, so things like gochujang, of course, but that’s not really on brand with what we do at Supperland. Though I am trying to find a sneaky way to get yuzu on the menu.”
“A sneaky way? How will your work-husband react?” I asked, using her favorite term for Chef Chris, who insists that ingredients are sourced locally or at least have ties to the South.
“Who knows? Maybe I can find a Southern source for yuzu?” she replied.
After dessert at 300 East, in the dining room of that old Victorian house surrounded by tables of people enjoying the food and having the time of their lives, Liana spilled more secrets.
First, her hair: “There’s not a lot of Asians running around Plaza Midwood with teal hair. I would say that opening a restaurant turns your hair gray. That’s why I dyed mine teal, to cover up the gray. It’s been every color of the rainbow, really. But I do get random people stopping me and asking, ‘Hey! Are you the pastry chef at Supperland?’”
Second, a new pie: “I think I’m going to be testing the boundaries of how much people are comfortable with paying for dessert here in Charlotte. There seems to be an upper limit of $10 or $12. This will be more.”
Her plans for this pie include lots of pecans, lots of Valrhona chocolate, and maybe little dots of Morello cherry to zhuzh things up.
Third, more future plans at Supperland: “I think brunch maybe is in the cards at some point.”
This would give her the chance to expand her pastry program to include viennoiserie, and maybe even her all-time favorite pastry, the croissant-y crown-shaped saucer of butter and sugar more elegantly referred to as kougin amann
“And since you don’t have a sweet tooth, perhaps a savory pastry? Like a quiche?” I asked.
“That’s the plan.”
“I would eat the hell out of your quiche,” I said.
Liana Sinclair — pastry chef and goddess; 5’3” giant in an industry dominated by men; devoted dog mother and lover of vintage-style clothes; erstwhile Mormon and nouveau Charlottean, chapeau’d in teal, single and maybe ready to mingle, blushed and said, “You’re the first guy who’s ever said that to me.”