It’s an exciting time to be talking to Casey Renee but these days it’s always an exciting time to talk to Casey. She’s been named a James Beard award semifinalist twice, she was just a contestant on the Food Network’s “Best Baker in America” and now she’s in the process of opening her very own bakery. Casey recommended we meet up at Duncan Street Sandwich Shop in Millvale. She hadn’t had their sandwiches yet but she’d heard good things and was excited to order the “Rosemary/Brown Sugar/Black Pepper Turkey Sandwich.” We sat on the sunny back patio with our sandwiches.
So what do you think about the sandwich?
I love when they don’t skimp on the sauce. It’s like a goat cheese spread with this sweet and sour sauce. (she takes a bite) That is hella good. I always appreciate when someone puts the proper amount of sauce on something. Because no one wants a dry sandwich.
Is turkey your go-to sandwich?
I do love a turkey club. That’s the nostalgic part of me. I always want a turkey club. Probably because I would go to Eat ‘n Park a lot growing up. My mom worked there. We also went to a lot of diners. Truly, I just want to eat chicken fingers and french fries for every meal.
So you grew up in the Pittsburgh area?
Yeah, I grew up in the South Hills area. Born and raised. And then I went to college at Point Park University and after I graduated I went to New York for about 10 years.
Did you cook or bake when you were a kid?
Sometimes I’d help my mom and roll some meatballs and then I’d eat three of them. But I was never into cooking until I moved to New York. I was working in advertising and I was a vegetarian at the time and I didn’t want to eat mac and cheese every day so I figured I should learn how to cook. I didn’t grow up with a lot of fresh vegetables or fish. I was like, “What’s bok choi?” I was watching a lot of Food Network and reading recipes and then I started cooking for myself all the time. After a couple of years of doing that, I had my quarter-life crisis. Do I really want to stay in advertising and work in a cubicle all my life when I have this desire to be creative? I had to take this leap of faith and I started taking these cooking classes. And eventually, I quit my job and went to culinary school.
What was your first job cooking?
Oh boy. I worked at this restaurant in Brooklyn. It was a way to get my foot in the door but it was not a very positive experience. I just remember coming home so exhausted and losing so much weight because I was stressed out all the time. And then I was able to get into catering and getting some private chef gigs and from that I got into Momofuku. I just saw an ad on Craigslist and I thought I’d give it a try and they invited me in for a “stage.”
What’s a “stage?”
It’s not really a thing anymore because you can’t make people work for free but it’s where you go in and work a day and they see how you work and you see how they run the operations. After a day of working for free they either offer you a job or they realize you can’t work in a kitchen. But I kept my head down. I chopped 22 quarts of onions without crying. I just kept going. I was running around all day.
How do you not cry when you cut that many onions?
I was just, like, “Push those tears down!” I wanted it so bad that I just kept asking for the next project. I was the only woman there and I felt like I didn’t have any real experience but they saw something in me and they offered me the job. They saw how much I cared and how excited I was to learn and they would give me extra projects. And after a year, one of the chefs came up to me and said, “What do you want from here?” At that point I was working at Noodle Bar and I wanted to try fine dining. I wanted to know why people were paying $300 for a meal. And so I went to Ko, which at the time was a 12-seat restaurant that was like a speakeasy. It looked like a closed storefront with grates on the windows but then you walk in and it’s a very cool little restaurant. I couldn’t even find the door when I first started working there. After two years, I was creating dishes for the menu and I was on track to be a sous chef but I wanted to try a different restaurant company. So I left there and took a job at Del Posto, a fancy Italian restaurant. And this was on the other end of the spectrum. It had 200 seats and I was pumping out beautiful desserts. So I dove headfirst into pastry. I got to learn how to make ice cream and do chocolate work and bake everything. There were also a lot of women in charge and it was a whole different view. I saw that there was a whole different way that a company could be run.
And how did you get back to Pittsburgh?
I had started doing an apprenticeship at a place called Meat Hook because I had started eating meat and I wanted to know where the different cuts came from. I met Brent Young there and he’s from Pittsburgh. So he gets in touch with me and says he’s opening the Ace Hotel in Pittsburgh and I was missing Pittsburgh and my family. New York is so stressful all the time. If you can’t work all these hours and ask for more then there’s someone behind you ready to take your place and get paid less for it. I was over it. So I moved back here about four years ago and opened The Ace Hotel and put that whole pastry program together.
Where were you when you realized you were a James Beard semifinalist?
Wow, that was a crazy day. It was not even on my radar. It was the day after Valentine’s Day so we had just gotten obliterated at the Ace Hotel. I came in the next day to make orders and take inventory. I was in my lounging clothes. And then I get a text message from Jamilka at Hidden Harbor and she says, “Congratulations,” and I was like, “What are you talking about?” I was by myself in the office and I went on the computer and I saw it on there and I was just like, “Holy sh*t.” What is going on here? How do they even know about what I’m doing here?” Because I was looking at this list with so many of my mentors on it and chefs I’ve worked for and then my name’s on there. I couldn’t believe it.
Pittsburgh James Beard nominee stars on a Food Network series starting next week — and more news https://t.co/AGcVgOFaMW
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (@PittsburghPG) May 8, 2019
Do you have a favorite cookie?
I think, deep down, I always want a chocolate chip cookie and I want it with extra salt and good chocolate, real vanilla and I want them slightly underbaked. So I’ve tailored my chocolate chip cookie recipe to be my dream come true. And it’s hard not to bake myself one every day. I’ve got a lot of willpower. You know, I didn’t realize the cookie table was a Pittsburgh thing until I moved to New York. At every event I’d be like, “Where’s the cookie table?” And people had no idea what I was talking about.
— The Incline (@theinclinepgh) September 1, 2018
Are there are any pastries or foods you love in Pittsburgh?
I really like what Lorelei is doing. The pastry chef, Dianne DeStefano, makes really good pretzels. Her desserts are always really well balanced. That’s always a treat. But I don’t go out that much because I’m always working. When I do go out, I try to go to new places. I just went to The Oaklander, that was very nice. I went to Alta Via, the new big burrito restaurant in Fox Chapel. That was really good. A lot of the times I just want Pittsburgh comfort food. I want a Pittsburgh chicken salad with french fries and buffalo chicken strips on it.
Where would you go for that?
There’s a place by my house called Ease. It’s in Regent Square. It used to be Dunnings. It’s good burgers with hand-cut fries and really good salads. You can tell that someone’s actually trying. It’s a chicken salad sandwich but they use good ingredients. Honestly, I’m probably a pain to go out to eat with because I can’t help but critique things. It’s just the way my brain is. But we don’t need to tell everyone what I’m thinking about the salt level.
And now you’re opening your own business?
Yeah, I was ready to be in charge and do it on my own. I love being my own boss and I’m so excited for the future. I’m going to be working with the Tryp Hotel and doing their desserts when they open. I’m doing a lot of wedding tastings and events and I’m supplying pastries to 4121 Main. My friend Tommy runs it and they always have my stuff in there on the weekends.
What’s been the hardest thing about starting a new business?
I’m trying to get the word out that you can still get my desserts. Right now you can go to my website and order them but I’m working on making them more accessible. I’m working on getting a shop open in Wilkinsburg. I’m really invested in that side of the city. Hopefully, it’ll be open by the end of the summer.
I just watched the first episode of “Best Baker in America” on Food Network.
Oh, boy! A lot of emotions there. You know, I don’t watch any competition shows. They stress me out. So when this opportunity came up, it was a hard decision for me. But I was starting this new business and I could use all the help I could get. So I did the audition and I got chosen. They flew me out to LA and we filmed it and it was wild. TV is weird. I filmed for 3 days nonstop and you probably see about five minutes of me.
— FoodSided (@FoodSided) May 27, 2019
It was so frenetic to watch.
There’s a lot of hurry up and wait. And I got cut first and I was really surprised, especially because I was really proud of what I had put out there. My downfall, I think, is that my cakes are very much like works of art. They’re not meant to sit out for extended periods of time. And for filming, it takes hours and hours and I don’t think that helped.
I thought your second cake looked so cool! And I thought their feedback was so obnoxious.
Thank you! I love that cake. To put myself in such a vulnerable position on national TV and then to be crushed like that… at first, I was regretful of doing the whole thing. I felt like I failed Pittsburgh. And I couldn’t even talk about it with anyone because I was under contract. Now that the show’s out and over with, I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I stuck to who I am. I was almost glad that I left on the first episode because I didn’t want to do any more challenges. I don’t like that energy. I don’t like hoping others fail so that I succeed. It’s funny, I was running around the set yelling compliments at everyone because that’s who I am.
What do you want the last dessert you eat before you die to be?
Well, my last meal will be chicken fingers and french fries. But my last dessert would probably be one of my chocolate cakes. It depends what I’m into at the moment and who knows what I’ll be into then?
Are there any bakeries you really like in town?
I really like Food Glorious Food. I’ve had some amazing stuff there. La Gourmandine is always good. Five Points is doing some really well-done pastry. He’s awesome. He puts pure love in his pastry. You can taste it. And there’s a bakery in Regent Square called Madeleine’s. I’ve gone there for a kouign-amann and I ate the whole thing. The guy who opened that is a dedicated baker and you can tell.
Though no one knows who invented the luxurious sweet, it’s suspected to be the outcome of a happy accident within the 19th-century baking community. https://t.co/jEwxdh8kau
— Atlas Obscura (@atlasobscura) March 21, 2019
You have pets, right?
Yeah, I have my two dogs, the little shnoodles. And I have a cat named Catherine and she does her own thing. I make my dogs this dog food soup. I add dry dog food, a little wet dog food and I put a little water on it. Then I mix it up and put it in the microwave. I realized that Barry, he’s my little foodie, was dipping his little beard in the water and then flinging it on his food. I realized that he was trying to wet his food to soften it because he liked how it tasted. So now I make their breakfast and dinner and they think I’m the best cook in the world.
And as we finished our conversation and sandwiches, Casey gifted me with one of her chocolate chip espresso cookies. As a chocolate chip cookie aficionado, I was excited to give it a try. It was perfectly underbaked, came with a precise pinch of salt and was packed with impressive layers of delicious chocolate chunks. It’s clear that Casey not only bakes these cookies – she loves these cookies.
**This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space**
Lead photo: Casey Renee at Duncan Street, a new sandwich shop in Millvale. Photo credit: Boaz Frankel.