Grilling the Chef: Nomad Coffee Head Baker Chris Johnson Knows Croissants | Grilling the Chef | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Grilling the Chef

Grilling the Chef: Nomad Coffee Head Baker Chris Johnson Knows Croissants

By

Published January 11, 2022 at 4:26 p.m.
Updated January 12, 2022 at 10:07 a.m.


Chris Johnson - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Chris Johnson

Chef Chris Johnson

  • Position: Head baker for Nomad Coffee
  • Location: Burlington
  • Age: 42
  • Education: Self-taught and on-the-job training
  • Experience: Production baking and pastry chef roles at New York City's Dominique Ansel Bakery, Ovenly, Bouchon Bakery and Per Se; placed second on Food Network's "Chopped Sweets" in May 2021
  • What's on the menu? Croissants, chocolate croissants, kouign-amanns and other laminated pastries; zesty muffins; traditional tarts

Later this month, Nomad Coffee is trading its original mobile trailer in Essex Junction for a brick-and-mortar café across the street. Nicole Grinstead and Andrew Sepic first parked their coffee cart on the green near Five Corners in 2016 and have since added a seasonal location at Sugarbush Resort in Warren and a café in Burlington called South End Station.

Nomad is undoubtedly a fixture in the local coffee scene — mobile or not. Now, with the addition of head baker Chris Johnson, it's a pastry destination, too.

Johnson joined the Nomad team in August 2021, a few months after moving to Winooski from New York City, where he had been working for the inventor of the Cronut, Dominique Ansel. Johnson has been baking for only seven years, but he spent three of those at Ansel's bakeries, where he focused on lamination: folding layer upon layer of butter into dough to make flaky croissants and caramelized kouign-amanns. That experience — and time on the pastry team at Thomas Keller's three-Michelin-starred restaurant Per Se — caught Sepic's eye.

"Chris had lots of other opportunities to work with great local companies," Sepic said. "He decided that taking ownership of our bakery and helping us define a place for our baked goods in the local scene was appealing."

Johnson works out of Nomad's Burlington café, where he bakes his own layered, butter-filled treats — as well as scones, cookies and other pastries — for all three locations.

A few weeks before the opening of Nomad's new Essex Junction café, Johnson spoke with Seven Days about making wildly popular pastries, what brought him to Vermont and the ideal number of layers in a croissant.

Chris Johnson rolling croissants - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Chris Johnson rolling croissants

SEVEN DAYS: One of my favorite pastries you make at Nomad is the kouign-amann. They're unusual around here, and the name is sort of intimidating to pronounce. How do you describe them?

CHRIS JOHNSON: Kaween-ah-mahn. My favorite description is the most simple: It's a caramelized croissant. It's layers of butter, sugar and flour, repeated over and over and folded together until you get something that has a sweet, buttery center and a slightly soft and crunchy outside with a caramelized bottom.

SD: So you're really putting those lamination skills you honed at Dominique Ansel Bakery to work.

CJ: The first thing I learned to laminate was actually a kouign-amann. Chef Dominique started me there, then as I progressed he taught me the croissants. When I was responsible for the morning bake-off at his bakery, he would come in every day and cut a kouign-amann in half, cut a croissant in half and say, "What do you think?" And we would talk about the composition: Does it have the right taste? What does the crumb look like? From that, I recognized that it's a process that never ends, a constant refinement. When I look at a croissant, it's the item that I strive for the most perfection on.

SD: How many layers of butter and dough are you shooting for?

CJ: I'll go with what Chef Dominique told me. He's always said 32 layers makes the perfect croissant. I like more. I think there should be more.

A croissant should be crunchy outside and soft in the center. It should be basically all over your front when you bite into it. People will know you had it.

For the last few years, I've been going out of my way to try them in many places — like airports, Starbucks, wherever. Oftentimes, croissants are a sad affair. They're so lifeless and pale. I think a lot of people are introduced to the most boring version of a croissant.

SD: Then there's the most exciting version of the croissant — the Cronut. As someone who spent a fair bit of time waiting in line on a SoHo sidewalk for the croissant-doughnut hybrid in 2013, when it was invented, I'm curious how many you made.

CJ: For one full year, I was responsible for the actual production of the Cronut. I would fry them, fill [them] and do the icing so that they were ready every day. And then, when I was on the lamination team, my job was to physically make the dough, laminate and then cut all of them.

Monday through Friday, you're making 400 to 500 Cronuts. Weekends, it's 600 to 800. I haven't done the actual numbers.

SD: That's a lot of pressure! What makes a pastry such an internet sensation?

CJ: It has to be new. They were planning flavors a year in advance, tracking them on a massive spreadsheet so they didn't repeat flavors. I was there for the Cronut's fifth anniversary and [for] when we did Cronut holes.

SD: So what's your Cronut going to be? Which pastry is going to make people line up outside Nomad?

CJ: I've been trying to cement our kouign-amann following so that I can start doing filled kouign-amanns. I've got a Nutella kouign-amann that I really want to roll out, and we've been making some really good jams. I've recently been trying to perfect a crème brûlée filling that I want to try. Having the opportunity to make what I like is exhilarating. At the same time, I'm flabbergasted when people tell me they love something.

SD: You've worked at some of the most famous bakeries and restaurants in New York City. What brought you to Vermont?

CJ: I worked every day through 2020 in what was one of the craziest times both for [Dominique Ansel's] business and the city. Being in the food service industry, you're really on the front lines of the COVID pandemic. And on top of that, they were shutting down subways, and I was doing all these crazy things just to get to work in the middle of the night.

I had been souring on the city, and I wanted to be closer to family in Massachusetts. I hadn't spent a lot of time in Vermont, but I had some really nice memories of Burlington and thought it would be a good change of pace.

SD: Have you always been a baker?

CJ: I started baking in 2015. I was staying with family friends while I was saving to buy my first apartment in New York. It was their anniversary, and I didn't really have anything to give them, so I decided to make them a molten chocolate cake. They loved the one from a restaurant I managed when I lived in Boston called Finale [Desserterie].

I'd never made the thing before, but I found a recipe, and it came out amazing. It really did. They cut into the cake, and it oozed chocolate all over.

SD: What made you take the leap to professional pastry chef?

CJ: I was working at a newspaper at the time doing advertising sales and freelance photography, and I decided to bake something every day and bring it into work, increasing the difficulty until I found something I couldn't do. My coworkers kept saying, "You should be a chef!" I was like, "Guys, I work with you. I have a job. You can just say you like the cookies." But I kept pushing myself until eventually I decided to see if I could get a part-time job as a baker's assistant.

Chris Johnson folding butter into dough during the lamination process - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Chris Johnson folding butter into dough during the lamination process

SD: Did you bring a molten chocolate cake to the interview?

CJ: Espresso cupcakes. The woman was the nicest person I've ever interviewed with. She took the cupcakes, pulled one apart, smelled it, ate it and asked, "Is this from a box?" [Laughing] It wasn't. I made it from scratch. I had no baking experience, but she liked my enthusiasm and let me be a baker's assistant.

SD: Besides espresso cupcakes, do you have a favorite coffee and pastry pairing?

CJ: One of the things that's been really enlightening for me is working with Andrew [Sepic] and learning about coffee. Like wine, each coffee has different notes that you're tasting. We've been running an Ethiopian coffee with floral notes, and I love the way that pairs with a muffin. You can taste the citrus. We make our muffins with lemon zest, and I've been doing a mixed berry muffin recently that goes really well.

SD: What are you working on for the soon-to-open Essex Junction location?

CJ: I'll be introducing more traditional pastries, like lemon tarts and a chestnut tart with layers of almond cream, walnuts, chestnuts and caramel. We just started doing bread and soup [in Burlington], and I'm baking bread for that, too.

SD: You use baking puns regularly in your Instagram captions. Can I put you on the spot?

CJ: It would make the world a butter place.

SD: You can keep going if you wish.

CJ: Well, when I'm making croissants, I'm on a roll.

SD: Thank you for indulging me.

CJ: There's muffin to it.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Butter Place"