When the Dessert Professional Magazine named their “Top Ten Pastry Chefs in North America” and Austrian Pastry Chef Alex Grunert made the list, he said his own grandmother was still not impressed. She said she never heard about his pastry work at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare in Brooklyn, or at the catering and retail operation he now runs at Chef’s Table’s Pastry Shop in Manhattan. Although his grandmother is tough to impress, Grunert has impressed critics and consumers alike for many years.
Grunert started by attending culinary school in his home of Vienna, Austria twice a week and supporting himself by working in kitchens the rest of the time. His first long-term place of employment was the Hotel Intercontinental Restaurant, working under chef Manfred Buchinger at the restaurant 4 Jahreszeiten. After eight years at the hotel, Grunert moved on to the famous Oberlaa Konditorei Pastry Shop in Vienna where he worked under Karl Schumancher and mastered chocolate as well as the incredibly detailed and artistic pastries he puts forth today. The Austrian native came to the United States and worked under David Bouley at the renowned Danube restaurant where he rose to Executive Pastry Chef and eventually took over as Pastry Chef at Bouley’s other, self-titled restaurant, Bouley.
In a move that he said was a new and challenging shift for him as a chef, Grunert left the city in 2008 and took over pastry duties at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. He said this challenged him because while Bouley’s restaurants ordered him whatever ingredients he desired regardless of season, he was forced to limit himself to what was seasonally available and local from the farm at Stone Barns. This adjustment has influenced his present day pastry shop in Manhattan, where the menu is as “seasonal as possible” and is sourced from the Union Square market three times a week in late spring, summer and early fall. Stone Barns’ co-owner/chef Dan Barber (and author of the New York Times Best Selling Book The Third Plate) had what Grunert called “a huge influence on my career path”. After his stint at Stone Barns, a newly inspired Grunert moved to Chef’s Table in Manhattan for six months. He eventually moved to the restaurant location in Brooklyn for eight months before settling back into the Manhattan shop.
Grunert misses the intensity and pressure of the kitchen and being in the back of the house, saying that the amount of time he has is a bit much at the shop. However that time means him and one other chef produce all of the pastries for Chef’s Table, including chocolates, macaroons, cakes and strudels. Everything Grunert concocts is influenced by his home country of Vienna and people he’s worked under such as David Bouley who he considers his primary mentor.
Now that he has returned to the city, the renowned chef sees NYC as a “big place” where the competition “drives you to be better”, an environment that he clearly thrives in. Other challenges for Grunert are adapting his techniques to the needs of his customers. He loves making gluten, egg free and chocolate free concoctions for his customers, something he said is totally different from traditional Viennese pastries. He admits to struggling with completely vegan pastries although he is doing his best to improve upon those skills. Grunert’s other self-admitted struggle is social media, something he said he wants to see expand as a way to bring people into his shop since now he said most of his clientele comes in via word of mouth recommendations or online reviews. On the technology front, the more old-school pastry chef has no desire to be on television, although he does aspire to publish a book in the near future.
For Grunert, his drive originates from “making people happy” and “putting a smile on their face” when they eat his pastries. His long-term goal is to have them smiling in his own Viennese coffee and pastry store or a culinary education program, both of which he wants to get started on in the next few years. Being named one of the Top Ten Pastry Chefs in North America is just the “icing on the cake” for a chef who has carved out a spot as one of the best and brightest in the country. He has succeeded everywhere he has been and the future looks very promising for this pastry chef.