A buzz of anticipation surrounded Garfrerick’s Café last month when Lucy Knight, a young pastry chef trained at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and a native of Calhoun County, was invited by owner David Garfrerick to serve as guest chef.
And just a hint of apprehension.
Within a week of returning home at the end of May, Knight visited the Oxford restaurant and found the entrees to be “pretty much on par” with the New York restaurant she’d just come from. But the desserts, she felt, left room for improvement, so she asked to speak to the owner.
“I talked to Dave about ramping up the dessert menu,” Knight said, ”heightening it a little and giving it a just a bit more complexity.”
Garfrerick, always thrilled to see young people with a passion for culinary arts, was eager to bring her on board. But initially, he said, “some of the things she was proposing I thought, well maybe people will like that. This is a small town in Alabama and I just didn’t know if people would eat a clafoutant.”
Eat it, they did. Knight’s blueberry clafoutant — blueberries and peaches, baked in what Garfrerick describes as a cross between a cobbler and custard, then topped with lemon whipped cream and mint-soaked berries — is not just his favorite of the new dessert items but, according to Knight, is also the customers’ favorite. Well, that or the raspberry chocolate pot de crème, a decadent pudding-like treat garnished with Chambord whipped cream and almond tuile.
“I’ve gotten so many comments like, ‘Wow Dave, you’re really stepping up your dessert menu,’” Garfrerick said.
At the end of this month, Knight, 25, heads to France, where she’ll spend two months immersed in the world of French cuisine, apprenticing first at the estate of Domaine de Bayssac, a bed-and-breakfast in the Cévennes region of southern France, then the restaurant of the Hotel de la Providence, near the town of Clermont-Ferrand.
It’s an opportunity that will expose her to the inner workings of the French culinary industry, which she describes as “more military in style,” as well as regional dishes she could only experience there, like the bed-and-breakfast’s chestnut soup made from nuts harvested on the estate’s farm.
“It’s good for young cooks to travel,” said Knight. “I’m still young and still developing my palate, learning what I like and don’t like.”
One ingredient she already knows she likes is evident from Garfrerick’s current dessert menu, which relies heavily on seasonal items.
“I like working with fresh fruit — that’s one of the things that’s been really nice about being here in the summer,” she said. Last week, she went out to the Garfrerick farm to pick blackberries, which wound up in a parfait with buttermilk cake.
With an admitted weakness for desserts’ savory side, Knight also likes to play around with spices, which she plans to explore with a 10-day trip to Morocco after her stint in France. “I’m saving all my money to eat well,” she said.
Growing up in Choccolocco, it was Knight’s mother who wore the chef’s hat, making her own bread and even a few wedding cakes. “I always asked her why she didn’t open her own bakery,” recalls Knight, even as she herself dreamed of a career on the stage, not in the kitchen.
A trained opera singer, Knight performed with CAST community theater and was active in choir and theater at Faith Christian School. After graduating in 2006, she headed to Birmingham Southern College, where she studied first opera, then musical theater.
She soon joined some friends in Nashville and began pursuing an acting career. In between auditions, she worked as a hostess at Marche Artisan Foods, where she got her first glimpse of the culinary profession.
“It was this small, open-kitchen restaurant, and I got to know some of the chefs,” she said – one of whom told her about the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.
It was that advice she recalled when, as a struggling actress in New York, she looked up one day and realized she “was ready for a different lifestyle.”
Knight applied to FCI, choosing the Classic Pastry Arts program. “I was just kind of drawn to it,” she said. The nine-month program was “really rigorous,” she recalled. “They just throw you in.”
The bulk of Knight’s culinary training to that point consisted of watching her mother in the kitchen — “which was very helpful in the bread unit,” she admitted. But she proved to be a natural, and soon landed in the kitchen of renowned restaurateur Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark, a farm-to-table eatery in Manhattan where she worked until moving back to Alabama.
Before she moves on to the kitchens of France, Knight’s interlude at Garfrerick's has been a win-win for both parties, said the owner. Knight takes with her on-the-job experience, from working on her first line to facing the pressures of a real kitchen.
And Garfrerick's Café is left with the legacy of an innovative young pastry chef. “This is a perfect example of someone going out and developing skills that she can then bring back and transfer into the community,” said Garfrerick.
For Knight, the reward is simple — “desserts just make people really happy.”