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June 27, 2023

Nine questions with Mimosa Grill’s Kaley Laird

Executive chef discusses combining old school background with new school palates.

Editor’s note: This story has been unlocked, courtesy of Mimosa Grill. Support our work by becoming a member.

by Ebony L. Morman

Kaley Laird is the second woman to lead Mimosa Grill’s kitchen. Photo courtesy

Chef Kaley Laird has held various roles in several kitchens in California, including pastry chef at Michelin-starred Ubuntu Restaurant in Napa. She spent five years in Asheville working as Rhubarb and The Rhu’s executive pastry chef and, more recently, she held the same role at Noble Food & Pursuits in Charlotte. The western New York native relocated here two years ago in pursuit of more diversity and a vibrant food and beverage scene.

Earlier this year, Laird, who was classically trained at Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park Campus, became the second female executive chef in Mimosa Grill’s history to lead the kitchen.

Unpretentious Palate: What’s your background?
Kaley Laird: I went to school for pastry and then restaurant entrepreneurship. I chose pastry because I thought anyone can cook, but pastry is harder. In my career, it has been a very hard push for pastry chefs because some places can’t afford pastry chefs and they don’t usually get the attention that they deserve. I really kind of found my own place in pastry and creating positions for myself with a very unique style that I developed while I was in California. I worked at a place called Ubuntu, where we had our own garden and we had a no-waste kitchen. My chef would say we had turnips and he needed help using them, so I needed to figure something out for pastry. It made me step outside of the box of what people know is proper food and push the limit. This led to me wanting to take an executive chef role and play with food in different ways. It helped me develop the style I use today, which is to play with savory and sweet and kind of tiptoe that line to get people to open their mind.

UP: How did your career in hospitality start?
KL: I grew up old school. We didn’t really go out to eat. My parents cooked as much as they could at home and we had to sit down at dinner together. I wouldn’t say they cooked well and as a kid you eat whatever there is. But as I got older, I started watching the Food Network and realized there’s more food out there. I wanted to learn about that and be a part of that. When I was younger, my mom got me into baking Christmas cookies, so that was what got me interested in baking. My grandmother loved the cakes I would make, so that kept me in the baking realm. I just wanted to start with changing my family’s mind on food, make better food, be able to enjoy better food, and experience what more there was out there.

UP: Does your culinary point of view tend to skew more savory or pastry? What is your preference?
KL: I don’t really have a preference. I like to play with food. Again, there’s no limit. If I can play with all avenues of food all day long, that’s what makes me happy. Right now, I’m pickling peaches and making a sweet and savory zucchini relish and preserving some of these fruits that we are now getting an abundance from the farm. They can be either used on desserts, if Megan wants to, or they can go for savory.

UP: What’s your favorite aspect of what you do?
KL: The people. Hospitality is a service industry and we don’t really do it for ourselves. I love the food but the food isn’t anything without the customers.

UP: What’s something unexpected about you?
KL: People are surprised that I can cook savory foods the way I do because I have a good pastry background.

UP: How has Mimosa’s new menu been influenced by your experiences? What was your thought-process while creating the restaurant’s new menu?
KL: Within reason, I would say all the menu is influenced by my experiences but I also keep in mind that we do have a clientele base that was here before me. I’m also testing smaller plates, a little bit more ala carte. We are slowly moving into all that and bringing it back to the real, true farm to table. We are working with local vendors as much as we can, keeping it seasonal as we can, and changing the menu a little bit more often. We’re also leaving room to be more playful, like around the holidays. We’re looking to have a chef dinner series to help promote different styles of cuisine. We’re working on one where predominantly female chefs will host a pastry to savory style dinner. A lot of the female chefs in the city do have a pastry background. So, we will be honoring where we came from and why we do and how we do it.

UP: As Mimosa’s second female chef, what approach are you hoping to bring to both the menu and restaurant?
KL: I’m hoping to bring a lighter, more refined cuisine, everything with a little bit more of a feminine touch. So, plating that is prettier and nicer, farm to table, and Southern food that’s not going to weigh you down. We have a pastry chef, Megan Caraway, who will create homemade desserts. From an operations perspective and how we handle the kitchen, it’s a team environment where we respect one another.

What’s something important that you learned from being a pastry chef at Michelin-starred Ubuntu Restaurant in Napa?
KL: I learned about the style of food and service, down to how we have our kitchen. We labeled things, there was no waste, we kept stations clean, and learned about plate presentations. It’s a different style of culture that is hard to find these days. It really reshaped how you look at food, how you work with food, and how to keep your kitchen clean and organized. I have a sous chef who’s been working with me at Mimosa the past couple of weeks, helping reorganize and redesign how we store things.

UP: How would you describe your approach to food and pastry?
KL: My approach is that there are no limits and there are no rules. A lot of people kind of operate with what they know and they’ll say mushroom doesn’t belong in pastry or chocolate doesn’t belong in savory. By nature, I’m a rule bender.  I like to take things that people wouldn’t think would work and prove them wrong. We have trout on the menu right now. And it is a savory dish but I have a lemon curd on the dish and it’s light, bright, and delicious. It plays very savory, but also incorporates pastry techniques. It’s the same with pastry. I like to incorporate savory items or savory techniques that play well. For instance, in the past I’ve taken turnips and added brown butter, brown sugar, and a little Sherry vinegar. Then, roasted a candied turnip with chocolate, cardamon, and banana. It’s a very delicious dessert that a lot of people don’t think about. You do have to do the level of education because some people are afraid to try things. But, usually if you can convince someone to try something, it’ll open them up to other avenues.

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