Caitlin Dysart

Joe Shymanski

For Caitlin Dysart, the pastry chef at Centrolina in Washington, D.C., inspiration comes from her classical French training, her mother’s baking, and any and everywhere else.

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Pastry has captured the hearts of Americans coast to coast, from the cronut in Brooklyn to those cereal- and matcha-dusted churros of Los Angeles. For further proof, look no further than the stories told in the latest installment of the Netflix original series “Chef’s Table” or the continued popularity stateside of “The Great British Baking Show.” If we ask ourselves how this happened, the answer comes in the form of another question: What’s more American than apple pie?

These days, though, pastry is about influences near and far. For Caitlin Dysart, the pastry chef at Centrolina in Washington, D.C., inspiration comes from her classical French training, her mother’s baking, and any and everywhere else.

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For Dysart, pastry is all about technique, innovation, and joy, which she brings to the menu and hearts of diners at the James Beard–nominated restaurant in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. The technicolored performance desserts of Instagram may seem de rigueur these days, but it’s one of Dysart’s simplest recipes that has won favor at Centrolina: The olive oil cake.

“It’s very humble looking,” she says. “It’s a really simple, one-layer cake dusted with powdered sugar. It’s a really nice mix of rich from the olive oil, but not too heavy. It’s the perfect afternoon tea snack. I was surprised; we blow through it.”

It’s not all about looks when it comes to desserts, unlike what social media may tell us these days. In fact, to the contrary, Dysart says—focusing only on a pastry’s aesthetic can be a detriment to the final product.

“There’s no denying that social media is a big factor, especially because pastry is so aesthetic, but it shouldn’t be all aesthetic and that is definitely a trap people fall into,” she says. “But pastry also just tends to be a really fun and colorful presentation, and hits on nostalgia.”

Nostalgia comes through in Dysart’s other most popular confection at Centrolina, the salted oat Nutella bar. Yes, there must be Nutella. Dysart developed the treat based on one of her mother’s concoctions, which turns out to be the source of Dysart’s pastry roots. The chef wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduating from Tulane in 2005. Living in New Orleans post-Katrina meant few businesses were open. Dysart landed at a pastry shop, Sucré. She started as a barista but quickly made her way into the kitchen, taking after her mother, who owned a pastry business that sold at farmers markets in Northern Virginia, where Dysart is from.

“I didn’t know I wanted to be a pastry chef,” she says. “I just felt a natural connection or understanding of the ingredients. And it’s joyful. You’re bringing people joy—people get really excited when they try what you make.”

In 2009, Dysart headed to the French Pastry School in Chicago. After graduating, she returned to the D.C. area and started working at 2941 in Falls Church, Virginia, where she was promoted to pastry chef in 2012. She came to Centrolina in February 2017.

“[Centrolina] aligns with my style because it’s Italian and I have more of a European training, but it’s also different than what I’ve done before, and I was really attracted to that opportunity to explore a new area of pastry,” Dysart says. “My first job was a retail pastry concept and now I get to do restaurant and retail plated desserts, but also bakery items. And there are different challenges between the two.”

Like Dysart’s first job at the pastry shop in New Orleans, Centrolina also has a market where snacks, sandwiches, and pastries are available all day. She says for this reason, pastry is an even more important element to the menu.

“Restaurants will utilize the pastry program in different ways—bread, bon bon, petit four. I just think it adds a selling point for guests and they know you are committed to the meal from start to finish,” she says. “All-day dining is a big trend, and pastry really plays into that going from breakfast to midmorning and midafternoon snacks. It’s not just dessert; it really carries throughout the entire day at an all-day concept.”

Having specialized only in pastry, one may wonder if it’s possible to get bored with sweet treats. But Dsyart says no, there’s always something new to learn.

“You’re constantly taking your playbook, your repertoire of what you know how to do, and trying to mix and match with new flavors and new ideas,” she says. “Everyone has nostalgic connections with pastries and desserts. And people want to share that with you so you’re constantly learning and getting inspiration.”

What’s her perfect pastry? The cream puff. It’s hard to argue with that.