Pastry Chef Dwayne Ingraham Tells Southern Stories In Sweet Dishes
You might recognize Pastry Chef Dwayne Ingraham from Food Network’s inaugural season of Best Baker in America, which he won, or more recently as a competitor on Chopped Sweets.
Or, perhaps you know Ingraham from his time leading the pastry program at John Currence’s City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, Mississippi, where he punctuated meals at establishments like City Grocery and Bouré with perfected Southern staples like buttermilk chess pie. Ingraham has since relocated to Nashville, where he was Executive Pastry Chef at 5th & Taylor until he left to take the next step in his career.
Soon, Ingraham will bring his simple ingredients, foolproof techniques, and hospitable demeanor to our screens in the form of his own cooking show. It will be the first from the production company—aptly named The Grits Carlton—that he formed with culinary school colleague David Romaine.
This August, Ingraham took the win on Chopped Sweets in a show of baking prowess that in one round involved hand pies with a filling made of fruit and margarita jell-o shots thrown at the competitors as a curveball ingredient. Ingraham labored for the win in each challenge, never straying far from his Southern roots. In a decision that perhaps pushed him beyond his competitors, he refused to use store-bought pie crust for his hand pies in spite of the time crunch.
If there’s anything Ingraham isn’t going to take, it’s a shortcut with baking. His time-tested methods and delicious ingredients are what satisfies him as a perfectionist.
“I am a firm believer that if you’re going to call it ice cream, it’s got to have eggs, there’s got to be a custard that is made, that has been churned.” Ingraham said. “Certain things, those traditions, and those time invested techniques were there for a reason, they’ve lasted this long for a reason. It’s the base of what makes cooking cooking.”
But for Ingraham, what matters most with any dish are the stories and memories behind it. That’s why Ingraham bakes. That’s why he loves to share his time-perfected recipes. Because a simple Southern dessert done well can be the anchor of a story that stays with you forever.
Ingraham grew up in Boothville, Louisiana, “down where the mouth of the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico.” His memories of food are filled with made-from-scratch desserts like sweet potato pie, bread pudding, pound cakes, and sweets riffs on local fare, like strawberries fresh from the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival. At the root of Ingraham’s Southern experience and how it influences his relationship with cooking today is that “food is more than just sustenance for the body. At the same time, it’s sustenance for the soul. It’s the way we express our love and affection, and I think that’s what I’ve always taken from my family experience growing up… And that’s what I’m trying my best to carry on every time I bake something or I share something with someone... If I’m taking the time to feed you, really what I’m saying is, ‘I love you.’”
Ingraham trained at the New England Culinary Institute and later crafted desserts at fine dining spots in Las Vegas. He can roll croissants and pipe éclairs, but what he does best is take Southern ingredients and find ways to make them shine.
“I always say that Vegas brought me refinement. Vermont brought me technique, but the South gave me soul,” Ingraham said.
Indeed, it shows in his dishes that Ingraham is a product of the South, whether he’s paying homage to the peak season Louisiana strawberries of his childhood, or poaching fresh peaches in his drink of choice, bourbon, and serving it with a vanilla pound cake and a scoop of ice cream.
“What I love about the craft is this concept of being able to take these simple ingredients and techniques and actually produce something that is tasty and flavorful and speaks to who we are as a culture,” Ingraham said.
Ingraham’s journey has brought him closer to his own culture and upbringing as an African American in the South. He represents that through his desserts and his appearances on television. Though he does it with grace and always exuding hospitality, Ingraham admits there’s a certain pressure that has always followed him.
“I feel that as an African American pastry chef, that the weight is always on my shoulders to produce above and beyond. That comes from my upbringing. As a young Black man in general, I was always taught that you have to be three times better than your counterpart in order to be seen,” Ingraham said. “I’m not here to judge whether or not that’s right or that's fair. I don’t feel like that is my place. But that’s the way I feel in anything I do, whether it’s cooking, whether it’s speaking, whether it’s riding a bike. That’s the world I grew up in, that’s the world that I live in… The Lord never promised it would be fair, he just promised he would make a way.”
At the end of the day, his goal is simply to put delicious food full of memories and love on the table.
The South carries a certain historical weight for African Americans, but it’s also where the influence of their foodways remains an important part of the culinary experience for all of us.
“We’ve been through some struggles, but when it comes to food, [the South] is very blended. Meaning that, we all love collard greens, and we all love cornbread. We all love… gumbo. Or red beans and rice when you’re in New Orleans. Every family makes those dishes.”
And it’s that chance for connection, for a sharing of cultures and stories through food, that Ingraham lives for. Take the quintessential Louisiana staple gumbo. Most people have specific memories attached to these large, often celebratory meals.
“When the gumbo pot came out, first of all, it was either a big family gathering… Now everybody’s at Grandma’s, and the kids are outside playing in the backyard… and the old folks are sitting around the table, talking and laughing and joking… There’s these memories that are shared with that [dish]. When I see that, when I smell that… It tells this very humanized version of my family. So even if you don’t know me, if you can hear that story, then that makes us a little bit closer. It almost invites you in… All of a sudden you realize how undifferent we truly are.”
When his show debuts, these are the types of stories he hopes to share, and the types of stories his viewers may then attach to his recipes.
The show, which will stream online, is “me taking my Southern heritage and memories and mixing them with my Vermont technique and hopefully finishing it off with my Vegas refinement to give you a dish that you’ll love and remember and cherish to feed your soul,” Ingraham said.
Romaine says he is looking forward to seeing Ingraham’s recipes for simple, delicious staples like chocolate chip cookies and vanilla ice cream come to life. “I'm excited to share his path to perfection with everyone,” Romaine said.
Also coming from the Grits Carlton this fall is a children’s book titled “Wee, Chef,” which follows two little girls as they make their mom’s favorite recipe, tiramisu. Inspired by Romaine’s two daughters, the book aims to empower young girls not to be scared of professional kitchens. The restaurant industry, historically, has been a very male-driven space, and Ingraham and Romaine hope to take away some of the intimidation for young girls.