Stunning Sweets with Pastry Chef Lisa Marie White
For Lisa Marie White, making pastries came late in life—but it has also put her on a path that was well worth the wait.
Written By: Nancy Vienneau
Photographers: Danielle Atkins
Lisa Marie White is a rockstar pastry chef who came to her profession later than most. Her story is an inspiration, and her baked goods, sheer bites of heaven served in the eateries of the Thompson Nashville hotel, evidence the wisdom of listening to your heart and daring to change.
In 2008, White was 37 years old and hiking the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that stretches across Europe and ends at a shrine in Northwest Spain. She encountered her “a-ha” moment in southern France, near the Spanish border. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from shops in a hillside village stirred her. In a bite, her love of baking was sparked. Once back home in California, she quit her job as a massage therapist and enrolled in the accelerated baking and pastry program at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone in St. Helena, California.
“Because I was older and behind,” White says with a wry smile, “I felt like I had to put my head down, pay my dues, and catch up. I worked two jobs—one as a night baker, one as a teacher’s assistant—while in the program.”
On completion, she became pastry chef at a farm-to-table restaurant in northern California. In 2009, she felt beckoned back to New Orleans, where she had spent time volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Because she admired chef John Besh’s food and community outreach, she contacted him. Soon after, she landed a position at his flagship, Restaurant August.
“I knew I was on the right path because things kept falling into place,” she says. With her hard-earned skills and congenial ways, she quickly moved up within Besh’s hospitality organization. She left August to help open Domenica. In 2015, she and Kelly Fields opened Willa Jean Bakery to wide acclaim, prompting Eater New Orleans to name the duo Chef of the Year—a near meteoric rise, just eight years after her European epiphany.
Always open to opportunities, White felt tugged in a new direction. Knowing that Besh was about to open three concepts inside the Thompson hotel in Nashville, she offered to develop the bread and pastry program for Marsh House, Killebrew coffee shop, and L.A. Jackson rooftop bar. Operating in the hotel world is very different, she notes. “It’s really five operations—we also have banquets and room service. That’s a lot of moving parts. But I have a fantastic team,” she says.
That team, plus fine ingredients, make White’s recipes sing. She’s crazy for Cruze Dairy buttermilk, “from donuts to ice cream,” which also goes into her incomparable biscuits. These multi-layered squares are so butter-rich, they don’t need anything else. (But go ahead: indulge and enjoy.)
White loves experimenting and is never convinced that something is finished. “It cracks my staff up because I always say, ‘What if ?’”
These days, she’s making changes to the bread service at Marsh House (Hawaiian rolls with cultured butter) and playing with the ever-changing array of doughnuts offered in the restaurant’s The Pink Box. She has introduced a stunning banana split, called 1904, so named because that’s the year the iconic dessert was first created. She’s proud of her cinnamon rolls, too, which took a dramatic turn recently when she started baking them in cast-iron.
“It was a revelation,” she says. “The cast-iron made them double in size while keeping them softer.” Duck into Killebrew for a latte and one of these irresistible gems: tender twists, spiced right under a brush of tangy glaze.
Initially, White had planned to be in Nashville just long enough to get her baking programs established at the Thompson. But, after three months, she realized she wanted to stay. New Orleans’ loss became Nashville’s gain. “Nashville is such a welcoming community,” she says. “Kind and authentic.”
Now, she is happy to call Nashville home—and the city is sweeter for it.