Ariana Quant of Uchiko Talks Sin City and the Sweet Life
Ariana Quant left the bright lights of Las Vegas earlier this year in search of something with a little more soul. A native Texan, Quant grew up in a restaurant owning family in Lubbock. After high school, she left West Texas to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef. After logging countless hours in some of Las Vegas’ finest kitchens, she decided it was time to come home.
In February, Ariana signed on to become Uchiko’s Head Pastry Chef. Over the past eight months, Quant has been hard at work elevating the already notary Uchiko dessert list. Even daring to go where no pastry chef has gone before, revamping the legendary Fried Milk. A dessert first conceptualized by Uchiko’s inaugural pastry chef, Philip Speer. Over the years, the dessert has develop a reputation all on its own. One we take very seriously.
To ensure our Fried Milk is in good hands, we sat down with Quant to get to know here a little better. Spoiler alert: she’s pretty bad ass. In between sorbets and macaroons, Ariana gave us the scoop on Sin City’s most intense kitchens and her sweet life at Uchiko.
Hai Times: What got you into pastry?
Ariana Quant: My mom’s side is very artistic. I use pastry as my creative artistic outlet. You can do it with food too, like savory food. But, I love all the stuff you can do with pastry. I went to The Culinary Institue of America in New York to study pastry for two years. In the middle of my school, I went to San Francisco for my externship, and that was an eye-opener. Being in a different large city for those couple of months was crazy. I hated it. But, it was a great experience. I love San Francisco now and I would definitely go back.
HT: Where was your externship?
AQ: It was a place called Farallon. We had learned about it in school while covering the future of food and where it was going. At the end, they mentioned pastry chef Emily Luchetti out of San Francisco. She had just won a James Beard Award and I just set my mind to working for her. It was awesome. I didn’t get get to work directly with her because she was working on a cookbook when I was there. But I got to work with her pastry chef and sous chef and they were awesome. I’m still in contact with the sous chef over there. They’re always a working influence on me.
HT: Where did you go after you left Farallon?
AQ: I went back to school and finished my bachelors degree. I ended up going to Las Vegas because only Purdue and Cornell were the only other schools that would accept my school credit. I got my first job at Le Cirque, which was pretty awesome. I was a full-time student, full-time working in the industry, and it was a rough year. But it was great, I learned a lot. I was in Vegas for nine years. I just kind of got stuck. I was going to finish up school and then leave–I really wanted to go to Chicago but it just never happened. Vegas just kind of sucks you in and the living is good.
HT: Did you feel very inspired by the people or did you enjoy the lifestyle?
AQ: It wasn’t the lifestyle, but living was comfortable. I wasn’t like “I love being in Vegas because I love the scene here” — I didn’t. The older I got and when I finally left, I realized that in Vegas their food has no soul. It’s very much the sentiment of the town. You very rarely meet people that were born and raised in Vegas, because they’re smart enough to move away. There are a lot of notable people there. There’s a lot of celebrity restaurants, but at that point they are pretty much just lending out their name. At Le Cirque, the Maccioni’s son ran it. That was as close to the family as you got.
HT: Where did you go when you left Le Cirque?
AQ: I took a year off to finish up school and ended up going to miX (now, Rivea), which is an Alain Ducasse restaurant. I was coming into it at the end of their height. That restaurant used to put out around 400 covers a night. It was crazy. But, I wasn’t learning there. I was the PM plater on a station and it was just the same stuff.
HT: So, what was your next move?
AQ: I met a girl while work at miX who shortly after left for Fleur de Lys (now Fleur), which is downstairs from miX at Mandalay Bay. When they asked her to come down, she brought me with her. I really loved it there. Everyone told me not to go because they were scheduled to close, but I followed my gut. We were able to work on a skeleton crew and we were closed Sunday-Monday, so that kitchen was really close. We all hung out together. It was probably one of the best times. I grew a lot in that job because we didn’t have a pastry chef. There was a team of three on pastry, so we really had to work as a unit. I think that’s where I actually started leveling up. I’ve always been really strong at plating, but I hadn’t seen the prep side of pastry until I got to Fleur de Lys. They threw me into the morning shift which always kicked my ass. It was the first time I got to the kitchen and had to start hustling. I had to set up my own mise without someone doing it for me. I spent about two years there before it switched over to a more casual concept and I decided to move on.
HT: And where was your next stop?
AQ: In Vegas at the time there were really only three top restaurants: Guy Savoy, Twist and Joel Robuchon. I ended up at Joel Robuchon located in the MGM. I took a job as a sous chef there. It was my first sous chef position, and it was intimidating. I got there not realizing that everyone was basically a sous. It was a very weird system they had set up. Between the two restaurants he had in Vegas, the name sake and L’Atelier, I think there were like seven or eight pastry sous chefs. The chef that hired me originally, he was really tough. He ended up leaving and we got a new chef from L’Atelier New York after they closed. His name was Salvatore Martone and he was Italian. It was very strange being in a French kitchen with an Italian chef. But Sal was awesome. He had a lot of positive aspects to him and the way he taught all of us and wanted us to learn and how he wanted to put his knowledge on you. It was really great. I had a lot of fun there. I spent three months at Robuchon before L’Atelier pastry got short staffed. They moved me over which felt like a demotion. But it was mainly because they were short staffed. But I loved L’Atelier more than Robuchon. It was a different feel there. It was fun–it felt more like a real restaurant.
HT: What made you decide to come back to Texas?
AQ: I was ready to come home. Vegas just expired. There wasn’t any soul in the food. But cooks out there have it great. You make $20 an hour, you get benefits for like $40 a month, you’re in a union and your job is safe. In Austin, they weren’t about hiring managers. I was lucky when I finally decided to leave Vegas and found this position as head pastry chef.
HT: How was the transition?
AQ: I started here and I was like, all these guys have a lot of heart in what they do… Like, this restaurant in particular. Everyone loves what they do. I’ve never seen a kitchen hustle the way this one does. One day we had an offsite, and the power went out from a storm we had the night before. We all gathered around Chef Sterling as he asked for volunteers to help load and unload. Everybody raised their hands. It was amazing. In Vegas, everybody would have said “not my job” and left. But this staff said “yeah chef, we got you.” Everyone loves this restaurant. Everyone tries every single day. Everyone is held accountable. That’s what I love about this place.
HT: Were you looking for a place like Uchiko, a place where people really love what they do, when you left Vegas?
AQ: I was hoping for it. I already knew Austin was like that–everyone in this town is very supportive. It doesn’t matter if you’re in competition with so and so down the street. Everyone wants to make this food community great because it pushes us all to do better. In Vegas, nobody had to try. It was a tourist town so you were always going to have people at your door. That’s why you didn’t have to be consistent. [In Austin] you have regulars. I have never had to pull so many specials out of my ass! Our guest are coming out every couple of weeks. They want new stuff. And they like it, and they like what we’re doing. You have to keep them interested and you have to keep the lights on.
We like what you’re doing too, Chef. And we can’t wait to sink our teeth into the new and improved Fried Milk. Updates on it’s debut will be rolling out over the next few weeks. Giving you some time to savor a timeless classic.