Katherine Hamilburg CE/DS ’08 knew she needed a maple dessert for the winter menu at 80 Thoreau, the seasonally inspired fine-dining restaurant in Concord, Mass., where she works as pastry chef. Oatmeal would be an obvious ingredient to incorporate with her new offering, a maple panna cotta (Italian for “cooked cream”). But Katherine likes to present more unexpected combinations. “I was in the shower, tormenting myself,” she recalls. Then it came to her: “Quinoa! It’s nutty; it’s a grain. I prepare the quinoa so that it’s fluffy and dress it with maple syrup, lemon juice, a little oil, pomegranate seeds, some diced apple, and a bit of candied fennel.” The result is a surprising and delicious contrast in textures and flavors.
“I don’t think desserts should be 100 percent all-sweet,” says Katherine, who works alongside Executive Chef Carolyn Johnson ’96. “I like to use herbs and savory elements to keep a balance.” On another plate, rosemary and port are the contrasting notes for a chocolate semifreddo. When Katherine goes out to dinner, dessert—if she orders it at all—is often a cheese plate, although she is sometimes drawn to an unusual combination like a toasted vanilla-bean pound cake served with sarsaparilla-root ice cream and caramel sauce.
The discipline, precision, and attention to detail that pastry requires were also valued qualities in Katherine’s earlier career as a professional ballerina. She danced with the Boston Ballet and Sarasota Ballet of Florida. “Both require a bit of tunnel vision,” she says. “But you have to keep it in perspective. What I’m doing isn’t cancer research or rocket science. It’s nice if I can bring some enjoyment to people’s lives. The same was true of dance.”
After fulfilling her commitment in Sarasota, Katherine was ready to accept deferred admission to Wellesley. She worked as a hostess at Alta Strada in the Vil and at a Legal Sea Foods in Framingham while pursuing her degree in art history and interning at Skinner auctioneers. Shortly after she graduated, the 2008 financial crisis hit. “There weren’t any positions available at Skinner, although I wasn’t sure an auction house would be right for me anyway,” says Katherine. “Honestly, what I love about art history is being in the stacks, doing research.”
The jump to pastry wasn’t completely out of the blue: Growing up in Wayland, Mass., Katherine and her sister would pretend to have their own cooking show. “I’ve always loved food and baking,” she says. After studying under Delphin Gomes at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, she worked at Bread and Chocolate in Newton and Bergamot in Somerville.
The limited kitchen space at 80 Thoreau means that Katherine’s daily routine starts at 6 A.M., four hours before staff begin trickling in to prepare for dinner. She usually wraps up the day by early afternoon, but sometimes comes back to help with dinner service. “We are in the business of selling desserts—first and foremost, I want everything I make to taste really, really good,” Hamilburg says. “The maple panna cotta might not appeal to everyone,” she concedes. “We have a mixed clientele between people who want something more unusual and those who want a simple, well-executed tart or cake. It’s a matter of finding a balance.”