In an either/or world (paper or plastic, dog or cat, wine or beer, creamy or crunchy, pie or cake), Nikita Santches is a pie guy. His reason: Once you get the crust down, you can experiment with the filling.
“I’m a chef,” he says. “Chefs throw things together and pastry chefs measure.”
Being “sort of a little bit of a free spirit,” as he puts it, the mostly self-trained Santches takes a freewheeling approach to the classic American dessert. Channeling inspiration that began with a cooking class at Andover High School, he turns out such pie varieties as strawberry-rhubarb with basil and a balsamic drizzle.
Santches likes to mix things up, a reflection, perhaps, of the dual ethnicity reflected in his name (a Russian mother and Spanish father who came here when their son was 12).
“I try to do a different pie every week,” he says. “This week, I made a white-chocolate cherry; I picked the cherries myself. Two weeks ago, I made a mint-blackberry pie with a chocolate crust.”
Another summer pie baked on a whim was his buttermilk-blueberry, which he describes as “kind of a Southern thing — like cheesecake but with buttermilk.” Salt-caramel-apple is his most popular pie. For fall, he says he plans to test his ideas for pear-rosemary and cranberry-apple. Also, “I’m going to try an orange-meringue with a chocolate crust,” he says. “I always try to think outside the box.”
He admits to one failure, an apple-bacon crumble, but quickly adds: “I’m going to come back to it.”
The Food Network’s Iron Chef America has fostered a trend toward unexpected food combinations: Chocolate and salmon at a high-profile fundraiser in Detroit last year, or pistachio-wasabi ice cream at Treat Dreams in Ferndale, for example.
And true to the contemporary cult of food, Santches sports a tattoo of a classic chef’s knife on his left forearm. That inked flourish, plus a rather uncanny resemblance to Justin Timberlake and a hint of a Russian accent, could serve him well as he strives to make it big at age 26.
“Big” already describes the portions of his Rock City Pies, which he sells for $2.50 a slice on weekends at the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale, an indoor bazaar where his free-spirited pastry fits right in with the indie art and design on display. Santches bakes his creations in large, 10-inch, deep-dish pie plates that yield pieces reminiscent of the hefty wedges once served at the famous and former Wolfie Cohen’s deli in Florida.
Behind the eye-catching style, large servings, and flamboyantly unexpected ingredients is pretty much non-stop hard work. Late nights find him laboring in the kitchen of St. Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church in Redford, where he makes the crust for 16 pies in one large batch and divides three types of fillings among them.
Those generous pies generate the approximately 160 slices he sells at the Rust Belt Market each weekend.
“I do all the pies myself,” he says. “I come from a food-service background; you have to do a lot in a very short period of time.”
An even larger workload looms on the horizon for Santches. A local gourmet market has expressed interest in selling his pies. And he has financial backers set to help him open a “fast, casual” restaurant next spring. That’s where things get challenging. Although his food-service experience, which began with a job as a dishwasher at age 14, taught him how to work quickly, he doesn’t want to sacrifice quality to satisfy demands for increasing quantity.
That means he wants to continue to make his signature butter crust with oats (for a nutty taste) himself.
“Quantities are, and will remain, relatively limited,” he says. “I want people to like it. I want it to stay artisanal.”
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