by David Hagedorn via washingtonpost.com
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It’s just before 2 p.m., the end of a workday that began at 5:30 a.m. for Dolester Miles, a self-taught pastry chef who, in May, was named the best in the nation by the James Beard Foundation. Wearing a spotless white bib apron over an equally spotless chef coat, with sleeves neatly rolled above her elbows, she stands in the compact kitchen of Bottega restaurant, deftly smoothing a thin layer of whipped cream frosting on a towering, three-layer coconut pecan cake.
She flicks her offset spatula all the way around where the top and sides meet, employing rote precision born of three decades of experience to create a crisp, perfect edge. After she coats the cake with toasted coconut, it’s ready to be picked up by a patron waiting to pay $80 for it, plus tax. Anyone who has eaten that cake, which yields 14 slices, knows two things: that it’s worth every penny, and that the last crumb of it will be snatched up and savored like the last word of a great novel.
Miles, who goes by Dol, oversees a staff of four and the baking production of the four restaurants owned by chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, including their fine-dining flagship, Highlands Bar & Grill.
In addition to the coconut pecan cake, Miles’s fruit cobblers with flaky biscuit tops, her lemon tarts with swirls of caramelized meringue and her silken panna cottas are legendary in Birmingham. She handles with alacrity the array of Southern, Italian and French favorites found on the menus of the Stitts’ restaurants. A prep list 44 items long on the Thursday before Labor Day revealed the breadth of her work. Production included: chocolate pots de crème; citrus shortbreads; hamburger buns; pizza dough; buttermilk tarts; batches of ice creams, sauces, fig jam and frangipane (an almond-based tart filling); polenta cakes; and crème caramels.
Miles was one of 20 semifinalists in the Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Pastry Chef category for five years running, and among its five finalists for the past three years. The awards gala at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House was a celebratory one for the Stitts, too. After being nominated for 10 consecutive years as the nation’s Outstanding Restaurant, Highlands won. The first time Miles was a finalist, she couldn’t believe it.
“I never really understood how the Beard thing goes, how you get nominated and all of that and, you know, from being down South, from Alabama! Most of them be from New York, California, Chicago — all those big places,” she said. “But to be nominated from all the way down here? That was amazing.” (Miles’s fellow 2018 finalists were from New Orleans, Minneapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles.)