Considering that she’s opened (and closed) multiple restaurants over the past two years, Underbelly Hospitality pastry chef Victoria Dearmond is an expert at tackling change. Eater Houston’s 2018 pastry chef of the year Dearmond works alongside chef Chris Shepherd to create some of the city’s most innovative dishes, sweet or savory.
And now, she’s starting all over again. Fresh off closing One Fifth Mediterranean, the third installment of Shepherd’s ambitious “five restaurants in five years” project, Dearmond is ready to start serving desserts inspired by her childhood at One Fifth Gulf Coast. “I grew up on the Coast, and I’ve lived my whole life there, so this is not a foreign concept to me by any means,” she says. “I went back and got to thinking of what was made for Thanksgiving and Christmas and over the summers when 30 of us would pack into a beach house and just have constant food on rotation for three days.”
On Monday, One Fifth Gulf Coast opened its doors, and Dearmond’s nostalgic desserts are among the brightest offerings on the menu. A classic, towering coconut cake, which Dearmond describes as a “super 1955 Southern Living snowball cake situation,” is updated with toasted coconut and cream cheese frosting. There’s a riff on pineapple upside down cake, a potluck classic, punched up with sesame and sunflower and served with Luxardo cherry sorbet. All of these are in keeping with Dearmond’s approach to making desserts, which can be boiled down to one simple phrase. “Imagine something your grandma would make, but make it slightly upscale,” she says. “That’s always the vibe I’m going for.”
Consulting with One Fifth Gulf Coast chef de cuisine Matt Staph, Dearmond also identified another menu essential: buttermilk pie. As with every lead chef she works with, Dearmond asked Staph to come up with his “must have” dessert for the restaurant, and buttermilk pie was his first choice. A traditional holiday dessert for both chefs, this particular buttermilk pie is amped up with spiced nutmeg shortbread and plum jam. “Buttermilk pie is such a big thing for me,” she says. “My family has always made buttermilk pie, and it was the one thing that Matt asked for.”
Returning to familiarity was exciting for Dearmond, who spent her entire tenure at now-shuttered restaurant Underbelly switching up the menu twice a week. “It changed so much, I was out of ideas,” she says. “My brain was empty.” The menus for Georgia James and One Fifth Mediterranean were tighter, and changed less frequently, but Dearmond is already on the road back to constant change. She has too many ideas to stick to the same menu for One Fifth Gulf Coast’s entire one-year run. Right now, there are currently six desserts on the menu, but don’t expect any specific sweet to stick around.
In a time when restaurants desserts are increasingly over-the-top, competing with photo-obsessed ice cream shops for real estate on influencers’ Instagram feeds, Dearmond’s restraint may be her greatest skill. Known for understated knockouts, she concedes that desserts like Underbelly’s iconic vinegar pie, inspired by a 1960s recipe she found in a book called Hillbilly Cookin, probably don’t have the same Insta-worthy appeal. “Sure, I would probably try a milkshake covered in sprinkles with a piece of cake and a donut and maybe some pie and a sparkler,” she says. “Everything’s over the top, and I just don’t think that’s limited to desserts. Everyone wants to make everything more crazy. But why? Just do it good.”
This is the final installment in a series of profiles on Eater Houston’s 2018 Eater Awards winners. Stay tuned later this year for the 2019 Eater Awards.