As if Casona of Collingswood weren't already famous enough for its food, celebrity pastry chef Brian DeMuro has upped the ante.
Three weeks ago, Casona hired DeMuro—who won season one of The Food Network's Sweet Genius television show—on a whim, making him the restaurant's new pastry chef.
The Blackwood-born and -bred DeMuro, 32, and his fiance recently came to Casona for dinner. And after his first taste, DeMuro knew he had to be a part of the team.
"It was the first time I'd ever eaten here. And one try was all I needed," said DeMuro, who followed the meal by asking if Casona needed a pastry chef. "Casona's Tres Leches (dessert) was what brought me here (to stay). Because, after that dinner, I called over the manager and said, 'Do you need (a pastry chef), because your Tres Leches is the best I've ever had.'"
And, when presented with the employment request, Casona Owner Mark Infantado was immediately on board to hire.
"I was working the night Brian and his fiance came in for dinner. I remember seating them and setting them up with wine and appetizers," said Infantado. "And the next day, (our manager) asked me if Brian could come work here. I said okay, great, sure."
Among DeMuro's fresh new selections? His first addition, a new and improved version of Casona's former flan dish; Lavender panna cotta with fresh berries drizzled in golden honey; a flourless chocolate cake served with creme anglaise and a strawberry coulis—and more.
The only dessert recipe DeMuro vowed never to alter? Casona's Tres Leches. While presentation has seen adjustments, its ingredients never will.
And each week, DeMuro features new cheesecake and dessert specials.
Much of the journey that brought DeMuro to Casona has been followed publicly.
After graduating from the Art Institute of Philadelphia for pastry in 2004, DeMuro chose to continue his studies, and later obtained a culinary degree. Though he's qualified to practice both arts, DeMuro could never shake his sweet tooth.
"I have a culinary and pastry background, but my passion is desserts," he said.
His professional roster showcases previous employment at Philadelphia haunts such as Brasserie Perrier, Frederick's Italian Cuisine, and renowned South Philly pastry shop Isgro Pasticceria.
But in July of 2011, DeMuro's career skyrocketed when he filmed—and later won—season one of Sweet Genius, which aired on The Food Network in Sept. of last year.
On the show, a number of pastry chefs competed to make themed desserts. Kickers were thrown in, with new, extremely odd ingredients thrown into the mix midway through each baker's challenge.
Of the show's three rounds, DeMuro cited the first as being most difficult.
"The toughest dessert I had to make on that show was in round one, which was a frozen dessert theme," he said. "Our inspiration was an oyster with a pearl inside. Our mystery ingredient was a hard-boiled egg, which was stressful to incorporate. And halfway through the plate, we were presented with, and asked to incorporate, dragonfruit. If you've never seen a dragonfruit, it literally looks like a hot pink eggplant."
DeMuro attributed his culinary background as being what got him past round one—and all remaining challenges.
"For round one, I took a puff pastry and made a dessert cup to represent the oyster," he said. "Then, I made vanilla ice cream, candied the egg yolk to represent the pearl, and served it with a raspberry and dragonfruit compote."
It proved to be one of multiple obstacles DeMuro overcame, earning him the title of Sweet Genius' season one winner. The success secured DeMuro another spot on The Food Network show—which is currently being scheduled for filming, and will feature winners from each season going head-to-head.
In the meantime, as he waits for filming to begin on the championship show, DeMuro's been reveling in another win.
"I spent my $10,000 (season one grand prize) well," he said. "I got engaged."
As the couple work toward their wedding, they're keeping another goal in mind.
"We're planning the wedding, but haven't set a date yet. We're actually in the middle of trying to have a baby first," said DeMuro, a grin immediately spreading from ear to ear.
In addition to his 5-day work weeks at Casona, DeMuro moonlights as a professional mixed-martial arts fighter.
"I've been in martial arts since I was 12. Halfway to my black belt in Aikido, I switched to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu," said DeMuro, who also trains in Muay Thie. "I've been fighting professionally for the past six years. So far, all of my fights have been in Atlantic City."
But with Casona his new home, DeMuro's primary fights will be had in the kitchen.
"I love it here because everything's made fresh. The atmosphere is laid-back, and the food is absolutely amazing. I knew right away I wanted my desserts to mesh with the unbelievable food I tasted here," he said.
This spring, once clientele is familiar with Casona's new pastries—and more fruits are available—DeMuro plans to introduce a Cuban edge to the dessert menu.
"Before this, our executive chef Pedro Reyes was in charge of desserts as well as our other dishes," said Casona Owner Mark Infantado. "Not only will (hiring a pastry chef) give Pedro more time to concentrate on his food, but I think (DeMuro is a great addition to the restaurant. We're looking forward to a great future with him."
Sometime after Valentine's Day, Chef Brian DeMuro will be hosting private cooking classes in Casona's upstairs kitchen and dining area, a secluded section of the restaurant usually reserved for private parties. In addition to DeMuro's dessert/baking demonstration, classes will include lessons from executive chef Pedro Reyes, who will teach guests to make his renowned culinary dishes. Class dates and pricing have yet to be determined; check back with Patch for details.