Triad’s chef to the stars takes the cake

by Eric Ginsburg

I usually skip dessert — it’s my delusional way of pretending that I’m eating healthily. There are, of course, always things I’m willing to make exceptions for, but the most worthwhile of all come out of the kitchen at Table 16. There, Winston-Salem native Carmen Vaquera assembles her exceptional bread pudding and mouthwatering tamarind cheesecake.

She started out as a line cook almost three years ago while she was still working on her culinary degree at GTCC, moving up to pastry chef while maintaining different bartending gigs. And now, with the right connection and a honed skill, Vaquera is the personal chef for actor Owen Wilson while he is on set shooting You Are Here with Zack Galafianakis and Amy Poehler in Winston-Salem.

It’s no surprise that Vaquera says she is naturally good at making desserts because of her attention to detail and patience, but what’s more interesting is her relationship to art.

“I always wanted to be an artist but I couldn’t find a medium,” she said. She briefly attended UNCG as an art history major, but now her artistic eye helps her with desserts and her other culinary creations.

Vaquera saved up for two years once she decided to pursue her interest in cooking professionally, practicing whenever she could and spending hours in Barnes & Nobles devouring books on the subject. Anthony Bourdain’s newest book, Medium Rare, sits on her nightstand while she recommends his book Kitchen Confidential to new chefs. Two whole shelves on her bookcase are dedicated to cooking, but she was also influenced by her upbringing, growing up with authentic Mexican food.Other chefs played a crucial roll in her development, including her instructor Keith Gardiner at GTCC, former chef de cuisine AJ Gregson at Table 16 who taught her more than she can measure and Table 16 owner and chef Graham Heaton.

It’s been five years since I traveled to Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico known for its chocolate and mole, and more than three years since I’ve had an authentic tamale. Yet Vaquera’s braisedbeef mole tamale sent me flying back to my short excursion south, my eyes closed as I took time savoring the bite before swallowing.

She prepared them alongside grilled chicken chili verde tamales and roasted jalapeno and mozzarella with chimicurri tamales, and it’s no surprise that they were among Wilson’s favorite dishes she’s prepared for him.

Vaquera’s cooking isn’t limited to dessert and Mexican food, of course. Three times a week, she brings mostly locally sourced, nutrient-dense, organic and vegetarian food to Wilson in Winston- Salem, and also received strong positive feedback for her turkey chili. Some days she misses cooking on the line, though working as a personal chef allows her to experiment with more meals.

“I kind of miss that grit and grime of working on the line,” Vaquera said, “though it’s relaxing and quiet now. I love cooking because it’s so complex and endless.”

I’d like to consider myself relatively cultured and knowledgeable about food, but Vaquera rattled off names of things she cooks that I’d never tried and sometimes never heard of. When I stopped by Table 16 last week — the owner is nice enough to let her use the kitchen to make meals for Wilson — she was working on a turkey roulade, rolling lemongrass sauteed spinach, artichoke hearts and roasted oyster mushrooms inside a turkey breast before roasting it.

While I waited for the pain perdu — a dessert version of French toast — to be ready I snacked on some roasted root-vegetable fries she recently made, dipping the parsnips, carrots and sweet potatoes into a tangy and spicy rhubarb ketchup. Vaquera said they were a healthy alternative to regular fries, and though they certainly tasted superior, she could have presented them to me as dessert.

Unless you’re looking for a personal chef, I strongly recommend Table 16’s dessert menu, with items ranging from $10-12. The portions are generous and more than enough for two — in fact, bring a few friends and split the check multiple ways.

It’s hard to go wrong with an alternating house sorbet — which is currently cherry and Thai basil — or the tart rhubarb and redwinepoached pear.

It’s hard to argue with the rich tamarind cheesecake, and the spicy bark on the side is more than manageable. I’d never tried pain perdu and while I’ve been missing out on a brilliant dish, none of Vaquera’s dishes have topped her white-chocolate bread pudding, which is indescribably excellent. None that I’ve tried yet, at least.