4 December, 2022, 02:57

Propelled by Pastries: Kianna Kilgore’s journey as a pastry chef

“I don’t need a huge chef’s knife or another baking tool tattoo to prove what I do."

With five brothers and a sister all growing up under the same roof in Phoenix, Kianna Kilgore reportedly had to tap into her creative faculties to compete for her parents’ attention.

Little Kianna, a wannabe movie star with a flair for the dramatic, embraced a strategy that put her self-described “sassy and smarty-pants attitude” on center stage. This definitely got her the attention that she was after but often landed her in the doghouse.

Kianna Kilgore of Ares Collective (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Kianna Kilgore

“While my fiancé would probably disagree with me, this is something that I’ve calmed down over the years as I try to snap back from the sass in fun and with love,” said Kilgore.

Sass. Attitude. Love. Fun. Four things that have undoubtedly contributed to her success as the corporate pastry chef for Ares Collective, which owns and operates Commoner & Co., Flora’s Market Run, and the Tucson and Scottsdale locations of Prep & Pastry.

Kianna Kilgore of Ares Collective (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Kilgore’s starting point as a baker was at age 12 when she began experimenting with what she calls “the simplest thing that a baker can make,” the chocolate chip cookie.

“It became a hobby for me, and I’d get great feedback from all my siblings and my parents every time I’d tweak my recipe,” said Kilgore. “It was my first time taking a recipe apart and thinking about ways to improve it, and suddenly there were lots of people who wanted to try my treats, which for me was a real reward for my work.”

That was just the beginning of the rewards for her work, coming from supervisors during her five-year stint at In-N-Out Burger right out of high school, from clients as a personal chef, and from her instructors and faculty advisors in the Culinary Arts Program at Pima Community College.

Kianna Kilgore of Ares Collective (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

“I was labeled a little bit lazy as a kid and I just wasn’t applying myself in ways that my parents and teachers knew that I could,” she remembered. “So, when I started to work in kitchens, I knew I needed to push myself, and that resulted in recognition from my managers, which then inspired me to work even harder.”

As Kilgore’s chief cheerleader, her fiancé pushed her to apply at Prep & Pastry upon graduation from culinary school but she hesitated.

“I remember thinking that Prep & Pastry is certainly not a starting point for a career in pastry work, it’s the pinnacle, and I thought I needed to learn more before I even considered applying there,” she said. But she ultimately gave in and soon found herself being interviewed by “a really cool chick with piercings and tattoos” who hired her on the spot.

The pierced and tatted-up chick was Hannah Houlden, now the owner of a local vegan bakery, who immediately became Kilgore’s mentor.

“I truly felt at home with chef Hannah in a restaurant that cares so much about its pastry program that it’s in their very name,” said Kilgore. “I got started right away making biscuits, croissants, brioche for our French toast, English muffins, and learning how to structure my mornings to accomplish all of this along with preparing our beautiful pastries.”

Kianna Kilgore of Ares Collective (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

She also added a few tattoos and piercings of her own to a previously blank canvas, which she said, “Allows me to creatively express myself through my work as well as through my body.”

The one tattoo that Kilgore says most closely connects to her passion for baking is Kiki, a pastry-delivering witch from the Japanese animated film Kiki’s Delivery Service that she often watched as a kid.

Kianna Kilgore of Ares Collective (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Kianna Kilgore’s tattoo inspired by “Kiki’s Delivery Service”

“I don’t need a huge chef’s knife or another baking tool tattoo to prove what I do,” she said. “Kiki was part of my childhood, she expresses what I do, and she’s a big piece of my story.”

Kilgore moved back home to Phoenix after nearly a year at Prep & Pastry, which was the plan after her fiancé graduated from the University of Arizona. She worked as a pastry chef and line cook at True Food Kitchen, and as a baker/glazer at the Donut Bar where she perfected her donut grilled cheese and donut Monte Cristo skills. But it wasn’t long after returning to the Valley that she was hired as executive pastry chef at Prep & Pastry’s Scottsdale location, followed by a bump up to Prep & Pastry’s corporate brand pastry chef, and a continued ascension to her current gig as Ares Collective’s corporate pastry chef.

Kianna Kilgore of Ares Collective (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Anchoring Kilgore’s work is her commitment to ensuring that pastry items and flavors are on brand with the company.

“For me, this started at Prep & Pastry, where our guests have come to expect a little bit of whimsy,” she said. “They should experience flavors that they don’t experience often, like our Maple Bacon Doissants, Cheesecake Croissants, Chocolate Malt Shake Doughnuts, that sort of thing. And that approach of connecting a brand to flavors in the context of confections carries through our other concepts as well.”

Kianna Kilgore of Ares Collective (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Today, Kilgore oversees a team of eight bakers, some of whom start their day at 2 a.m. She’s quick to heap praises on them as someone who valued feedback and recognition during those early days in the kitchen.

“I love to empower my bakers and it’s important that their amazing work is recognized every day,” she said. “I know what that means for me personally, and I want to make sure they’re receiving that as well.”

The empowerment and recognition seem to be working for Kilgore’s A-Team. They’re collectively kicking out more than 10,000 cakes, croissants, biscuits, muffins, brownies, doughnuts, pies, cookies, and other pastry items every week for the five restaurants. And that number is expected to approach 15,000 a week during the coming fall and winter seasons.

While you might think that the chocolate chip cookie is Kilgore’s definition of the perfect pastry given its central role in her story, think again. It turns out that she reserves that coveted spot for the croissant.

“Croissants are beautiful, versatile, warm, and inviting, with all their flaky layers, and to me, it feels like poetry in motion when I’m making them in a process where each step is essential,” said Kilgore.

And there it was. The “aha moment” that revealed to me Kilgore’s connection to the croissant in a much bigger way. Poetry in motion, where each step is essential, seems to define her journey itself — from conducting cookie focus groups with her family as a seventh grader to managing a confections crew that today serves multiple restaurants in Tucson and Scottsdale.

Kianna Kilgore of Ares Collective (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

“At the end of the day, I’m just a big nerd at heart, kind of a goofball really, and that has served me well,” she concluded.

Well done, Kianna. Just add a side of sass and an encouraging wink from Kiki from time to time to remind you of the mark that you’re making on our local hospitality scene.

For more information on Ares Collective’s restaurant concepts, visit prepandpastry.com, florasmarket.com, and commonerandco.com

Matt Russell, @ieatidrinkiwrite on Instagram, has been a food and beverage writer/broadcaster covering stories in Arizona and beyond since 2009. He's been the food and beverage writer for Inside Tucson Business for the past decade and is a regular contributor to Tucson Foodie and Tucson Weekly. He's also the food and beverage correspondent for the Bill Buckmaster Show and appears regularly on Wake Up Tucson. Matt serves as a judge at local and national food and beverage competitions throughout the year. These have included Iron Chef Tucson, Agave Fest, Tucson Taco Festival, World Margarita Championship, Southern Arizona Salsa & Tequila Challenge, Cookies & Cocktails, the Tucson Firefighters’ Chili Cook-Off, and the Nugget Rib Cook-Off, the largest BBQ rib competition in the United States. When he’s not on the radio, writing his column, or serving as master of ceremonies at community events, he’s running Russell Public Communications, a public relations agency he founded in 2002.