In December, Michael Conti took on the role of executive pastry chef at Firefly Grill in Effingham, Illinois. After culinary school at Chicago’s Le Cordon Bleu, he was executive pastry chef at OAK at Fourteenth in Boulder, Colorado, as well as at Acorn and Brider restaurants in Denver. He cannot eat 90 percent of what he creates because he’s gluten-, dairy-, tree nut-, soy- and alcohol-free, yet Conti’s love for all things sweet finds an outlet in his takes on classic desserts at Firefly Grill.
What sparked your interest in baking? When I was a child, my mother held baking classes at our local YMCA that my Nonna and I would attend. I remember really enjoying that experience of working in the kitchen with them, and it has carried through to what I do today. When you are making pastries, they can be very unforgiving, because when you mess something up you’ve wasted a lot of time. There’s a lot of lessons to learn when it comes to pastry-making, and I think I really need that, to keep learning. With pastries and desserts, there’s not just steps in the process, but real meaning to everything.
How has your experience at Firefly Grill compared to other places you’ve worked? Firefly is an unbelievably supportive place to bake. I have never been in a kitchen before where there is so much genuine teamwork. The culture we generate through our cooking and baking is building a community that feels very much like family.
Tell us about your dessert menu. I’ve put together what I like to call petite sweets. They are six different desserts served in small Martini glasses. I really like to use the glasses because they allow me to play around with presentation and the desserts themselves. So far the petite sweets include a passion fruit, cookies and cream and strawberry no-bake cheesecake, plus chocolate espresso, s’mores and butterscotch-pudding mousses. You can order them individually, or all six as a dessert flight.
What else are you working on? I am excited to work on some cocktails and create some old-fashioned drinks like cream or orange sodas for Firefly. For a hobby, I make my own cheese. This is something I came to really enjoy when I worked in Colorado. I would love to have my own dairy cow one day and make some cheeses for the restaurant. What inspires you? A lot of it comes from my 3-year-old daughter. She is always asking me to make combinations of food I would have never thought of.
What’s your goal at Firefly? I want to take [diners] somewhere else, [like] when they were 8 years old, eating a dessert their mom made. I want to help them go back to a memory tied to delicious food.
Firefly Grill, 1810 Avenue of Mid-America, Effingham, Illinois, 217.342.2002, ffgrill.com