Mindy Keith | Age: 28 | Hometown: Portland

"It's about getting people out of their comfort zone."—Mindy Keith
"It's about getting people out of their comfort zone."—Mindy Keith

Mindy Keith owes her chile-spiced pastry gig at Xico to a surprise birthday cake. In 2010, the relentless baker was juggling jobs at two local cafés, private catering work, and shifts as a food runner and host as Nostrana. “I was making my own tortes, cheesecakes, and different little creations and surprising people at parties,” she says. “I’d bring in cookies for the Nostrana staff, too.” One of her tasters was Nostrana general manager Elizabeth Davis, who, continually impressed by the former artist’s “creative” desserts, snatched her up when she opened her own restaurant, Xico, in 2012. Since then, it’s been a match made in cross-cultural dessert heaven. 

Instead of sticking to her tested roster of treats, Keith married her whimsical aesthetic to Xico’s authentic Mexican flavors. “I like things that are really...involved,” she says, gesturing to a white plate holding a puckery Mexican lime paleta, a shot of Sombra mezcal, and two tiny mounds of dried chile and sal de gusano (worm salt), served in a rocks glass. (To consume this little ode to Mexico, you upend the popsicle in the booze and sprinkle, nibble, and sip as it melts into a wonderfully sweet, salty, smoky liqueur.) Other creations feature Woodblock cocoa nibs in a lacy chocolate brittle so intense it’s reminiscent of fried cheese, or the humble Chick-O-Stick transmuted into a peanut-buttery coconut truffle. 

Keith’s willingness to tinker with new ingredients without sacrificing an ounce of a dessert’s essential luxurious nature is her strength—you get the feeling this research-obsessed pastry chameleon would be equally at home creating African- or Chinese-influenced desserts with access to a cabinet of spices and an Internet connection. “Some of her visions are incredibly complex,” Xico chef Kelly Myers says. “It’s the stuff of magazine pictorials and really serious dining establishments.” Keith shrugs off thoughts of her future career in favor of plans to travel to Oaxaca in January for inspiration. “I rarely get dessert when I go out to eat at restaurants, because it’s really boring, and usually too sweet” she admits. “It’s about getting people out of their comfort zone.”

• MINDY’S Résumé: Pastry chef at Xico; manager and baker at Dragonfly Café; host/runner at Nostrana; baker at St. Honoré; photographer; herbalist at Dragon Herbarium

• Biggest fan: “She took her French background and was able to create this amazing Mexican dessert cuisine through research and intuition,” says Nostrana co-owner and local food grande dame Cathy Whims. “I’m not even a big dessert fan, but I can’t stop eating her cocada. She’s just a little powerhouse and has a beautiful aesthetic.” 

• Signature Dish: Xico’s candy plate, which looks like a line of weathered miniature Aztec ruins. It consists of five elements: a pyramid of dense Colombian chocolate laced with rum and smoked chile salt; sour, chewy tamarind–chile de arbol fruit leather; hibiscus and guava pâtes de fruits; spiced candied nuts; and sesame brittle. (Off the job, Keith is still known to show up at friends’ parties with creamy goat cheese cheesecakes with candied kumquats, kumquat compote, and dark chocolate chunks.)

• Biggest Obstacle: “Mindy is such a perfectionist that it’s hard for her to accept the reality that you can’t constantly monitor every single dessert that goes out because you’ll exhaust yourself completely,” says Davis. “You have to let it go a little bit.”