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Self-taught pastry chef named best in the US

Dolester Miles, 61, now oversees baking production of four restaurants

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"I watch The Pioneer Woman, Barefoot Contessa and The Kitchen - they have good ideas there. If I see something I like, I go to their website and get the recipe." - Dolester Miles (above)

Birmingham, Alabama

IT'S just before 2pm, the end of a workday that began at 5.30am for Dolester Miles, a self-taught pastry chef who, in May, was named the best in the nation by James Beard Foundation.

She stands in the compact kitchen of Bottega restaurant, deftly smoothing a thin layer of whipped cream frosting on a towering, three-layer coconut pecan cake. She flicks her offset spatula all the way around where the top and sides meet, employing rote precision born of three decades of experience to create a perfect edge.

Anyone who has eaten that cake knows two things: that it's worth every penny, and that the last crumb of it will be snatched up and savoured like the last word of a great novel.

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Chef Miles oversees a staff of four and the baking production of the four restaurants owned by chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, including their fine-dining flagship, Highlands Bar & Grill.

In addition to the coconut pecan cake, Chef Miles' fruit cobblers with flaky biscuit tops, her lemon tarts with swirls of caramelised meringue, and her silken panna cottas are legendary in Birmingham. She handles with alacrity the array of Southern, Italian and French favorites found on the menus of the Stitts' restaurants.

She was one of 20 semi-finalists in the Beard Foundation's Outstanding Pastry Chef category for five years running, and among its five finalists for the past three years. The awards gala at Chicago's Lyric Opera House was also a celebratory one for the Stitts. After being nominated for 10 consecutive years as the nation's Outstanding Restaurant, Highlands won.

The first time Chef Miles was a finalist, she couldn't believe it.

"I never really understood how the Beard thing goes, how you get nominated and all of that, and from being down South, from Alabama! Most of them be from New York, California, Chicago - all those big places," she said.

"But to be nominated from all the way down here? That was amazing."

Chef Miles' fellow 2018 finalists were from New Orleans, Minneapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The 61-year-old was born in Victoria, Texas, but grew up with four older siblings in Bessemer, Alabama, a small town south-west of Birmingham. Her mother, Cora Mae, sold insurance; and her father, Jim, who had been a mechanic in the Air Force, did custodial work for University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Chef Miles' parents, now deceased, kept a garden and were both good cooks. She caught the baking bug from her mother and aunt, Queen Esther Harris, who were known in the family for their baking prowess. Her mother's favourite cake, a brown-sugar pound cake, was the first thing Chef Miles made on her own.

Like many restaurant workers, she happened into the business. In high school, she worked as a line cook at a Mexican restaurant. She tried her hand at computer science studies for a couple of years at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University and Lawson State Community College, but wasn't into it.

In 1982, her path and Chef Stitt's crossed when he opened Highlands.

"My sister Diane was job-hunting, and that's how we got started with Frank," said Chef Miles.

"He was a great up-and-coming chef who was opening this place in Southside, so that seemed like the place to be. I didn't have much experience - we learned as we went along."

First, she worked the pantry station, making vinaigrettes, salads and appetisers, and preparing a couple of the desserts.

Chef Stitt explained how that morphed into a baking position: "We were doing biscuits and corn bread, and one thing led to another pretty organically. She really enjoyed that part of the kitchen, so I would say, 'Okay, it's strawberry season, so let's make a cobbler or a tart.' I'd lay out a framework for a dessert, and she would implement it.

"That's pretty much how it's been, a collaborative process of me sharing my favourite desserts, and Dol being able to facilitate them with a level of care and love and finesse."

Chef Miles concurred: "Frank does a lot of travelling, and he'll come in and tell us about something he's had or read about, and then we try to produce what he's thinking in his mind and make it our own."

One example is a layer cake filled with zabaglione (a foamy, egg-based custard sauce flavoured with marsala wine) and topped with meringue, which Chef Stitt had tasted at Harry's Bar in Venice, in 1984. Miles took that inspiration and put it into action.

"It's a very good cake, but when we put it on the menu, it didn't sell. Maybe people didn't know what zabaglione was," she said.

"So we changed the name to Frank's Favorite Cake, and believe it or not, it started flying off the shelf."

She seeks her own inspiration from well-known sources: cookbooks, Pinterest, magazines such as Bake From Scratch, Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, and television shows.

"I watch The Pioneer Woman, Barefoot Contessa and The Kitchen - they have good ideas there. If I see something I like, I go to their website and get the recipe."

In 1988, when Chef Stitt opened Bottega, his second restaurant, Chef Miles officially became his pastry chef. By 2004, she was responsible for four restaurants, including the casual Bottega Cafe, which opened in 1990, and Chez FonFon, a French bistro the Stitts opened in 2000.

"I knew Frank wanted to do the baking for all the restaurants out of Bottega, so I asked him if I could do it, and he gave me the chance," she said. "I must have done okay, because I'm still here."

Since she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 10 years ago, Chef Miles has been judicious about indulging in her own or any other baked goods. These days, she eats only an occasional swipe of dessert.

"I didn't eat sweets until I found out I was diabetic, and that's when I really, really wanted them," she lamented. "Oh, I could just taste them!"

When discussing her Beard win, Chef Miles' shyness and humility shine through.

"I never dreamt they'd call my name," she said. "To win, it's a feeling that I can't even explain. It sucked all the air out of the room. Frank said, 'Get up, they called your name!' and I said, 'Are you serious?' It was amazing. I still think about it and cry."

Chef Stitt called it "an incredible accomplishment of a life's work".

In Chicago with Chef Miles was her daughter, LaToya Phillips, 40, to whom the Beard win is huge.

She confessed to taking her mother's talent for granted for years - until Chef Miles hosted a baby shower for her 18 years ago and made pecan tarts.

"Everybody wanted her to make those tarts for them. To this day, people still ask her about them," she said.

Chef Miles' win has been rewarding, literally.

"People are coming from all over," said Chef Stitt said.

"When they see the pastry chef has won that award, they're not leaving without tasting those desserts."

Chef Miles' team now makes 60 coconut cakes a week, instead of 30. Some restaurateurs are happy if 40 per cent of diners order dessert, but at the Stitts' places, that percentage is now closer to 70.

But the accolades haven't gone to Chef Miles' head.

"People took the time out of their day to write me letters," she said.

"So many letters and so many flowers. Wine, bourbon - all these things to congratulate me. I never had that before. It's been overwhelming, I must say." Then, cracking a smile, she added, "I could get used to this." WP