The second morning after Dolester Miles won the 2018 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in America, her Instagram account lit up with its first posts.
Miles, who has worked for Frank Stitt at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill since he opened in 1982, posted photo after photo of her, of her desserts, of her with her desserts, of her with Stitt, of the James Beard Award medal. Eighteen photos in all in the account’s first nine posts, all on May 9, 2018.
The publicity-shy Miles was ready to share with the world, not that she needed any validation from the Beard Award as a top pastry chef. Anyone who has eaten her beloved coconut pecan cake, peach cobbler, lemon meringue tart, or any of her desserts, had validated those skills with thousands of empty plates over more than three decades.
Miles begins her workday before sunup, baking in the kitchen at Stitt’s Bottega restaurant. She takes great joy in knowing that diners in all of Stitt’s restaurants – Highlands, Chez Fonfon, Bottega and Bottega Café – relish her desserts.
“Sometimes, I go in the café during lunch and I can see people eating desserts and you can see how they really enjoy it, like they almost lick the plate like ‘that’s the best thing I ever ate,’” Miles said in the 2018 short documentary film “Dol” by Ava Lowrey, filmmaker for the Southern Foodways Alliance.
For many diners, it just may be the best thing they ever ate.
Bill Addison is the national restaurant critic for the website Eater and chairman of the Beard Foundation’s restaurant-award committee. Last May after Miles’ Beard win, he raved about her peach cobbler to The New York Times.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “It’s the best peach cobbler I’ve ever had. All of her cobblers are great, but the peach is the one that makes my soul burst into four-part harmony.”
The sweet harmonies Miles’ pastries invoke have their beginnings in Bessemer, where she was raised. When she was growing up, she and her mother and aunt would gather on Sundays to bake cakes.
“And I used to get in the kitchen with them, like, ‘hey, let me get in on this, let me lick the spatula,’” Miles said in “Dol” and laughed.
She joined Stitt even before Highlands – itself a Beard Award winner in 2018 for Outstanding Restaurant in America – opened its doors. Miles and her sister Diane helped clean the restaurant and pitched in on sewing the first set of curtains in Highlands’ front windows all those years ago. Miles’ first job had nothing to do with pastries. She made salads and hors d’oeuvres.
Because of her interest in baking, though, she talked Stitt into letting her prepare a dessert for Highlands. Thus began her career as Stitt’s pastry chef.
“Dol combines traditional Southern ingredients with the professionalism of a French pastry chef, and she does all of that with a big pinch of love,” Stitt told Alabama NewsCenter in 2016.
That big pinch of love, along with her considerable skills, has Miles at the top of her profession.
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