St. Marys native Susan Krieg Parana can take flour, eggs and a few other ingredients and create desserts to die for as the executive pastry chef at the Lioncrest Reception and Banquet center at the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., a National Historic Landmark and once the home of prominent businessman and philanthropist George Vanderbilt.
"My occupation is more of a passion than a job. Each day is a challenge and searching for new recipes sometimes follows a long day," Parana said.
Parana, the daughter of the late George and Mary Lou Krieg of St. Marys, has been employed at the Biltmore Estate since May 2006. During that time, she has worked at three of the estate's restaurants, including Cedric's Tavern, a new English-style pub at the Antler Hill Village.
As executive pastry chef at Lioncrest, Parana's daily responsibilities include preparing desserts, pastries and cakes for breakfasts, lunches, plated dinners and weddings. In addition to these duties, she creates desserts for the Dianna Event Center, Pack Square, in downtown Asheville, as well as for events off-site.
Parana said one of her major goals each day is to make a person's dining experience at Biltmore the most memorable they've ever had.
"I get a great deal of enjoyment from preparing desserts to present to guests and hearing the feedback at the event's end," Parana said.
Parana started out as a regular chef, but said she was lured by the challenge of combining luscious and often exotic ingredients with precision timing and exact science that being a pastry chef demands.
"I started out cooking. I used to work at the Four Seasons. I liked cooking, but for some reasons I realized I really liked baking," Parana said. "It's a science. If you just leave something a little too long or on a little too high, it just doesn't turn out the way it's supposed to."
Having her cakes fall flat or her cream curdle is a rare experience for Parana, however, who enjoys the daily variety in her job.
Our venue does a lot of things. We can do a 300-person wedding with seven courses, or the next day we can do something in a field that's very rustic. We can do a box lunch for people who are going horseback riding," Parana said. "This year, a fundraiser that helps buy furnaces for needy people is going to be outside [on the estate] under tents, and all of the food is going to be associated with something burning, fire or hot.
"Our restaurant's kind of unique in that we're not open daily. Everybody we serve has probably not been there before, so every time I make a dessert, I like to make something different. We do things that people have probably never seen or heard of before-- I just did a lemon pine nut tart with rosemary cream."
And, as anyone who has watched the various cooking contest shows can attest, Parana emphasizes that presentation is something every chef wants to be perfect.
"Presentation is important. We don't do anything the way it's always been done," Parana said. "We love having family members and friends from St. Marys come to the Biltmore House, as it's quite an adventure."
Before moving to Asheville in 2006, Parana owned the shop Baked by Request. She was a top graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts and received the Julia Child Scholarship while there. Her past experience also included decorating cakes at the local Dairy Queen for 14 years.
Susan now resides in Hendersonville, N.C. with her husband, Bill, also a St. Marys native. Susan and Bill's family includes three daughters, Stephanie Bunn Riggsby of Knoxville, Tenn., Leah Parana of Binghamton, N.Y., and Alison Keeler of Littleton N.H. One of Susan's siblings, Lois Krieg, still resides in St. Marys.
Like many people who have left the area, Parana enjoys the more mild climate where she lives now. However, she enjoys her yearly trips back to St. Marys.
"Even though we live in the mountains and have beauty surrounding us, I still miss the running and biking trails in and around St. Marys. When we travel north annually, we hit our past favorite spots such as the St Mary's (Catholic) cemetery, East Branch Dam, and a ride down West Creek Road up to Moore Hill in Emporium," Parana said.
She says she still finds it a pleasure to bake the “foot” cookies for the annual Lee Foster 5K held in August, something she has been doing for many years.
"They (race participants) tell me they look forward to getting those little bags every year," she said, adding that her husband Bill used to be the director of the race before they moved to North Carolina.
Parana gets to enjoy the opportunity of creating beautiful and tasty desserts at a historical estate with an excellent reputation for cuisine and event hosting on a daily basis, and while challenging, she finds a bit of fun in every bite.
"I get to play with chocolate," she said. "I try to do something different every time."