Juana Straus is an artist. But rather than oil or acrylic, her mediums are sugar and flour. And instead of paintbrushes, her creative tools include whisks and spatulas. Straus is the pastry chef at VMFA’s Amuse Restaurant, where she has worked since it opened in 2010. Her artistry was recently recognized with a nomination for an Elby Award for best pastry chef. Hosted by Richmond magazine, The Elbys recognize excellence in Richmond’s restaurant industry each year.
The Elby’s pastry chef category honors “an industry leader whose work leaves you speechless and/or supremely comforted by his/her artistry through flavor, technique and design.”
Working at VMFA, Straus says the inspiration for her desserts comes from the art that surrounds her daily. “I love the fact I get to come to an art museum every single day to make art—edible art” she says, “… I feel like it makes we want to do better, being around all of the art.”
Straus began her culinary career about 25 years ago, working part-time as garde manger in the museum’s former Members’ Dining Room. Straus, who was attending cosmetology school at the time, was immediately captivated by the creativity she found in the kitchen. She left cosmetology school to explore the culinary world.
“I got a working education in the restaurant industry,” she says. “I moved from restaurant to restaurant and would stay about a year at each to learn a new skill.” Straus soon realized that, at the time, nobody in the local restaurant industry was making their own desserts in-house. She recalls, “I saw an opportunity and said ‘I can do that!’”
Straus began to specialize in all things sweet. While she loved the creativity inherent to making desserts, she admits that some of her motivation was selfish. “I love to eat sugar way too much,” she says, laughing. “I thought it would cure me, but I am still a chocoholic.”
Straus’ chocolate torte is one of her signature desserts, a gluten-free confection that combines chocolate and hazelnuts in a decadent treat. “It’s chocolate covering chocolate—what’s not to like?” she asks.
Straus conceives all of the items on Amuse’s dessert menu, changing the selections with the seasons and developing exhibition-inspired desserts. Some desserts, such as her sticky toffee pudding, are menu mainstays. Her newest dessert, called “Spring is Coming,” features a profiterole filled with strawberry pastry cream and covered with strawberry sauce.
“I like to focus on Southern comfort-food desserts,” she says. “That’s what everyone is looking for.”
When Straus is not working in the kitchen, she relaxes by pursuing other creative outlets, from stained glass and painting, to jewelry making. “All of that feeds into the art of food for me,” she says.
Straus is happiest when she’s making something and when she is delighting Amuse visitors. “I am always thinking, ‘How can I make somebody happy today?’” she says.