Profiles

How Two CDC Scientists Fell in Love Over Pie

After winning hundreds of ribbons at baking competitions, Paul Arguin and Chris Taylor have written their first cookbook.

April  3, 2019
Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

When a friend told Paul Arguin she had someone she wanted him to meet, he was skeptical. He’d heard it all before: “You’re a gay. I know a gay. You two should be perfect.”

But when the malaria specialist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta got on the phone with Chris Taylor, then a University of Pittsburgh doctoral candidate in epidemiology, he decided their friend was right: The two men had a lot in common (in particular, a love of cookbooks).

For their first date, Paul suggested they bake together—over the phone. He let Chris choose the recipe.

“I was imagining chocolate chip cookies, pound cake. Something normal,” Paul recalls. “But then he picks this ridiculous thing.”

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“Think light creamy no-bake cheesecake in a pie crust topped with fresh strawberries. I dream of this pie.”
— HalfPint
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Namely: the Scarlet Empress from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. The baroque showstopper requires you to bake sponge cake, slather it with homemade raspberry preserves, roll it into a jelly roll, slice it, line a bombe mold with the slices, fill the hollow with Bavarian custard, seal it with a layer of sponge, unmold the half-sphere, slice it into wedges, and serve it as cake.

"The whaaaaat?" Paul's jaw dropped.

That was 2009.

Five years later to the day, Paul and Chris were married. Today, they share a capacious brick home in northeast Atlanta with a commercial kitchen in the basement, two cats, and a family of bunny statues by the mailbox.

And they just published their first cookbook.


Early one Saturday in 2011, the couple got in Paul’s dark-green Miata and scooted up to Dahlonega, about an hour north of Atlanta. Looking for something to do on a spring day, they had heard about a pie-baking competition in the quaint mountain town, known as the site of a legendary gold rush, circa 1828.

They were avid bakers, pretty good at cookies and fancy cakes. Why not try pie?

Paul, who grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, made a savory beef concoction spiced with Scotch bonnet peppers and topped with a simple crust, based on a dish he remembered from his Caribbean childhood.

Chris, a Pennsylvania native who started buying cookbooks and baking as a hobby while in graduate school, created a pretty strawberry-and-lemon custard pie topped with a layer of lemon curd and sliced fresh berries.

Dropping off their entries, they felt a tad out of place: two gay guys from the big city in a close-knit community where everyone was on a first-name basis. They took a stroll, returning just in time to hear a Paula Deen impersonator announce the results.

To their astonishment, Chris’ Summer Strawberry Pie won first place.

Earning the blue ribbon was like catching a bug no CDC drug could ever cure. “It was very validating,” Chris says. “It felt good! It still feels good when you win.” As he speaks, he sits on their living-room sofa next to Paul, who has put out a basket of ethereal blueberry muffins adapted from a Thomas Keller recipe.

Since 2011, the dessert mavens have brought home 614 awards (including 360 for first-place wins) from baking competitions near and far, from the Georgia National Fair in Perry to the National Pie Championships in Orlando, where Chris’ Peanut Butter Checkerboard won Best of Show in the 2017 amateur division.

They have entered cakes and cheesecakes, cookies and candies, quick breads and yeast breads, cobblers and crisps, pies and showpieces. Their bounty of ribbons, prizes, and certificates is tucked neatly into shadow boxes hanging in a downstairs room.

Soon after Chris took the big prize at the National Pie Championships, Kim Severson wrote a delightful profile of the fun, whip-smart amateur bakers for The New York Times.

It wasn't long before major cookbook publishers began to court them.


A novel apple pie, thanks to sous-vide cooking. Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

The New Pie: Modern Techniques for the Classic American Dessert (Clarkson Potter, 2019) is their collection of 75 recipes for fruit and nut pies, cream and custard pies, cocktail pies and showpiece pies, all with head-turning twists.

The “new pie” moniker sends a signal that these are not your standard apple, blueberry, lemon meringue, and vanilla cream classics. Informed by the authors’ scientific expertise, their playful personalities, and their competitive vigor and vim, these beauties are designed to impress (and maybe bring home a ribbon or two): Thai Iced Tea With Whipped Cream “Ice Cubes.” Shaking Up Shaker Lemon. Cheese Course. All-in-One Thanksgiving Pumpkin With Pecan Pie Gravy. Fizzy Root Beer Float.

“There are a lot of really good pie books out there,” Chris says. “But not many that feature new ways of making pie, or novel flavors.”

Informed by the authors’ scientific expertise, their playful personalities, and their competitive vigor and vim, these beauties are designed to impress (and maybe bring home a ribbon or two).

A full-time CDC epidemiologist specializing in Alzheimer’s and aging, Chris, now 36, is a masterful pastry decorator. You can see his handiwork in Saturday Morning Cartoon Cereal (topped with fruity-cereal streusel and molded white-chocolate spoons) and Pie of the Tiger (chocolate wafers suspended in a cocoa-infused mascarpone cream on a chocolate graham-cracker crust, with a cocoa-stenciled tiger stripe on top—rahr!).

Paul, now 50, is in the process of retiring from his post as head of the CDC’s domestic-malaria unit. He’s the science geek, funny in a dry, Stanley Tucci kind of way, with a voice that cracks and squeaks the more excited he gets. For Paul, precision is next to godliness.

“If you’ve read through pie books before, there’s a lot folksiness in there,” he says. “This is how Grandma used to do it. You add a pinch of this and a dash of that, and you mix it till it feels right. Then people say, ‘Well, mine never works out because I don’t know what feels right.’ So that doesn’t help.”

Chris Taylor.
Paul Arguin.

Paul gets credit for the sous-vide apple pie, with fully cooked fruit that’s firm but never mushy, and the ultra-smooth custard-pie fillings. (Be sure to check out the Caramel Popcorn, as well.)

“I like the whole molecular gastronomy, science-y cooking, so I had those tools already for savory applications—meat and eggs and things like that,” he says. “I started thinking about using these tools for pies, in a dessert application. If you think about it, the whole point of sous vide is to cook things precisely where they need to be. And if you're making an apple pie, there are so many things that need to happen, that need to converge in an oven, which is such a blunt tool to try and cook precisely.”

When making custard, forget about coating the back of a wooden spoon and running your finger through it, he says, and invest in an instant-read thermometer. Rely on it while cooking pie filling on the stovetop or in the microwave, and again when the pie is nearly set in the oven.

“The edge of your pie is not going to be hard and pasty,” he says of his method. “The inside isn’t going to be wet and soupy. It’s going to be even throughout.”


The Bellini, pretty in pink. Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

On a Monday in February, Paul and Chris are in their pristine kitchen showing me how to bake the Bellini. Based on their favorite brunch cocktail, the pie is two cloudlike layers of peach chiffon and champagne mousse in a deep-dish crust.

It’s President’s Day, so the two federal employees have the day off. Bella and Minerva, their two fluffy, long-haired cats, are ensconced upstairs in their own “private apartment.”

Downstairs is the commercial kitchen, installed when they dreamed of selling cakes and themed cookie sets to the public and before they got their book contract. To get there, you pass through the ribbon room and a veritable baker’s dreamland: storage shelves filled with an infinity of cookie cutters; cake and pie pans; decorating accouterment; cake carriers; kitchen equipment—so many shiny, meticulously organized things that when I post a photo on Instagram, a follower asks: “Do they have a store?”

Back to the pie: For the chiffon, they’ve managed to find a couple of good grocery-store peaches. “Chilean,” Paul murmurs almost wistfully. Come summer, they’ll hoard fresh fruit from nearby peach farms. For the bubbles, they use Gruet demi-sec from New Mexico. Gruet has sentimental significance for the couple (they poured its blanc de noirs at their wedding).

Chris sprinkles gelatin powder over pureed peaches. Paul makes Swiss meringue to fold into the peaches. I whip cream.

We start chatting crusts. They prefer King Arthur Flour. Also, they use a scale to weigh ingredients (including water). And they find that adding a small amount of baking powder makes a better crust.

“That was actually something we got from Rose Levy Beranbaum,” Chris says. “It adds a little bit of pop. I think maybe it helps open the flaky layers a little bit. It’s just a little bit (of powder). But we like it with it, rather than without.”

As for the fat, they favor a mixture of butter and vegetable shortening. “When an all-butter dough comes out of the fridge, it’s firmer,” Paul says. “It’s actually a bit harder to roll. You have to be more patient. But with the addition of shortening, it becomes a little more forgiving. It allows you to roll it out easier.”

Chris pipes in: “You get more flakiness than with an all-butter. Lard also works. We make a little note: If you’re not a fan of vegetable shortening, then use the same amount of lard.”

As for rolling the dough, Chris has convinced Paul of the virtues of the silicone mat with concentric circles printed on the surface. “It makes all the difference, I’ve got to say,” Paul confesses. “I was so dismissive of it. He was like, ‘Why don’t you use this mat?’ ‘Oh, I think I used one of those when I was a child. I know how to make a circle these days as an adult.’”

When I joke that I’ll be making the most complicated recipe in the book, just to say I can, and sending them a photo, the room goes quiet for a second.

“Ahhhh ... be careful what you wish for,” says Paul, directing me to Strawberry Chocolate Cosmos, a strawberry-chip cheesecake that looks like a shiny chocolate UFO has landed on top. Made with a fancy silicone mold, the upper ring was inspired, in part, by their collection of more than 50 elaborate Bundt molds, arranged in their living-room bookcases.

Slice a wedge of this grandiose swirling galaxy of pie, and you’ll see it’s a mega-star: The cheesecake contains chocolate pearls, while the top deck is chocolate mousse filled with strawberry mousse filled with a chocolate-cookie ring.

The Strawberry Chocolate Cosmos requires a 12-inch pan, takes two days to build, and, Paul says with a giggle, “serves like 20.”

It was the first recipe they sent their editor, as a test for The New Pie template. “I can only imagine,” Chris says. “Because it was like nine pages in Word. I was worried that she was thinking, ‘What the hell did we get into?’” (She edited it down to five foolproof pages.)

For pie-crossed lovers looking to connect, the Strawberry Chocolate Cosmos could be the beginning of an eternity together—or at least an excuse for a very long phone call.

Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

What's your favorite pie to bake? Let us know in the comments below.

19 Comments

Krista April 7, 2019
A retired pastry chef and this makes me so happy.
 
Keenan April 7, 2019
These two are too cute! Loved the article.
 
Aleksander M. April 6, 2019
I'm always so happy when I see this couple in the media! They're kinda living my ideal life (I'm in healthcare research, love to bake, am queer, so it's really spot on) and it's really nice to see.
 
Rachel April 5, 2019
Would you be able to use the Gruet blanc de noir instead of the Demi sec for the champagne filling or do you think it’s alter the taste too much?
 
Chris T. April 5, 2019
Structurally, there isn't any reason that I can think of why the blanc de noir would not be an acceptable substitute. Taste-wise, the blanc de noir is less sweet, so the Champagne mousse layer would not be as sweet as one made with demi-sec. We preferred the sweetness of the demi-sec during recipe testing, but other sparkling wines should make a fine--if slightly less sweet--mousse.
 
Ryan April 5, 2019
I described this to my Facebook friends as the best article I have ever read on any subject, and you deserve to know. Everyone involved sounds delightful.
 
dc April 4, 2019
Not much of a peach gal, but raspberry or strawberry...yep why go with the known?! Thanks for sharing this!!
 
Author Comment
Wendell B. April 4, 2019
I embrace all fruits.
 
Angela April 4, 2019
I used to have long-distance Skype baking dates when my (now) husband and I were in college over a thousand miles apart. I think our first co-bake was loaves of bread
 
susan April 4, 2019
i loved their first date! new instagram follower!
 
Rachel April 3, 2019
We also served Gruet blanc de noir at our wedding. Great choice :)
 
Author Comment
Wendell B. April 4, 2019
Cheers!
 
Johnny April 3, 2019
Great work!! had me salivating throughout.. I need to try a peach chiffon!
 
Paula April 3, 2019
Great article. I love people who really immerse themselves in a hobby or avocation because they are curious and like to push themselves. I'll be looking for the book and their IG account. I enjoy baking whatever someone requests, such a simple way to make someone happy.
 
Eric K. April 3, 2019
Rose Levy Beranbaum brings everyone together.
 
HalfPint April 3, 2019
I'm so looking forward to reading this cookbook. And they are the cutest couple ever!

My favorite pie to make is my copycat of the Strawberry Pie from Monkeypod Kitchen on Maui. Think light creamy no-bake cheesecake in a pie crust topped with fresh strawberries. I dream of this pie.
 
Author Comment
Wendell B. April 3, 2019
That sounds lovely -- just right for spring.
 
Louise C. April 3, 2019
I thought I would LMAO at "You're gay, I know a gay," but I would have missed the meat of this article. The pies look amazing and daunting! I'm glad they found each other and shared their knowledge with the world.
 
Author Comment
Wendell B. April 3, 2019
Thank you for reading and commenting! Fortunately for me, there are pies for every level in this book! :)