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Visionaries: Pastry Provocateurs

Whether experimenting with foie gras and beets or alginate and pectinase, there's a new breed of avant-garde American pastry chef out to prove that dessert can be much more than just a sugar fix.

Jacques Torres never wanted to live in New York City. He grew up in a Provençal town smaller than most American parking lots, enjoyed the outdoors, loved to fish. But Sirio Maccioni, the impish and persuasive owner of Le Cirque, lured him to Manhattan with several irresistible promises. He swore he would quadruple the size of the pastry station in Le Cirque's kitchen so Torres could create "the best desserts in America." "I'll pay you well and treat you well," Maccioni vowed. And he agreed to put Torres's name at the bottom of the dessert menu.

That last perk was quite unusual in those dark ages.

The year was 1989.

Working beside chef Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque, Torres became a celebrity in his own right, a star on the Food Network and ultimately the owner of a stupendously good chocolate factory in Brooklyn, with a bakery and another factory on the way. Torres's rapid rise is emblematic of the surprising ascent of the elite pastry chef. In the not-too-distant past, all but a few of the best pastry chefs in the country were anonymous. Their job was to churn out sugary indulgences for overfed, overstimulated diners (a strategy that was also an efficient way of nudging up the check). Nearly every pastry chef did a crème brûlee; everybody did a fruit tart; everybody did some kind of chocolate cake.

These days America's best pastry chefs are wooed by four-star restaurants and offered all the marquee space and freedom they desire. A serious restaurant would no sooner offer a dull dessert menu than it would hand out a wine list with one Chardonnay and one Merlot. These pastry chefs work so closely with the rest of the kitchen staff that even their petits fours are an expression of the culinary vision that informs the entire meal. No longer confined to eggs, flour, sugar and butter, pastry chefs can use any ingredients they fancy and find inspiration anywhere they want: in their life experiences, in junk food factories or in the pots and pans of the line cooks making the appetizers and the main courses.

Torres, who's 45, seems relieved to be out of the restaurant business now so that he doesn't have to compete with the hopped-up younger generation. "Pastry today is at a scary high level," he says. "It's as intricate, as elaborate, as the food! They push it so far sometimes I don't even know what they're doing. The pastry chef at Jean Georges, this young American kid, I went to the restaurant and told him, 'I want to see what's in your guts.' And that guy—he kill me."

That young American kid is 29-year-old Johnny Iuzzini, and his desserts for Jean-Georges Vongerichten's flagship Manhattan restaurant are virtuoso displays of technique and innovation. Each dessert is, in fact, four desserts. Iuzzini calls them "tastings," and as with a wine tasting, he arranges the samples in order of intensity (descending order, in this case, moving clockwise around a platter). Chocolate—perhaps in the form of a warm chocolate savarin with burnt-orange ice cream—typically leads off, its full-bodied, bittersweet qualities creating a bridge from the entrée. The next stop is lighter, maybe brioche sprinkled with sea salt and filled with kaffir lime and Meyer lemon cream, or something else with seasonal fruit. The next is lighter still, and shifts gears in some way: If the second taste was served at room temperature, the third might be warm. The final landing point is liquid: a pineapple soup with curry spices, say, or a shot of chipotle-spiked milk chocolate capped with banana foam.

Assembling four-part tastings allows Iuzzini to show off his command of the sweet science. The menu offers four different flights, so on any given night, Iuzzini's staff executes 16 desserts, each of which would make a completely satisfying last course if it were slightly larger. He changes the flights regularly, as new fruits come into season, so over the course of a year the pastry kitchen is really producing upwards of 60 different desserts. One item, however, never varies: Vongerichten's signature molten chocolate cake, the dessert that spawned a thousand imitators. ("I was told that if I took it off the menu, I'd lose my job," Iuzzini says.) Iuzzini likes to slip something into each flight—that inspired chocolate-chipotle pairing, for example—that's more daring than the clients of an uptown four-star restaurant would normally tolerate. "Every tasting has something a little bit off," Iuzzini says. "I sneak something in to say 'Look, I can go that way, too.'"

Often the thing that's a little bit off is an Asian ingredient; Vongerichten is famous for importing Thai, Chinese and other Eastern flavors into his French-inflected cuisine, and he encourages his pastry chefs to do the same. They can beg, borrow and steal anything they like, and Pichet Ong takes full advantage of the freedom. At Spice Market, Vongerichten and Gray Kunz's homage to Asian street food in Manhattan's fast-developing Meatpacking District, an Ong concoction called Thai Jewels turns out to be green and red cubes of water chestnut floating in a broth of coconut milk, served with a soup spoon. A famous Thai sweet called tap tim grop is the prototype here, but Ong adds pomegranate and passion-fruit seeds, along with coconut ice, for color, crunch and contrast. Globe-trotting diners familiar with the sources of Ong's creations will realize he's not just copying Asian desserts; he's translating them into his own language to ensure that customers are rewarded with a delightful surprise at the end of the meal.

"We always hear people scream when their desserts come out to the table," Ong says.

The screams uptown at Aix sound as though they're emanating from a dentist's office—at least if you believe the critics. Pastry chef Jehangir Mehta has read that he is "sadistic" and that one of his specialties, a licorice panna cotta, needs to be followed by a vigorous toothbrushing. Mehta finds such complaints overblown. The licorice panna cotta is aggressively flavored, he admits. But he points out that it comes in a tiny serving, smaller than two ounces, and that the impact of the licorice is softened by an almost equal quantity of marinated tangerine sections, "so it doesn't become too much. If I had to eat a large portion of that panna cotta, even I would hate it." Mehta's best desserts build tension in this manner, and the active interplay of ingredients is what makes them work. When one doesn't work, Aix's chef, Didier Virot, will veto it, as he did with Mehta's blue-cheese panna cotta.

Mehta admits that he doesn't let anyone off too easy. "I don't want to coddle people. I want to challenge the customer," he says. "Even if I give you chocolate, I'll make you pay for it." His current effort in that category is the chocolate palet, scallop-size medallions of sweet, creamy dulce de leche and ganache topped with very bitter raw cacao bean. The flavor is something like a chocolate-covered espresso bean, but more intense in every direction. Chocolate lovers will either find that eating this dessert is like hearing their favorite song at 120 decibels, or experience it as a revealing look at the ingredient's full range of flavors.

Some of Mehta's combinations may be eccentric, but his overall approach is firmly in the mainstream. Like many of his colleagues, Mehta believes in making desserts that challenge the palate and tease the intellect. And this just might be the cure for America's love-hate relationship with sweets. We've all enjoyed the occasional brownie-hot-fudge sundae. But we also know, on some level, that it's just too much. Too sweet, too rich, too predictable. New-wave pastry chefs generally use sugar sparingly. More importantly, they engage your mind and your imagination. It's hard to feel guilty about eating a dessert that makes you think.

Still, every ambitious pastry chef has heard reports from waiters about some exasperated patron who looked up from the menu in despair and asked, "Don't you just have crème brûlée?" At Sona in Los Angeles, the breaking point for some diners was foie-gras sorbet. Michelle Myers was just following her own cravings; she found that she was more interested in eating foie gras at the end of the meal than at the beginning. And she incorporated some tried-and-true foie-gras partners into the dish, in the form of Sauternes gelée and green-apple sorbet. But still. "Either people flip out and say, Of course! Or they really do not like it at all," says Myers.

When Myers began pureeing and freezing scraps of foie gras unclaimed by her co-chef and husband, David, she was taking part in one of the defining trends of the modern restaurant: dismantling the barriers between the pastry station and the rest of the kitchen. Mehta is doing the same when he freezes beet juice into popsicles, as is Ong when he ladles out sweet lily-bulb soup. "Anything in our walk-in is pretty much fair game," says Sam Mason, whose cerebral desserts for wd~50 in Manhattan are the logical extension of chef Wylie Dufresne's experimental cuisine. "Wylie steals from me, and I steal from him. Right now I'm racing to get the combination of miso and preserved plums on the dessert menu, just so he doesn't take it first."

There are several factors at work here. The first is sheer boredom: When a pastry chef has been baking apple tarts since culinary school, sooner or later the thought of rolling out another one makes her want to put her head in the oven. Instead, she may take a more constructive route, remembering that tomatoes are fruit too, and coming up with a tomato tarte Tatin. The second is that résumés are now less specialized; the modern pastry chef has often served time as a line cook. Even Michelle Myers, whose career has been dessert-focused, works like a savory chef, cooking and seasoning all her fruits and sauces to order.

More than anything, though, the blurring of the lines between sweet and savory is proof that the last course is now expected to uphold the standards set by all the preceding ones. "It's a sign that all aspects of cuisine are now looked at as being of equal importance, regardless of their sugar content," says Alex Stupak, the pastry chef at Clio in Boston. In a serious restaurant, desserts can't be allowed to drag down the level of ambition. "I do not want to serve anything mindless at the end of a meal. The experience has to be complete," Stupak says. As a result, pastry chefs and executive chefs have to cooperate, communicate and gently compete.

This is especially true in kitchens that are self-consciously trying to invent a new, 21st-century cuisine. Nobody knows yet what the future of food is going to look like, so in some avant-garde American restaurants, the pastry chef and executive chef are like Watson and Crick: researchers boldly mapping new shapes and structures.

Stupak experimented with a sugar derivative called isomalt in his pastry kitchen, then passed the results on to Clio's executive chef, Ken Oringer, who applied the stuff to one of his poultry dishes. Isomalt is about half as sweet as sugar but is just as crunchy when it's caramelized. Stupak fabricates it into thin sheets, which Oringer then wraps around squab breasts. "It enhances the crispy, crackly skin twentyfold," Stupak says.

Isomalt is just one of the chemicals that pastry chefs are turning to as they look beyond eggs and gelatin for new ways to change a dessert's flavor and texture. "My pastry-chef friends think I'm nuts because one of my purveyors is Spectrum Chemicals," Stupak says. He uses pure malic acid, naturally found in green apples, for the tartness his friends get from using lemon juice. He's also playing with a plant-based carbohydrate called microcrystalline cellulose, trying to determine how to use it to develop a panna cotta that won't melt when it's heated.

Wd~50's Mason says he's already figured out the warm panna cotta (Dufresne stole it, added chorizo and served it with scallops). Some New York chefs go on and on about the amazing farms of the Hudson River Valley; Mason gets excited about the chemical factories and processed-food packagers across the river in New Jersey. He's constantly trying out new compounds: carageenan, gum arabic, locust bean gum, guar gum—"all those things you see on the back of a box of cookies." He's dabbling with an enzyme called pectinase, which breaks down the pectin in fruit, and he's excited about a hydrocolloid called gellan. Gellan was what made Orbitz, one of the most bizarre and short-lived products of the '90s, possible; in this sweet bottled drink, tiny colored balls of gelatin were suspended like grapes in a Jell-O mold. "I used gellan to make date fries—cubes of date puree, which we coated with brioche crumbs and put in the deep fryer," Mason says. "Wylie used it to make deep-fried mayonnaise."

Now we know why Alice Waters left New Jersey.

Where is all this chem-lab experimentation heading exactly? No one is quite sure; there is just a sense, shared by Mason and Stupak and a few other like-minded pastry chefs, that it will somehow lead beyond mere novelties into something that is truly transformative. After all, puff pastry didn't always exist; it had to be invented. But until somebody comes up with Puff Pastry 2.0, the ambitious pastry chef's goals are more modest. "The first and foremost goal of any dish is to taste great," Stupak says. "At same time, I want the diner to go, 'How the hell did they pull that off?'"

At Trio, in the Chicago suburbs, pastry chef Curtis Duffy has a "how the hell?" version of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's molten chocolate cake. He mixes chocolate sauce with gelatin and alginate, a seaweed derivative, then funnels the liquid into balloons—regular children's party balloons, in red, yellow, blue and orange. After the chocolate sets into a squishy but solid ball, Duffy blasts the balloon with a blow torch until it peels away. Then he plops the chocolate ball into a calcium-chloride solution, where the calcium reacts with the alginate to form a rubbery shell about a quarter-inch thick. When the ball is heated, the inside becomes gooey while the shell remains solid. When you stick a fork in it, the dessert oozes like a cracked egg.

Duffy's collaboration with his executive chef, Grant Achatz, is unusually close, even by contemporary standards. From the minute he got to Trio, Achatz wanted to serve 27-course tasting menus. At first, though, diners complained that they were full before the marathon ended. "I kept saying 'This can't be,'" Achatz recalls. "I knew the amount of food was do-able. So we started looking at the psychology of eating. We also did some historical research and found out that Escoffier used to put sweet dishes one-third of the way into some of his long menus." Achatz and Duffy began to break up the meal with small, sweet courses; suddenly, nobody had a problem eating all 27. Now a meal at Trio oscillates between sweet and savory. Even the four or so desserts that are served at the end of the meal vary in sugar intensity.

This change in his approach to sweet and savory has led Achatz to rethink his kitchen. He's leaving Trio soon and will open his own restaurant in Chicago early next year. The new place, Alinea, will have a custom-built kitchen—with no pastry station.

"The sweet and savory blend so much now," Achatz says. "If my fish cook has to call my pastry chef to get olive-oil ice cream, then I have two cooks working on the same dish during service, which is a problem." That won't happen at Alinea, he says. "There won't be a pastry station. There won't be a meat station. There will just be five interchangeable cooking areas."

Jacques Torres probably wouldn't work in that kitchen. But he just might appreciate the fact that by killing off the pastry station, Achatz is paying Torres's profession the highest compliment.

Pete Wells, a former editor at F&W, is a senior editor at Details and the winner of three James Beard Foundation journalism awards, for stories on scotch, bacon and a Marine vet turned star chef.

Published July 2004
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