It’s down to the wire on Top Chef Just Desserts and Le Bernardin Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis was along for the nail-biter of a ride we took last night. His expert answers helped shed light on Francois Payard’s impeccable reputation, Yigit’s spray can, and what it really takes to make a chocolate truffle.
Thanks for being here again! I’ll be honest; I think I missed the advent of Chef Payard. I’ve heard the name, but I’ve never dined at his restaurants, and they’re now closed. Can you put his reputation into perspective for those of us who don’t know at all who he is?
Let me tell you… I’d have to say, that as a very young cook, Francois was certainly my first pastry idol. What many don’t realize is that way back then, in the early 90s, he was the pastry chef at Le Bernardin, his first big job in the US. We know Francois today for his beautiful retail shops, but he was doing some very creative things with plated restaurant desserts when that form was in its infancy. Of all the chefs with whom I’ve rubbed shoulders over the years, I’m most proud of the fact that he’s become a good friend. And, for those who mourned the closing of his Upper East Side boutique, there’s good news: Francois Payard Bakery opened just six weeks ago on Manhattan’s Houston Street!
I like this QF challenge: Your life’s story through a box of chocolates. It’s very Forest Gump. Can you name just one defining + delicious moment that you might want to commemorate in chocolate?
This is a great challenge on two levels: first, it’s definitely going to show how skilled the chefs are with chocolate, and second, it forces them to condense those defining moments into just one bite. If I had to represent such a moment as a piece of chocolate, I might do something to mark my moving to New York City, and all the great opportunities that have followed since: a two-layer bonbon of smoked cinnamon ganache and apple pâte de fruit all enrobed in a rich milk chocolate that has its own nuances of caramel.
Mother of pear, that sounds good. Speaking of chocolate, what’s your experience with it like? Do you consider it a specialty of yours?
I’ve said this before, that the truly great thing about pastry is the breadth of materials and techniques we have at our disposal. Chocolate is just one of them, and I can see why many choose to pursue that as a specialty. Since I never immersed myself into it at the highest level, I’m no ultimate master of chocolate’s fickle ways. But, I do find chocolate work — whether making candies or decorative garnishes — very relaxing. When allowed an hour or two just to focus on the tempering and molding, it becomes a very Zen-like, right-brained experience.
Tell me how to make a chocolate truffle. Zac talks of the delicate balance, in terms of time. What is the ideal amount of time, and what’s the ideal process?
Chocolate cannot be rushed. Its appealing texture and appearance both rely on a very slow, controlled crystallization of the cocoa butter — which generally counts for about half the composition of the chocolate, whether it’s dark, milk, or white. For molded bonbons, the forms are lined with a very thin layer of tempered chocolate and allowed to set at ambient temperature. The ganache center is then added, and also allowed to set, often for an extended time for several hours. The candies are then sealed with chocolate; after this careful manipulation of time and temperature, the chocolate naturally contracts, releasing itself from the molds. That is, when done correctly. Chocolate behaves badly when subjected to temperature shock, so I shuddered when I began seeing some of those molds thrown into the blast chiller. True, they didn’t have the luxury of time, but all of those environmental variables play a huge under-appreciated role.
Clearly, some of the chocolates do not release. What is it that
Yigit is spraying on his molds as a Hail Mary play?
Yigit’s original molded bonbons failed, probably due to rushing the whole process. To save them, it appeared as if he was trying to quickly chill the centers and dip them by hand. When didn’t work fast enough, he turned to what we call ‘cold spray,’ basically just a can of compressed gas like the ones we use to clean our computer keyboards. It dispenses a blast of cold air, which is helpful in cementing large chocolate pieces. Yigit’s goal was to chill the silicon mold itself, in hopes it would release his ganache. It was a last resort that obviously didn’t work.
Are there any of your former bosses for whom you would be intimidated to cook for — and why?
It’s funny, but I’d have to say no. In a sense, I cook for my boss every day. That said, Eric Ripert is notorious for hanging out in the pastry kitchen to ‘graze’ on our mis en place, so when something isn’t perfect, he’s quick to notice! When given the chance to cook for our former chefs, of course, we want them to be proud of how we’ve evolved, but I actually think it’s more intimidating to cook for our peers. It’s downplayed, but there is a tiny little bit of competitiveness!
The chefs get 30 minutes and $200 to shop. Can you put that into perspective for making an occasion cake?
Barring any last-minute twists, the chefs’ pantry is very well-stocked with basic ingredients and equipment, so it looked like they were shopping for specialty items, both edible and not. Although the primary ingredients might be cheap, for big cakes like these, all of that extra stuff adds up- the pans, the structural supports, etc. There’s a reason why these cakes often fetch high prices!
So, we get Sylvia as a judge again. This is a little tired to me. I’d rather see an ep with Rose Levy Beranbaum or another of the many cake gurus out there. I know you love you some Sylvia (as do I), BUT who are some other names in terms of cakes that might strike fear into your cake-baking heart?
Sure, there are many. Rose, as you mentioned (whom I’ve also recently done dessert for, by the way!), is certainly intimidating. But also folks like Ron-Ben Israel, Colette Peters, Elisa Strauss… It’s a specialized world, for sure.
Whose cake LOOKED best? Whose cake looked like it TASTED best?
You know, at the risk of buying into his ‘simple-is-better’ style, I’d have to say Morgan’s looked the best; as Johnny pointed out, the tiniest flaws were magnified because of that. Danielle’s cake seemed to appear simple and straightforward in terms of flavors and composition, and I still admire Yigit’s enduring tendency to throw the entire pantry into his creations- I’m sure each of his components tasted great on their own.
Talk to me about the final verdict. I’m so sad that Zac went home, even though I agree that his cake was a hot mess. Also, going into the final stretch, is there something the judges could throw at the remaining competitors that would be extremely difficult, pastry-wise?
I think the judging has been quite fair all along the process, and it is getting tougher. Zac’s cake just didn’t cut it. Danielle has shown that she can hold her own, and I think we all might have called it early on that Yigit and Morgan would make it this far. As for the degree of difficulty being higher in the finale, we’ve already seen the chefs’ skills tested in many ways. What I hope to see, as in the original Top Chef series finales, is the chefs left alone to create what they think is their best, with no restrictions!