Top Chef Just Desserts Episode 1: 20 Questions with Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis

Pastry chef Michael Laiskonis makes 'Top Chef Just Desserts' even sweeter!

Bravo’s fun Top Chef: Just Desserts premiered last week — and it’s back again tonight. The lovechild of Top Chef and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, even the show’s initial ep tested my knowledge of all things sweet. Despite my culinary school training, it turns out that I don’t know a whole heck of a lot about pastry (although I make a fierce tarte aux pomme). So I’ve called in a pro to help me figure out exactly what’s happening with Bravo’s latest confection. James Beard Foundation Award-winning pastry chef, Michael Laiskonis, from New York’s famed Le Bernardin restaurant, will be tuning in with us every week going forward, so check back tomorrow for his take on Episode 2. To kick things off, I asked him 20 questions about the premiere to help set the stage.

When I was in culinary school, the pastry people always seemed much cooler and calmer than my fellow savory chef students and I – or was that just the cool temp in their kitchen?

I think we’re beginning to see that it’s not necessarily all that calm and cool. I like to think we share the same amount of intensity as our savory cook counterparts; we pastry chefs often tend to channel that energy in a different way.

Someone commented that it’s easier for a pastry chef to go savory than for a savory chef to flip to pastry. True or false?

I think there may be some truth there. At the end of the day, I like to think it’s all just food — some has more or less sugar or salt, and some may require a slightly different skill set of techniques. I’ve always considered the best chefs are those who are adept at both.

Johnny Iuzzini: Do his sideburns make him more intimidating?

Hmm. Does Tom’s shaven head make him more intimidating? Johnny’s an intense guy, but from my perspective, he’s a tough yet sympathetic judge. Two great qualities, and he has the chops (no pun intended) to back it all up.

Do you have a signature dish that you can execute in 90 minutes? That’s not a terribly long amount of time.

That’s not an unreasonable challenge. Given the pantry and the equipment available to the contestants, nearly anything is possible. And, the best of them will know how to navigate those time constraints.

These cheftestants are the cherries atop the 'Just Desserts' bus.

A contestant stated she was making her serious chocolate cake. Should chocolate cake be serious?

A pastry chef friend of mind recently noted that within the last several years, high-end pastry seems to have leaned away from the whimsical toward the ironic. I’m not sure I necessarily prefer either pigeon-hole. Desserts may often be marginalized, but they certainly deserve, if not seriousness, then at least, respect. But they should also provide happiness.

Seth is running around the kitchen like a lunatic. What do you think of frenzied chefs?

It does make me a little nervous. It’s not a stretch to assume one’s outward behavior reflects their state of mind. But he seems focused to some degree, so maybe that’s just his thing. Cooking as a social act… I just think you have to be acutely aware of your space and those around you.

Are you as absolutely SICK of cupcakes as I am?

As a restaurant guy, cupcakes have always been slightly off my radar. Why the craze continues is anybody’s guess. As a vehicle, however, there is a lot you can do with it, so I think this episode’s twist was clever. Obviously, there were a few who couldn’t make the transition work.

Not asking you to disclose anything confidential here (Note: Chef Laiskonis serves as a judge on an upcoming episode of TCJD.), but I’m just wondering if these chefs are allowed to bring some recipes in or if they had to memorize them, or if they read Michael Ruhlman’s latest book, Ratio. I can make a pie crust from memory, but that’s about it.

I think it’s mentioned early on that there are no recipes. That’s huge, and the thoughtful chefs will win out over those who only know how to follow recipes. By the way, I’m a big fan of Ruhlman’s book, and the message he’s trying to convey with it. It should be required reading for all serious cooks.

Ounces or grams?

Grams, all the way. I recall a push toward the metric system while I was in elementary school. Imperial measurements are, at best, nonsensical. And don’t get me started on cups and tablespoons.

In the QFC, Seth takes it and even though I’m not loving him just yet (and what the heck is on his neck?), he had to really think on the fly (or on the run, might be more accurate). However, the carrot cake looked like a contender to me, too. What do you think of Seth’s win and were there any other standouts?

I think Seth’s win proved that a humble cupcake can, indeed, be that vehicle for something more interesting, though he did kind of feel the format beneath him. I would agree with Heather’s carrot cake, at least given the twist with which it was presented. I also liked Tania’s subtle addition of chicory in her cupcake — along with Seth’s basil butter cream, that’s one thing I’m hoping for with this season, that these pastry chefs help expand our greater vocabulary and boundaries of what dessert can be.

Chocolate is temperamental because it has to be tempered. Can you let our diners know what tempering is – and what can go wrong?

Well, chocolate is complicated, and I could ramble on about the different phases of cocoa butter crystallization, but essentially, in order for chocolate to maintain ideal properties — a ‘snappy’ texture and glossy appearance — it must go through a process of heating and cooling known as tempering. While based on science, and, in theory, very specific temperatures, working with chocolate in such a way is a lot about feel and experience. I dare say that a pastry chef must almost become one with the chocolate. Yes, it can be a Zen kind of thing. In other words, it’s really easy to screw it up; it seizes, it turns grey, or it simply never sets up again. I have a feeling we will hear about the fickle nature of chocolate more than once as the show develops.

Do people prefer chocolate to love?!?!

I can only speak for myself; as much as I love chocolate, I’d hate to have to choose between the two.

Can you name one of the (if not the) most luxurious chocolate desserts you’ve ever had?

Ooof. There have been many. One memorable dessert came courtesy of pastry chef Alex Stupak at wd-50 here in New York. It was all about texture — extremely smooth and soft chocolate against cool and crunchy elements. Most important, he managed to create a dish with very subtle nostalgic impressions: comfort food with an intellectual twist.

This is Morgan, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't play well with others.

Johnny remarked that a pastry chef/baker/hotel person would each approach chocolate in a different way. Why do you think that is?

While there are numerous techniques and ideas that cross over all these boundaries, with each environment or specialization, there are often different mindsets. Each can bring more or less refinement to the dish, but a restaurant pastry chef will think in terms of small-scale, last-minute presentation, while a hotel pastry chef often has a much bigger picture in mind — buffets, showpieces, and whatnot. A baker or pastry chef in a retail shop has concerns that the other two don’t — portability and stability and the fact that as soon as their pastry leaves the shop, they lose control over the product.

If someone mentions a chocolate challenge, I would not want more than a hint of white chocolate. (Disclosure: I hate that stuff!) And Tania uses it in a disproportionate manner, in my opinion. What is white chocolate’s proper place in pastry work?

It is often a neutral throwaway ingredient. However, it has hidden potential. We literally roast the chocolate in the oven to caramelize the sugars and milk solids giving a result similar to dulce de leche. In that case, white chocolate is amazing.

How is it possible that Jacques Torres has never had a whoopie pie?

I don’t know, why would he? I was a whoopie pie virgin until fairly late myself. I think it’s one of those things you have to have grown up with to fully appreciate. But I do think it has potential to be the next ‘cupcake’.

Zac’s disco dust dessert looks like a hot mess to me (Sorry, Zac!). It’s not elegant. But that’s just my aesthetic preference. What did you think of it, and what is your aesthetic in terms of plating?

"Maybe the disco dust *was* a bit much. Damn!"

I tend toward a slightly more minimalist approach, but there is room for some flair, I guess. More important is taste, and how well the various components work together.

Should you be able to run your fork through a great dessert, as one of the cheftestants says?

For sure. Structure and architecture are important beyond mere presentation. How different components are layered and arranged will dictate how the diner experiences it. As chefs, we have to think about that juxtaposition right through the end.

How do you go about tasting all these desserts side by side? It almost reminds me of how something like Yellowtail wines won big several years ago in tastings because they were tasted at the, no pun intended, tail end of the session. My wine writer friend told me it was just because tasters’ palates were tapped out by then. Could something similar happen with tasting, say, 15 different desserts in succession?

It’s true, it happens. One tends to remember the first few and the last few; sadly the middle gets fuzzy. If the contestants are smart, they’re keeping this mind, utilizing techniques to make flavors and textures pop, so that their dish is memorable.

Heather wins and Tania goes home. I tend to agree with the decisions. I think Tania could have re-made that mousse. What do you think?

Ultimately, Tania reached that point when she realized something wasn’t right, and she had to make a decision. It’s stressful. I’m not sure how much time she may have had to completely re-do that component, or if she even knew how to fix the problem. The competitors who aren’t slaves to recipes, and who are able to troubleshoot potential mishaps before they happen, are the ones who will reach the final here.

Thanks, Chef Laiskonis! I look forward to tuning in with you tonight for episode 2. It looks like there’s some serious artistry in these chefs’ futures.


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