As the herd thins on Top Chef Just Desserts, the action does not. Le Bernardin Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis notes, “The show is becoming more about the food and techniques, which I love!” Chef Laiskonis offers up his expert insights into what went right and wrong in last night’s episode.
The QFC is based on three tenets of working in a pastry kitchen: organization, speed, and precision. Would you agree with these as the top requirements, and/or if you could add a fourth or fifth, what would it/they be?
Those are certainly three vital pillars upon which a pastry chef’s skills are built. Obviously, teamwork also comes into play. And, perhaps, I might add humility — something a few of our cheftestants could use a bit more of. I was excited to see this challenge, as they were already planning the logistics while I was on set taping my episode!
The cheftenders are asked to make 12 perfect tart shells, pipe 8 perfect buttercream roses, separate and whip 6 egg whites to peak, and make and pull a streudel dough the length of the work table. Which task would you have picked because you know in your heart you’d have owned it?
Personally, I would have gone with the tart shells. We go through dozens a day, so it’s a skill that gets a lot of practice in our kitchen. Of all the tasks, it’s almost automatic to me; my hands just know what to do without thinking about it. The challenge would have been amped up even further, though, if they had to use tart rings, rather than those fluted, bottomed molds.
Down to the nitty gritty: I would have expected Eric to sleepwalk through the icing roses because he is a baker and, hello, he does this for a living! What happened? I know you’re a restaurant pastry chef and your cake decorating days are either far behind you or never were, but what do you think went on here?
It actually looked like Eric had that down solid, but maybe nerves got the best of him. Don’t forget, he’s got a half dozen cameras hovering over him, on top of the fact that it’s a timed, head-to-head competition. Under such circumstances, I think we’d all be susceptible to the choke. And, you’re right, while I’ve done a few roses in my day, I’m pretty rusty at this point!
I have not made a streudel, but I’ve seen it demo’d in culinary school by ONE very nimble and determined old-school chef and ONE helper. Can you expound on the downright difficulties of getting this delicate-to-make yet-deceptively-sturdy-looking dessert right?
It really begins with dough itself. It has to have the right consistency, and the gluten development has to be just ‘so’ (gluten is the protein in the flour that gives the dough elasticity — not enough and it would tear, too much and it wouldn’t stretch without springing back). This stretching of the dough is what gives the finished product a light flakiness. They say the true sign of a properly stretched streudel is being able to read a newspaper through the delicate dough!
The cheftestants are asked to create a theme around their shops. How important is that to a bake shop or a pastry kitchen? Do you have a theme or, perhaps, a mission statement at LB that informs what you serve and how you serve it?
I think I would use the word ‘vision’, and yes, I do think it’s important. Though there should be a certain sense of identity, it should be loose enough to allow some room to play in. The overall vision for our restaurant encompasses more than just our desserts, of course, but we definitely exist within, and are inspired by, Eric Ripert’s light, elegant, and refined approach. We apply that in different ways, but ultimately, the hope is that we provide a unique experience, which is what it’s all about!
Is it fair that back of house people have to work front of house? I heard Jeremy Fox say something to the effect that the reason he worked the line is so he didn’t have to deal with people.
That’s funny, because I share Jeremy’s sentiments to some degree. It is a hard job outside the kitchen door and an important aspect of the dining experience; it’s just not what I’m good at! That said, it is rewarding as a chef to be able to directly engage the guest, whether over a casual counter or beside a pressed white tablecloth. As a cook back in the kitchen, it’s all too easy to fall into a mindset of sending plates out to some anonymous customer, so it’s important to maintain that connection that you’re cooking for someone.
What is a fraisier? What went wrong for Yigit’s, and what is right in general for this dessert?
The fraisier is a classic gateau in the French repertoire. You could almost say that the name is a play on both the words for ‘strawberry’ (fraise) and ‘fresh’ (frais), and it should convey both. While the supporting flavors sometimes vary, it’s really all about the strawberry. Typically, the cake is built inside a square frame that once removed, reveals beautiful, prominent cross sections of fresh fruit in the center. As much as Yigit’s visual presentation lacked the power of the original, perhaps the lack of punch in strawberry flavor also backed up the judge’s criticism. If you use the name, you have to deliver some degree of authenticity.
When you hear ‘citrus’ as a dessert ingredient, do you want it to make you pucker?
Nancy Silverton is an idol to a lot of us in the business, and her style of baking and pastry has always been distinct and direct — I totally agree with her on this. Citrus works wonders in a supporting role, but when it’s the star, it really has to sing!
Whose dessert trio did you think fulfilled the challenge best? Or — barring remembering everyone’s trios — is there any dessert that stood out in and of itself?
I found myself taking in each teams’ efforts as a whole and how the pastries worked alone and together, as well as how they all fit into the original concept. I like Zac’s savory spin on brioche and even Eric’s classic chocolate chip cookie, but as a trio, I think I’d go with Morgan’s. It was only mentioned briefly by Johnny, but his work showed a wide range of flavors and techniques, which is what this competition is all about.
Can you shed any light on Heather’s choice to roll her dough by hand? Was it, ultimately, the dough that made her go?
Even on the screen, I could tell the dough on Yigit’s tart was incredibly thick, and we saw how such a simple thing can ruin the entire experience of the dessert. As to Heather’s decision to roll by hand, versus the sheeter that was obviously available? I can’t say. A sheeter, by the way, looks like a conveyor belt of sorts, a mechanized pair of rollers that quickly take a lump of dough down to a precise, uniform thickness. Perhaps it was a matter of pride that Heather chose to roll by hand, which is respectable but risky (not to mention time-consuming) in this situation. It seemed Heather had flaws with each of her desserts. Like I said last week, we’re at that point in the show where it’s still anyone’s game, but when the cookie crumbles — or in this case, when the tart shell doesn’t, someone has to go home.