No, not that tea party. But, there was a tea party this week on Top Chef Just Desserts and, as with certain politicians around the U.S., it proved to be more than a few folks’ undoing. Le Bernardin Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis walks us through the minefield that was episode 8.
Shinmin Li is in the house and she’s saying the trend is now toward artful decorative, desserts with a wow factor. Would you agree and why?
While there has to be an inventive, pleasing visual element to pastry, I’ll stick to my guns in saying that flavor comes first. That ‘wow’ factor needs to be sustained all the way through, beyond the first impression.
Would you gravitate toward the natural, as Danielle did, if tasked with making a centerpiece? If not, what techniques/materials would come to mind?
I was surprised to see Danielle lean toward that ‘naturalistic’ look, especially since it almost sent her home on the edible fashion challenge a couple of weeks back. I would have taken the approach Morgan and Yigit did, incorporating sugar and chocolate techniques to achieve a representational, yet contemporary feel.
Morgan was pulling sugar and talking about how he wanted to showcase his ability to do so. Can you explain what it is and what it entails for our non-pastry peeps?
Though it’s a skill that requires a good deal of practice, sugar pulling is fairly straightforward in theory. Sugar is dissolved and then cooked down to the ‘hard crack’ stage. Color is often added at this point, and as the sugar mass begins to cool, it’s kneaded and stretched, which gives the sugar a bright sheen. Small pieces can then be snipped off and pulled into petals of infinite variety. When different colors are roped and pulled together into thin sheets, the sugar can then be cut and manipulated to construct ribbons and bows like the one Morgan made. The very thin filaments that gave Morgan’s arrangement height were another application of pulled sugar.
Whose QFC bouquet looked best as a centerpiece? Would Yigit have won if he’d finished?
I’d agree that Morgan’s piece showed the best execution, even though he didn’t appear to venture outside his comfort zone. As cool as Yigit’s vase idea was, I almost think it was doomed to fail. I’ve used a similar technique in much smaller formats, and the effect is indeed as thin as sheet of paper, almost like an edible cellophane.
Chocolate is taken away as an EC ingredient. I wouldn’t expect chocolate at a tea party — except maybe in the smallest way as an accent. How about you?
Anything goes these days when served up with a dash of poetic license, so I wouldn’t have seen a problem with, as you say, a bit of chocolate as an accent. But I agree. I don’t normally associate chocolate with tea. While I think it was harsh to surprise the chefs by excluding a key pastry staple, I think the best plan would be to focus on fruit-driven desserts, like Danielle and Zac.
When someone says ‘duo of desserts’ to you, what’s your culinary compass in terms of how much they should complement one another yet differ? Or should they mirror one another? Do opposites attract in duo desserts — so that you have everything (every flavor and so on) when they are placed on the same plate? A lot of questions, but I guess what I’m really asking is, what makes a duo of desserts great as a duo?
It’s akin to pairing wine with food. Do you seek to match flavors, contrast flavors, or create some sort of third place — a synergy that is greater than the sum of its parts? All three views are appropriate. Too similar, and each dessert becomes redundant and unmemorable. Too distinct from one another, and they lose cohesion. Certainly a range of tastes, textures, and techniques is a winning formula.
Why do you think everyone (excepting Zac) keeps oversizing their desserts in the challenges that clearly call for delicacy?
I think it might depend on each chef’s background. Perhaps they aren’t necessarily used to exercising that restraint and refinement. On the other hand, I’m not ruling out the fact that when you’re working under that kind of pressure, your judgment becomes impaired.
I loved Zac’s duo as I felt the two worked well alone and apart — literally! They fit together! They had texture. They were size-appropriate. What are your thoughts on his win?
I think Zac successfully found that elusive third way — though each stood on its own, he actually considered how they might be combined together and taken as a whole. And I think he had the best concept for the theme of the challenge — that might have thrown me for a loop!
Let’s talk about Yigit’s over-ambition. Is it a curse of personality?
Clearly, the absence of chocolate pushed him over the edge. While some chefs do have a natural tendency to over-think and stretch themselves too thin, stress certainly exacerbates that trait. Ambition has served Yigit well in the past, so I think this poor showing can be chalked up to frustration and lack of confidence. I see it all the time.
Eric is a very nice and talented man, but I am guessing that the final challenges are only going to emphasize precision/technique, which aren’t his strongest qualities. Do you agree? And what are your thoughts on the Final Four and their chances? What skill do they need to help them cross the finish line?
Eric was a wild card from the outset, and I’m happy to see that he made it as far as he did. This could have been his challenge, but the theme seemed to throw him off. I think that’s going to continue to be a big factor in the judging — the extent to which the chefs can think quickly and adapt. As talented as he is, Eric just seemed to have one speed. I almost called it from beginning, these four chefs that remain. I thought Heather C. was a solid contender, but I’m glad to see Danielle starting to show a bit more of what she’s capable of. One thing’s for sure, we’re going to continue to see the contestants stretched further and further to show the true breadth of a pastry chef’s skills!