This week, Top Chef Just Desserts is a real treat because our own resident expert, Le Bernardin Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis, acts as a guest judge.
ZOMG! There you are! You look very friendly and quite dashing in your suit, but…the competitors called you “VERY scary” and “intimidating.” What do you think of the cheftestants’ assessment of your reputation?
I’m kind of surprised, actually. I’m thinking it’s a compliment…? Now, I might expect that sort of rep from some of the people I work with, but it’s interesting coming from a bunch of chefs I’ve never met! I’m going to be wondering about this for a while.
You’ve been making savory desserts for years. I love me some savory meets sweet. Can you name a few of your fave savory desserts that you’ve served at Le Bernardin recently?
Fall is surely the time when a lot of those savory elements tend to appear. At the moment, we’re pairing figs with goat cheese and bacon ice cream, parsnip appears in the form of a crème brulée, and a sweet potato sorbet tops a dark Dominican chocolate crémeux. All of these deeper flavors work so well in a comforting way, especially as the air begins to chill.
Okay, whoa! The QFC=one pot, one hour. Harsh! What are some obvious limitations, and how much of a not-at-all-big deal is it to have to clean the same pot a few times?
We pastry chefs are used to having a lot of specialized equipment — molds, mixers, ice cream machines, etc., — to produce components with varied forms and textures. To limit the number of toys available does shrink that comfort zone, and it also exposes what tools we rely upon as a sort of crutch. But when you stop and think of all the things you can do with that one pot…there really are a lot of different ways to use it. As far as cleaning the pot over and over…I’d hate to be the chef who accidently scorches something in it!
I simply loved when Zac said that even if you gave him and Yigit the same ingredients, they’d make decidedly different desserts. It reminds me of writers who have a germ of an idea yet worry someone will steal it. Isn’t everything all in the execution?
I think we’ve already seen how much a chef’s personality, training, and over all aesthetic manifest themselves in these challenges. That’s what makes cooking (and eating) exciting — everyone puts a little bit of their own variation, even in the most classic of dishes.
As a judge, can you shed some light on what is expected of you as such, and what you’re looking for from contestants? Is it concept? Flavor? Presentation? Innovation? I know you’re going to say, “Yes (to all),” but amuse me.
Yes, to all. For sure, flavor rules. There’s also degree of difficulty, which encompasses both technique and presentation. Because each chef’s creations are unique, they carry along a unique set of criteria. Though it might be difficult to see on the show, each dish is truly judged on its own merit, rather than against one another. Most important, at this point in the competition, we really had to split hairs and levy criticism on very small details.
I disagree about Heather’s EC dessert. Sure, the challenge was black and white, but isn’t the old newspaper joke that they’re also “read” all over? Wouldn’t a smidge of color have been okay? Seems to me that people often bend the rules to their advantages — and get away with it.
None of the chefs’ desserts were complete failures. While she may have thought outside the box with regard to the “rules,” the flavors and creativity of presentation, while adequate, just didn’t justify how far out she strayed.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but saying you’re among the top 4 out of 7 isn’t exactly all that impressive. Any insights?
It was odd that the split did just happen to divide the field on the gender line, but it was all about the food. There wasn’t a huge margin, but I would say the line between the top and bottom was clear. Each of the favorites represented positives, whether in flavor, presentation, or risk factor. The bottom three had slight, but fundamental, flaws. These really are agonizing decisions!
You said, “Presentation comes second.” Zoinks! Kidding. I concur that taste trumps appearance, but can you defend your statement from an expert perspective?
Of course, a pastry chef’s work must have a certain visual appeal. In this context, however, it was obvious to us that Danielle’s very first thought was how her dessert was going to look, and that the flavors were merely incidental. As long as her 1, 2, and 8 looked good, we just got the feeling the rest was secondary.
Speaking of…Lord of the Rings! Danielle’s dessert seemed utterly ham-handed. Why do you think she wasn’t eliminated?
What’s was worse — Danielle’s decision to put form over function or Erika’s fundamental failure of a key component? Both defended their dishes, but we also had to weigh the lack of ‘black-and-white’ in Erika’s dessert, as well as the lack of that blackberry punch in addition to the unsuccessful ice cream. No matter how talented you are, it’s true that you’re only as good as your last plate!
Chef, you said that you didn’t think your episode was very dramatic, but there was an implication at the beginning that Morgan put the hurt on Heather somehow. Are you, as judges, not made aware of the kitchen dramas?
We’re kept completely separate, really, apart from the fleeting moments we’re on camera together, so, no, I had no idea any of that was going on! And, of course, I was also blind to all of the backstories, so it really is all about a clean slate.
Tell me about tasting all these desserts in the QFC and the EC. Do you not eat for hours beforehand so you’re uber-excited to taste everything?
It’s all in a day’s work!