Top Chef Just Desserts Finale: Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis on Love and Loss

Isn't Yigit sweet?

It’s probably safe to say that the first season of Top Chef Just Desserts was a resounding success, so we’re pleased to bring you — for the last time this season but not the last time, I hope — expert insights from Le Bernardin‘s own Michael Laiskonis.

Before we even dive in, how high are the judges’ expectations at this point? Can you put this into perspective? In terms of the title being meaningful, do the standards have to be insane?

I’d like to think that the standards and expectations have been at a constant high level throughout the competition. As this challenge will represent the sum total of the chefs’ work, I’d also bet the judges are really looking for that personal touch; and that’s also when the chef’s are really just pushing their own limits and competing less with each other and more against themselves.

What does a progressive, four-course dessert tasting mean for you when you hear that? Does it inspire opportunity? Fear? Have you done this/do you do this at Le Bernardin? When would a civilian diner (like me) get this opportunity?

I love that kind of format, as it gives us pastry chefs a rare opportunity to take guests on a little sweet journey — an opportunity to explore a range of techniques, flavors, and textures. I also like exploiting a buildup of intensity and creating a cohesive package in small, distinct dishes. We don’t exactly have that kind of structure built into our menu at Le Bernardin, but we’re willing to negotiate such a thing! One restaurant that does is wd-50, where pastry genius Alex Stupak offers an amazing multi-course dessert tasting.

Danielle had some serious grrrl power on her side during the finale.

Can you put the famous pastry sous chefs into perspective for us? Claudia? Elizabeth? Sherry? And, if you had drawn one of them to help you — are you feeling psyched or scared? Is there any comment you have around the teamwork — or not — that we see from the pastry chefs and their famous sous chefs? Morgan was not connecting at all!

Well, I count each of them as friends, so I adore and respect each of them equally! They each have distinct styles: Claudia, former pastry chef of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, has been extremely influential. Sherry’s reach is fairly extensive, too, as Wolfgang Puck’s lead pastry guru. Elizabeth has an impressive range, from retail pastry shop to full-on restaurant, and she brings modern touches and a high ‘hip’ quotient into her work. I would have been stoked to work with any of them. As for Morgan and Claudia, well, they both have a speak-your-mind confidence that might clash.

Michael, you’re not too long in the tooth, but, certainly, you’ve been cooking long enough to have worked alongside people you may not have enjoyed. What is your advice for doing your best work alongside less-than-ideal cooking partners?

Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often. I’ve said this before, that when you work within a team, you have to set aside whatever differences exist in favor of a common goal. You always need to back each other up when stuff hits the fan. It’s a good practice in the kitchen, as well as outside of it.

Morgan came up empty-handed when it came to trying to beat Yigit.

Talk to me about Morgan’s choices! Could this be color palette vs. palate? Also — Baumkuchen? Is this as impressive as it sounds, and, if so, how did he pull that off yet fall flat — literally — with the souffles?

I, too, was concerned when he announced a theme for his tasting. I would think it best to let the food speak for itself, without the distraction — and added expectation — of an unnecessary, self-imposed limitation. But then, in order to tie everything together as a whole, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. With something like the baumkuchen, I think we tend to appreciate the skill and precision of such a construction when it isn’t executed well. The soufflé was certainly a risk, which if successful, might have made him look like a rock star. It didn’t work, which is why I’m sure it’s not a risk I would have taken.

Danielle: I like her inclusion of cheese, but who cares what I think. Did you like it? I loved her take on Baked Alaska! And her pudding cake! Highs and lows?

Absolutely, I think it was very cool for her to start by skewing toward the savory. And cheese is such a great vehicle for all kinds of sweet and salty flavors; it’s the perfect transition into dessert. I really dug the look of the Baked Alaska, but I think that dish was her peak; even though the cake may have been the richest, most substantial of her dishes, it didn’t seem to carry through on the trajectory she began with.

What did you think of Yigit’s approach? It felt very much from the heart — as opposed to whimsy or clinging to a clumsy theme.

He did, I thought, create a borderline sense of a theme, but it was nice to see each component fit into his greater story. Yigit definitely embraced the idea of a progression and slow building of complexity as his tasting went along. Morgan criticized him for redundancy, but his use of a frozen component manifested itself differently in each course.

This was another gathering of esteemed judges. Is there anyone in the group who’d make your knees knock (in theory) if you had to serve her/him?

For sure it would be stressful, cooking for all of them at once — Saveur’s James Oseland, Susan Feniger, Suzanne Goin, the local chefs and aforementioned celebrity sous chefs… But in the end, the most analytical palate of that bunch is definitely Johnny Iuzzini. I would have totally been cooking with only his sensibilities in mind. Come to think of it, even though he’s a longtime friend, if he showed up for dinner tonight, I’d be sweating a bit!

Michael Laiskonis smiles, remembering Yigit's bacon and foie gras dessert.

What is the comment about the ‘typical male pastry chef’ about?! Please explain — and do you fall into this category/stereotype?!

Oh dear. I think Claudia might have been on to something, that there may exist a tiny bit of a masculine bravado among pastry chefs. Perhaps it’s an attempt to overcompensate for what generally isn’t considered a very masculine profession? I have no idea, really, but I hope I don’t engender that stereotype!

Yigit wins! Yay! What qualities does he have that might make you want him working in your kitchen? And, did any dish he served bowl you over in terms of conception?

I’m very happy with the outcome. Throughout the season, he showed that he had solid footing both with the classic cannon of pastry skills as well as a sure hand when it comes to more modern techniques and flavor combinations. Case in point: his ‘savory’ dessert that included both bacon and foie gras (and that I was lucky enough to taste), showed both audacity and restraint. I also think he evolved over the course of the competition, maybe not as much as Danielle, but perhaps more than Morgan did. That spirit of perpetual learning is a chef’s most important quality.

I’m bummed the show is over, but I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to offer up this weekly play-by-play. And I think Top Chef Just Desserts did ultimately give a wider audience a tiny glimpse into the world of our pastry kitchens. Thanks Caroline, and I hope you’ll have me back for the next season!

I was hoping you’d say that!

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