As promised, Michael Laiskonis, Executive Pastry Chef at Le Bernardin, returns to share his insights on the second season of Top Chef: Just Desserts!
Michael, you were traveling last week and barely made it back to NYC this week, due to Hurricane Irene. We’re glad you’re here safely. Did you enjoy any fortuitous culinary detours as you tried to make your way back home in the aftermath?
Not so much, as we decided to plow through all the way to New York as quickly as possible. My sous chef and I were cooking as part of a food and wine festival in Bogota Colombia; Matt Hoyle, chef of Nobu 57 and his sous chef were in the same situation, finding ourselves stuck Miami. We decided to drive; I’d say the most notable culinary experience was a simple, but mighty fine breakfast in Dunn, North Carolina.
I know you’ve caught up on the premiere, so let’s touch on some of the contenders. I think Orlando is sure to be this season’s love-hate contestant. He’s obviously EXTREMELY talented, but the editing is setting him up to be Mr. Not-So-Nice-Guy. Who else among this group is one (or are ones) to watch? Chris?
I know Chris personally, and I know he’s got the skills to go all the way. I think Sally, Amanda, and Matt are also the chefs to watch, as well as Orlando. But, as we’ve learned from every series or iteration of the show, there are quiet dark horses, and seemingly simple challenges can trip up the best of talents.
Last last-week question: I was not at all shocked at Lena’s departure. As soon as she mentioned something about having won Best Cupcake of Seattle or somewhere, I figured she was dead in the water. Thoughts?
Ah yes, I think it was Austin. Having been in their position, I’m sure the judges based their decision solely on the merit of the showpiece and desserts produced. But definitely, humility is important; it’s not what you’ve done, but what you’ll do next.
Margaret Braun is in the house. Her cakes are beautiful and very, very fussy and I would hire a diamond cutter to slice ’em. She wants the cheftestants to “reveal a secret of a lemon.” I don’t want you to reveal your lemon secrets, but what obvious traps might you avoid here when working with this particular citrus?
I don’t mind sharing my secret, if you’d even call it that! For me, lemon, or citrus in general, can function as a seasoning, just like salt or sugar. I use the juice, and zest to balance and add punch to other flavors all the time. As the focus of a dessert, that balance is really the key, and as we saw, so is coming up with just the right flavor pairings.
Did you agree with the QFC winner – and the bottom folks? I was rooting for Katzie’s creation. Can you comment on Orlando’s? His just LOOKED awful, or was that just me?
I also liked Katzie’s idea, transforming a rather conventional crepe into something new and interesting. I also like Carlos’ inventive use of the technique we call ‘spherification’ as a component in his dessert. I’d agree with Margaret that lemon and chocolate often come off as an odd couple. I understand Orlando’s thought process, to balance things out, but remember, time is the ultimate test in these quick-fire challenges; our first impulse is not always the best.
Is pastry the perfect marriage of science and art, as one of the cheftestants said?
Absolutely, I’ve always subscribed to that idea. Striking the balance of those two forces is what makes the craft so exciting.
What is modeling chocolate, and how is it different from other chocolates?
Modeling chocolate, as the name suggests, is used mostly as a decorative element, with added ingredients to make it pliable. It barely resembles eating or baking chocolate both in flavor and the way it behaves; though it’s certainly edible, it’s not something you’d be compelled to snack on.
Michael, how hard is it to allow three different chefs, or four, to craft not just how a tier of a layer cake looks but, how it tastes in relation with the others – in a cake that is supposed to be harmonious?
That was the toughest aspect of the challenge — working as a team to create a cohesive whole, while preserving each chef’s personal identity with each tier. Clearly, the two successful teams chose to unify their overall presentation, although the interiors of the cakes – what really counts at the end of the day- stood alone.
Are there pastry chefs who have the technical abilities/architectural abilities but aren’t the best at flavoring?
I’m sure there are chefs whose strengths lie toward one end of the spectrum or another. Often, I think it’s a matter of one’s training and the sort of venue and style they work in. A wedding cake specialist or hotel pastry chef is certainly going to have more opportunities to work on a grand architectural scale, while restaurant pastry chefs tend to pay close attention to the last minute details and nuances of an immediate and delicate dessert.
When they say to turn up the flavor on a cake – how risky is that in the moment? I’m assuming that, while contestants prep, they’re not really always at the ready to dial something up or down? And could it be a matter of proportion — like, well, stand-alone, this tastes very spicy, but when you put it up against devil’s food cake, not so much?
As pastry chefs, we have the very important task of being able to predict the future. Once we prepare something to be baked or frozen, for instance, we normally can’t tinker with or adjust things along the way like most chefs do in savory cooking. That’s where the science aspect comes in, but also experience and just plain common sense. I also see that building and layering of flavors as an architectural act; if it’s not engineered well, it’s going to fall apart, literally and figuratively.
Which would you prefer – a broken cake or an ugly cake — or a yummy cake?
The mantra, of course, is that flavor trumps all. But we do practice a highly visual art, so presentation counts, too. Like Johnny said in relation to the crumbling garnishes on one cake — as a customer, I, too, would be disappointed, no matter what challenges the elements present. It’s our job to overcome those hurdles.
Do you agree with the outcomes, in terms of the Red Team winning and the Blue Team losing (and Vanarin leaving us)?
I do think the split between the top and bottom teams was pretty clear. I would have guessed Craig was the next to go, but it’s true that Vanarin’s strategy was poorly thought out.
Thanks for being here again, Michael. We’ll see you next week for more sticky and sweet drama!