Top Chef Just Desserts Season 2, Episode 4: Laiskonis + the Chocolate Factory

"I once ate a snozzberry that was this big!"

Episode 4 of the newest season of Top Chef Just Desserts brought with it the promise of revisiting the sublime Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (and not the abomination that was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!) and biding adieu to two cheftestants. Le Bernardin‘s Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis shares his thoughts.

Michael, I’m not a candy addict, but this movie gets me every time and makes me wish I could eat endless bars of chocolate in search of the Golden Ticket, chew three-course gum, drink from the chocolate waterfall, and eat an endless gobstopper. I trust you have seen the movie – which cinematic confection most intrigued you as a child? And, which one most intrigues you now?

It’s funny, I have seen the movie, but it’s been many years. I’m familiar with all of the iconic references that still float in the culture 40 years later, but most of the finer details are fuzzy to me now. Like the chefs, I kind of wish I’d also had the chance to refresh my memory before the episode as well! And perhaps I’m in the minority among pastry chefs, but I almost never think about the film as it relates to my work; I probably remember it more for the themes that lie just beneath the candied coated surface — greed, patience, childhood innocence. I do think I need to watch it again!

This is Katzie's very clever carrot cake, which guests could pick out of a patch.

Willy wasn’t this guileless nice guy. He was pretty jaded and a dark character. Can you understand how someone might wind up feeling that way after a long time in the food biz — insofar as it is easy to focus on the negative, the demands, and the financial aspects of the business rather than the delight of food?

I’ve never looked at Willy quite that way, but you’re right, and I think there is a parallel one can draw to the life of a chef. The business end of things can be grueling, so it’s not uncommon to loose sight of why you began cooking in the first place. It’s important to recalibrate every once in a while, to get back to basics. For me, it can be simple prep that I usually delegate to others, something monotonous, but altogether enjoyable.

Willy said, “Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.” How do you break down your ratio for invention?

My “creative” process is so varied; I can’t really say that I have a definitive system. Sometimes it’s spontaneous, and other times I’ll ruminate over something for days, weeks, even months. While I don’t necessarily think we can all schedule “creativity” into our day, I think it’s important to set aside some time for play and experimentation.  And, that’s an important word that Willy doesn’t include — “play” — or, maybe in this case, it’s already implied! I would also give a fairly high percentage to “making mistakes,” which is a crucial part of the learning curve and invention game.

Have you ever had a snozzberry?

Snozzberries never seem to be in season when I look for them, though I understand they taste vaguely of wallpaper paste.

Willy puts a pair of  football shoes into a vat of candy to “give it an extra kick.” What literal item might you like to add to a sweet dish to give it a little extra something (assuming that, you know, it wouldn’t really taste like trainers or whatnot)?

There are many ‘kicks’ in my arsenal. We use salt, of course, but also acidity and herbal and floral aromas. And caramel, not just as a flavor unto itself, but as a way to add an underlying note to other flavors.

Is there a danger into putting too much time into the creativestrategy of a challenge over desserts? As the episode develops, it becomes clear that this is   maybe a slippery slope and an unfair strategy to some of the competitors.

As with so many team-oriented challenges, this seems like a difficult divide to sort out. There certainly has to be unity among all the desserts and they all must fit into the overall theme, but I do see the common problem of determining who does what, and whether tasks are doled out evenly. It gets murky, and the bad feelings that result are not surprising. I would tend to give highest priority to my dessert, but, as we’ve seen in nearly every episode this season, the décor aspect is also more of a focal point than it was last season.

Orlando seems psyched with his seemingly endless bounty of chocolate. Can we talk about the art of tempering chocolate? It’s so very precise a process, is it not, to get it to — and keep it at — just the very right point that you can get it to behave?

Now that I understand how much of a chocolate tempering whiz Orlando is, I'll have to temper my opinion of him!

The ins and outs of chocolate tempering could fill an entire book! In a nutshell, chocolate is composed of cocoa solids and sugar, along with small amounts of lecithin (an emulsifier) and vanilla. Regardless of the cocoa percentage on the package you’re using, the fat in the cocoa solids (the cocoa butter) usually accounts for about half of the total composition. It’s an amazing kind of vegetable fat, in that it becomes solid at room temperature; and, the reason it’s so appealing to us is that it melts at a point just below our body temperature.

Yet, it’s a fickle substance; as it hardens, or crystallizes, cocoa butter can set into a range of a half dozen different crystal structures depending on how it’s treated. For pastry chefs, only one of these crystal formations is desirable, the “beta” crystal, which gives chocolate a characteristic sheen and brittle snap. To achieve this fine-tuned property, we employ a method called tempering where the chocolate’s temperature is manipulated up and down to precise points. There are three common ways to temper: working melted (fully de-crystallized) chocolate on a cool surface, seeding melted chocolate with chocolate already in temper, and lastly, heating tempered chocolate right out of the box ever so slowly that it never exceeds the temperature at which it would be thrown out of temper. I’m guessing most pastry chefs, myself included, use the seeding method for its speed and reliability.

If chocolate isn’t properly tempered into that crucial beta crystal, it will appear dull, streaky, and probably won’t even set at all.

What is the monstrosity that Craig is doing? The pate what? Why does it keep failing? And, shouldn’t the bear have been done in pulled/blown sugar?

What Craig was attempting to make was pate de fruit, which is basically a firm fruit jelly cast into shapes or cut into squares and coated with sugar. It generally consists of roughly equal parts fruit and sugar, slowly cooked to several degrees above the boiling point, which allows added pectin to set the mixture. Pectin requires a high sugar concentration to set properly, and a dash of citric acid also aids the pectin as well as providing some small counterpoint to all that sweetness.

Now, a gummy bear is a totally different animal altogether, in that it’s primarily made up of gelatin (and sugar, flavoring, and color). Craig’s approach was interesting, to say the least; I get his wanting to do a big bear for the presentation, but I’m hoping that wasn’t all he put out. What was giving him trouble? Hard to say, but improper scaling, not cooking to the right temperature, or not completely dispersing the pectin into mix could all cause the jelly to, well, set into sticky mess. There was certainly something to exploit in that idea, but I don’t know that such a literal translation was the best course.

What obvious cues/opportunities might people have missed? I always think of the scene where Willy takes a finger full of frosting off a mushroom cap. Anything pop up like that for you? Should someone have made a fizzy drink? Some gum? An everlasting gobstopper? Or some real kind of candy?

Craig's bear was particularly grizzly, especially after it lost its gooey head.

I sympathize with contestants on this challenge; there were so many possibilities, perhaps too many. Sometimes creativity benefits from the existence of some kind set of parameters. There was, in fact, a great representation of the ‘fizzy drink’, and one that immediately came to my mind as well — a chocolate tablet of sorts that encapsulated a fizzy material (perhaps baking soda and citric acid). I was expecting a gobstopper, too.

Instead of merely trying to recreate items directly from the film, the one cue that I might have explored would have been Wonka’s tireless pursuit of innovation. Clearly, he took that seriously — and to surreal levels. I would have loved to see a bit more “mad genius” in some the pieces!

So, what worked best in terms of homage and presentation? What worked worst? Do your picks agree with the judges sending home Craig and Melissa?

I also liked Katzie’s unique take on carrot cake, along with the added interactive element of surprise. Carlos’s wallpaper was fun, too. As someone who has used an egg as a dessert vehicle, I appreciated Rebecca’s cake. I admired Chris’s monumental take on the chocolate fountain, but I wonder if the chocolate cream was as impressive as the architecture.

Melissa’s whoopee pies should have kept her in the game, but, apparently, those doughnuts were really that bad. I feel sorry that she never really had a great challenge; I would have liked to see more of her work. I think it was clear early on that Craig just didn’t have the resume that most other chefs have. He brought a bit of needed levity, but as we approach the season’s half-way point, I didn’t see him holding on for much longer.

Thanks, Michael. We’ll see you next week for more TCJD!




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