Top Chef Just Desserts Season 2 Episode 5: Like Water for Chocolate

Episode 5 of Top Chef Just Desserts season 2 tapped into two important childhood experiences — the candy bar and the water park. Le Bernardin‘s Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis talks about both with us this week.

Pichet Ong! He’s all kinds of amazing. I am so curious to see his reactions to what he’s served. Can you talk about Ong’s reputation and his desserts?

Sally's bar beat the competition, bar none!

I first met Pichet some 10 years ago as he rose to prominence as pastry chef of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Asian concepts Spice Market and 66. In a way, he was a perfect judge for this challenge — he has a certain knack for updating and elevating simple classics and street-food desserts. He doesn’t flaunt it, but the guy’s a walking pastry encyclopedia; he seems to know every pastry chef on the planet!

What is your favorite old-school, when-you-were-a-kid, classic candy bar? And, would it still appeal to you today?

As a pastry chef, there’s always been something about a Snicker’s bar that appeals to me — the flavors and the textures are perfect. And, whoever came up the twist of the Twix — a cookie and a candy bar in one — that’s a cool idea. And, give me nougat in any form, I’m a happy guy.

Old-school candy bars have some pretty great names! Snickers, Milky Way, Three Musketeers, Mounds, Almond Joy, 100,000 Bar, Twix, Baby Ruth, Clark Bar, Reggie Bar, Fifth Avenue, Heath bar, York Peppermint Patty, Krackle, Mr. Goodbar! Which of these (or any other) has the best name, and which of the contestants’ bars had the best name?

I almost think we’re too close to these names, because they’re so engrained in our culture and nostalgia. When you really think about it, they are pretty silly! It’s even more interesting to look at candy bars from other countries, ones we didn’t grow up with. Some of my recent faves are British imports — Galaxy and Lion bars. And, I love the Latin American names, which sound extra-exotic. Katzie’s ‘Caramel Cove’ seemed most original and out-of-the-box to me, evoking something beyond what might have been inside the wrapper. And of course, Sally’s ‘Who’s It?’

Yes, I was very partial to Sally’s Who’s It? Reminded me of the Whatchamacallit? And, I love the addition of rice. I also know I would’ve loved Orlando’s, which was very simple but reminiscent of the classic Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar. To you, which bar looked best and as though it would hold best as a candy bar?

Despite putting up two distinct flavors, it was not Hammer time, sadly.

I’d agree that Sally’s offered some great textures. I also liked Matt’s initial idea to separate himself through presentation, even if it didn’t totally work out. Amanda’s tea flavors would have been interesting to try, and Chris put up two complimentary bars — I’m surprised he wasn’t in the top group.

In a competition, is it better to admit a mistake or just go with it? Or both? And when is which right for which situation?

We see this often — the chefs are forced into a corner. Sometimes they are given credit for defending their dish, sometimes they’re criticized for putting it on the plate. The judges aren’t very forgiving of time constraints, so the ‘I ran out of time’ excuse rarely works. The risk-takers seem to benefit only when their risks turn out successful. I don’t necessarily envy the pressure these chefs face each challenge!

Have you ever been to a water park? If so, where and when – and, if you were over the age of 20, um, why? :p

Oh sure, back in Michigan where I grew up. I think I was already to cool for that sort of thing by time I was 12. We had our own swimming pool in the backyard, so I was jaded from an early age.

How cool is it to hog machinery? And, what is a (misspelling alert!) paco jet? How does this work? Did it work out for Chris and his team (the freezing the night before and then the churning the day after) — or not really?

Unlike Michael Laiskonis, these chefs aren't too cool for water parks...yet!

The ice cream machine incident should have been hashed out early on among the group. Such things always occur in restaurants with ovens, sheet pans, even whisks. You have to plan creatively and work as a team — there’s no other way around it. The Paco Jet was a great alternative, especially given the uncertainty of being able to hold the frozen dessrts at the event site.

The Paco Jet arrived on the scene in the mid-90s. Whereas a conventional ice cream machine freezes a mixture while spinning it to create very small ice crystals (the smaller the ice crystals, the creamier the product), the Paco Jet, in a sense, works in reverse. A base is frozen completely solid first. In fact, it really needs to be frozen to 0°F — the reason for the panicked quick-chill with liquid nitrogen. The Paco is essentially a pressurized food processor on steroids — its blade cuts through the frozen mass shearing the ice crystals to achieve a similar to conventional ice cream or sorbet, but sometimes the effect is different, based on the recipe formulation. It can be a great tool, and in this case, it allowed the team to process small amounts onsite mere seconds before serving.

I am a little bit over the juvenile nature of these last few challenges. I’d rather see someone try to go head to head at a church bake sale ‘cause I know then we’d get some good, comfort-style cakes. Is there an argument to be made for doing something in between what we’ve seen thus far — the kiddie and the uber-refined?

The winning team hugs it out, at least until the claws come back out next week.

I think we’ll see the full range of themes, for sure. I like that the challenges present something everyone can relate to, but I’d also say that within these themes, each chef has a great degree of latitude to refine — or simplify — their interpretation. One interesting facet is that the chefs are continually forced to pay close attention to details doled out. In this case, the team that focused on portability showed the strongest dishes.

Johnny says, “If you want to get away from something, don’t call it that,” in response to Orlando’s so-called float. How valid — or not — is that comment in this day and age of deconstruction and radical reinterpretation?

I do agree with Chef Iuzzini — whether it’s in fashion or not (and lately, I’m leaning toward ‘not’), any ‘deconstruction’ or play on a classic still has to evoke what was great about that classic to begin with. I think that was Johnny’s point. If the reinterpretation doesn’t live up to the original, it’s a set up for disappointment. That’s not to say we can’t be creative with such ideas, but we have to deliver on our promises — a diner’s initial perception and expectation of a dish is an often overlooked part of the whole presentation.

Despite Pichet's horror at her dessert being on a stick, Katzie's Baked Alaska won top honors!

Winner/loser circle: Talk to me! I loved Katzie’s Baked Alaska, and I think Amanda’s funnel cake seemed ill conceived from the get-go? Did you agree with the outcome? Also, sub-question: When you think portable amusement-park-type pastry, don’t you think, maybe, churros?

I agree, Katzie’s looked great and really delivered on the theme — the whole team embraced the spirit of the setting. I don’t know that the funnel cake was doomed from the start; churros would have been great, too, but something just didn’t translate here. I liked what we’ve seen from Amanda up until now (and I have to say I’m a huge fan of her restaurant in Chicago, the Bristol!), but this challenge proves that the chefs are judged in the moment, and not on what they’ve put up in the past.



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