This week, your faithful CDO is somewhere in Lake County, California, at a casino (Don’t ask!), but in my stead to cover Top Chef Just Desserts, we have talented writer and foodie Megan Murphy, who blogs about what’s on her plate at This Girl Can Eat. You can peep her full bio after the Q+A. She’s grilling our resident expert, Le Bernardin Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis, about all the beastly happenings this week. Take it away, Megan!
Episode guest Jordan Kahn honed his craft in some of the country’s most esteemed restaurants (including The French Laundry and Per Se) and has gained quite the reputation in the pastry world. How do you feel about his sweet and savory approach?
Indeed, Jordan is a great guy and one of the most creative pastry chefs around, not only blurring the sweet-savory divide, but also in his presentation style, inspired by nature and visual artists of all kinds. As important as the classics are, it’s also important to refine and redefine what dessert can be. I have yet to check out Jordan’s restaurant, Red Medicine in LA, but I can’t wait to sample his take on southeast Asian cuisine.
The contestants talk about sampling — when you take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and make it your own. Do you recall a situation where your pantry wasn’t stocked with what you needed and you had to improvise to get the job done?
Such sampling, in a sense, is what all chefs do; we channel the various things we’ve seen and tasted, and filter it all through our own personality. As for culinary improvisation, for sure, there have been challenging moments, especially when traveling to other countries, where some products can be different or perhaps don’t exist at all. Even on a day-to-day basis in every kitchen, there are variables in products. In such cases, adaptability is an important skill to have, as well as being able to confidently swap one ingredient for another. The ability to overcome such hurdles underscores my belief that chefs must have intimate knowledge of the composition and function of his or her ingredients.
Other than sweet potato pie, root vegetables don’t often make an appearance on my dessert plate. How would you turn the Quickfire ingredients, such as jicama, radish, or burdock root, into a dessert worthy of Le Bernardin?
Actually, root vegetables by nature tend to provide a certain degree of sweetness, so it’s not that much of a stretch to apply, say, the idea of a carrot cake or that sweet potato pie to a wider spectrum of ingredients. Matt did just that with his parsnip cake — I love the sweet earthiness parsnip can bring to a dessert, and it works well with flavors like chocolate, hazelnut, and vanilla. I might have treated the jicama minimally, capitalizing on its crunchy texture in the raw state. I do admit that radish was probably the toughest of the lot, but its peppery bitterness could easily be a foil for more traditional sweeter notes.
As a huge Beastie Boys fan, I was psyched to see Ad-Rock show up in the Top Chef Just Desserts kitchen. Have you ever served dessert to one of your favorite artists? If not, what music legend would you love to create a dish for if you had the chance? What would it be?
I have been privileged to cook for a great number of celebrities, musical and otherwise, and at a restaurant like Le Bernardin, fairly often. Though I hate to be coy, out of respect for such guests, we never feed-and-tell, so you’ll just have to use your imagination! One fantasy I’ve always had, however unattainable now, would be to cook for the Beatles, specifically dishes inspired by the song “Savoy Truffle,” which references all kinds of real and theoretical pastry items. That would be a fun project, for sure.
The Beastie Boys pantry was filled with food items mentioned in their songs (Awesome!), yet most were far from dessert-friendly. How do you think the contestants did, given the obscure parameters of the challenge? Do you think they met the criteria of “adding a little street” to their dishes?
It’s funny, eggs were the first thing I thought of (“Egg Raid on Mojo” or “Egg Man”), though, perhaps, they weren’t worthy of the “Sabotage” theme! And “Cooky Puss” would have been a great idea for a pastry chef to play with! (Ed. note: I cannot believe no one attempted an homage to Cooky Puss!)
It’s true, that was a terrifying pantry to contend with. But, at the same time, I think that gave the chefs an even wider mandate for an anything-goes sense of creativity. Whether chicken or falafel, pork and beans, or onions, this playful challenge — even the artsy venue — could have inspired our contestants to really push the envelope of what “dessert” can be. There were, to me, hits and misses, but I’d have to agree with the judges that the most challenging ingredients made for the most interesting desserts. And, you have to give Chris some credit for jumping in head-first with his choices — I definitely would not have picked pesto pizza!
Some of the items — pesto pizza, canned ravioli, hot dogs, pork and beans — simply have no place in a pastry kitchen. What are some of the worst ingredients you can imagine being given to work with?
To me, the toughest would be anything in the onion family, garlic especially, which proved to be Rebecca’s downfall. There is one possible exception — fermented black garlic — which trades in some of its pungency for a sweet, umami flavor. Most proteins would also pose a challenge. Despite its acclaim as a temple of seafood, I think I can safely say there will never be fish in one of Le Bernardin’s desserts!
For the Elimination Challenge, the contestants had to pull the ultimate sabotage by giving one another a third pantry item to incorporate into their dish. What would your strategy be — would you try to take down your biggest competitor by giving him/her the worst ingredient or would you play nice?
I think the best competitors are really competing with themselves and testing their own limits. I’m not saying they should necessarily help their adversaries, but why sabotage them? Bad karma, for sure.
This episode focused on music and art. Is there anything in pop culture that has influenced you in your career as a pastry chef?
I’m quite fascinated with the idea infusing food with ideas from other artistic disciplines. Can we express the same sense of “emotion” in food and in the same language as other art forms? We can certainly trigger sense memory and convey nostalgia, and I think I’ve seen more attempts at culinary irony than I can shake a spatula at. Beyond that, is it just taste and a pretty plate? Is it that next step — that little extra ineffable nuance, which defines and separates the very best cooking from mere food preparation? For a long time I’ve thought about artistic devices that would be interesting if they could somehow be applied to cooking. I’m not talking about mere plating technique or a direct “representation” of a work of art but more theoretical concepts… architecture, literature, music, etc. I don’t know if such ideas truly work, but it’s fun to ponder the possibilities!
Some savory and salty ingredients (such as bacon, popcorn, cheese) have been gaining popularity on dessert menus across the globe. Have you ever featured unconventional ingredients in your creations at Le Bernardin? Or can you recall such a standout dessert at another restaurant?
A few years back we, too, featured a dessert with bacon ice cream (along with goat cheese and red wine, to boot); it really does work. Salt has certainly found a place as an overt ingredient these days, as have smoky flavors. And, virtually any vegetable is fair game, too. I once read a quote that said, “If you put enough sugar on it, anything can become a dessert, even steak.” I’m not sure that’s entirely true across the board, but I have actually had skirt steak ice cream, courtesy of pastry chef Sam Mason during his time at Tailor here in NYC. It was, in fact, very delicious.
Before Rebecca was eliminated, Johnny told her, “You have to be able to think on your feet and overcome any obstacles in the kitchen.” What are some obstacles you’ve had to face throughout your career?
To paraphrase the great French chef Fernand Point, “Cooking is simply the sum of many small things done perfectly.” Each of those many small things presents its own set of variables. There are many potential disaters on a day-to-day basis (injured or absent cooks, broken equipment, late food deliveries, etc.) that can really throw a chef’s day out of whack. I think we develop a reflex to such pitfalls allowing us to just brush it off and get things done, no matter what. I’ve encountered my share of major mishaps and even a bonafide crisis once or twice, but I think that constant conditioning to the finer details trains chefs to cope with big obstacles with relative ease. One important thing I try to remind myself is that no matter the setback, at the end of the day, you have to maintain your standards of quality. Once that becomes second nature, it’s all a cakewalk!
Megan Murphy is a freelance writer living in NYC, who loves both dining out and getting crafty in the kitchen. Megan started in publishing at People magazine and Condé Nast, and then decided to turn her passion for food into a career. She currently writes for Cooking Light, contributes to websites including The Strong Buzz, Clean Plates, and NearSay NY, reviews restaurants for the Clean Plates 2012 Guides (Manhattan & Brooklyn editions), and runs her own aforementioned blog, ThisGirlCanEat.com. She is a food and wine event regular, spends free time taking courses at the Institute of Culinary Education, and has never turned down dessert because she was too full.