Top Chef Just Desserts Season 2 Episode 8: Laiskonis on Payard, Pie + Ceramic Pigs

Gail Simmons poses with The Man (a.k.a. Francois Payard)

This week’s coverage of Top Chef Just Desserts was a bit delayed by a faulty DVR (mine). It didn’t record the first time out, and my second effort came up a half hour short (the first half hour). Thankfully, Michael Laiskonis, Executive Pastry Chef at Le Bernardin, has a more reliable DVR than I do, so he’s here with his expert commentary — and to fill in the blanks for me!

So, what the hay happened at the QFC?

First, I have to say, from the opening shots through the entire episode, it appears that our final five are quite close and friendly, which is great to see. At this point it could be all about the tension of competition. The civility amidst the threat of elimination is kind of refreshing. It’s a good group, I think!

Yet, fear crept into the hearts of our chefs as they entered the kitchen to find before them the imposing legend Francois Payard. His career began at a very young age in his family’s patisserie, and in his 20 years in the States actually began as one of my pastry chef predecessors here Le Bernardin! From there, he served several years with Daniel Boulud, before opening his own series of shops, here in New York and around the world. In short, he’s the man.

Pie is the focus of the Quickfire, but with a twist, that the chefs prepare their rendition with only one hand. It immediately brought to mind my own stint as a judge last season, when the first challenge had to be executed with a single pot.

Chris's Kermit the Frog impersonation fails to impress his fellow cheftestants.

Can you tell me who won/lost? And why?

Monsieur Payard announced outright that the key to great pie is the crust, which I would have thought to be the biggest challenge given the one-hand restriction. It was the filling, however, that seemed to be deciding factor. Carlos and Orlando were favorites for balance and technique, with Carlos narrowly taking the win with his nitro-cooled lemon meringue. On the bottom was Sally, for her too-tart plum pie, and Chris, who didn’t push the fruit in his banana cream too just the right level. Matt, sadly, was disqualified for an honest, split-second use of the forbidden second hand. That was kind of heart-breaking to see. Rules are rules….

The carnival theme. Are you a fan of the carnival/circus? There aren’t many in NYC proper, but maybe the circus counts?

Can’t recall the last time I’ve attended either. I might have struggled a bit with this one, finding just the right concept.

Bonus NYer Q: Have you ever watched as Ringling Brothers walks the elephants through the Midtown Tunnel?

Really? They still do that?!

Yep! Okay, so we’re at a circus/carnival! I assume the cheftestants had to invoke flavors/dishes you’d find at a carnival. I love cotton candy (in VERY limited quantities). What about you? What are some carnival flavors that might appeal to you?

Cotton candy would have been a great direction, as long as it was refined and wasn’t presented too literally. I guess my mind also goes to fried foods, too. I think perhaps a snowcone might have been an interesting idea to tackle. Again, I’m out of the loop in terms of carnie culture — probably a good thing!

Orlando remembers back to the carnivals of his childhood that featured chocolate as far as the eye could see

Funnel cake. Dessert burgers. Cracker Jacks. Deep-fried apple pie (I haven’t had that at a carnival!). Failed candy apples. As a chef, which signature carnival ingredients would you have gravitated toward and which would you have avoided like the plague, from an execution standpoint?  Also, does nostalgic love always translate to the present?

I think I liked Sally’s approach the best, because she seemed to transform the inspiring caramel-corn the most, while still retaining the essence. Orlando obviously was determined to do a chocolate dessert no matter what, which crippled his dish from the start. Chris went the furthest out-of-the-box in sheer complexity, yet, at the same time, he still had the literal reference with the actual funnel cake component. Carlos, while playful and creative, seemed to go too literal as well — or maybe I’m just not a fan of one food made to look like another food. There was a safe quality to Matt’s dish, but that just goes to show that flawless execution of the simplest idea just might put you ahead.

That concept of nostalgia through food is a compelling one. It is very personal in nature, as we all attach different emotions to such childhood favorites. It’s usually something very subtle that makes it all work, and sometimes the recognition of some nostalgic association can be subconscious.

I’m calling foul on Matt’s apple ‘carpaccio’ descriptor. They’re apples, sliced thinly. Enough with the culinary misappropriations! They drive me utterly insane. Thoughts?

I don’t know, I’d let that one slide! Chefs have long taken poetic license with dish descriptions, and there are certainly worse offenders. If anything, I may have called that an apple ‘salad’. At the end of the day, what matters most is matching the diner’s expectation with what’s presented on the plate.

Matt realizes it just wouldn't be a carnival if someone didn't raffle off a trio of ceramic pigs. Only, who would have such things in their kit?

I will look forward to chocolate carpaccio when I’m at Le Bernardin tonight, then. :p Now, what were those pigs made of? Matt didn’t deep fry baby pigs, did he? Lie to me, if necessary.

I was almost hoping for some sort of pork-centric dessert from Matt, but no, those were simply ceramic swine. Perhaps his raffle was a slightly odd way to set himself apart, but it seemed to work!

Chefs are the new rock stars! And, you all have avid fans/groupies, as evidenced by Matt’s experience on this ep. Between you and Eric and the rest of the crew, I’m sure the Le Bernardin staff are the objects of many people’s affection. Do you think part of this is (in addition to all of your good looks and charisma) due to the fact that the way to a wo/man’s heart is through her/his stomach?

I guess that being happily married, I don’t really notice any of that, if such advances even happen at all! Our deepening ‘foodie’ culture has certainly elevated the status of the chef from mere blue-collar cook to quasi-celebrity. It’s a phenomenon that we all benefit from to some degree. It is true that feeding someone has a certain intimacy that can take on sensual aspects. And, of course, we do have a fairly good-looking crew at Le Bernardin!

I found it very disconcerting that Sally would say an editor influenced her cooking. In my mind, the chefs are the dream makers; the writers/editors are the observers, not the other way around.

I didn’t read Sally’s comments in quite the same way, but, rather, that she may have been inspired by Dana Cowin’s position in the food world. Or maybe, she has been influenced directly by the magazine — difficult to say. On the whole I think chefs and journalists have a symbiotic relationship that is usually healthy and productive. As long as we continue to cook for our own tastes, and those of our guests — pandering to critics and editors just seems dishonest. And for the record, I’ve met and dined with Dana Cowin and she is, indeed, delightful!

The winner is…Matt! Did the pigs put him over the top? And, we’re losing Carlos. While I felt that Carlos’s dessert was awkward, I think Orlando just got VERY lucky. VERY lucky.

Hey, Francois! If I hold this just right, I can see my reflection!

I think the split was spot-on. Any one of the bottom three could have been sent packing for their missteps. I didn’t want to see any of them go, and I will miss observing Carlos’s consistently positive attitude in the final episodes. I may have secretly been pulling for Sally to take the win with her bolder corn dessert, but I was also happy to see Matt redeem himself after the earlier disqualification. Lessons learned? Never a good idea to make macarons for Francois Payard, and always travel with ceramic pigs!



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