We’ve come to the finale of this season of Top Chef Just Desserts. In keeping with tradition, Michael Laiskonis, Executive Pastry Chef at Le Bernardin, helps us navigate the sweet and lowdown.
Is the restaurant pastry chef the underdog here?
I think there is some truth to that- it depends on how well-rounded a pastry chef’s training is. For those whose experience is limited restaurants, showpiece work and entremets just don’t factor into the daily repertoire. Yet the same fundamental skills apply across the board. One has to continually push themselves into those uncharted territories; while I never have the need for showpieces, I will occasionally play around just to feel that more well-rounded.
How lovely that these MOFs are not only here but they are really jumping in! Doing prep work! Doing dishes! What does this say about the reality of the kitchen, as opposed to the fantasy that some cooking/food shows have created?
I have to say, the opening fifteen minutes of this episode may count as my favorite part of the whole season! I love the concentration and the attention to detail these guys bring to the kitchen; as intimidating as that stare may be, it is an empathetic one. Add to that the fact they were so hands-on, and it underscores what I really took away from last year’s Kings of Pastry documentary- the strong sense of community, even in the face of competition. No one wants anyone else to fail; everyone looks better when all are able to do their best. I find that camaraderie very inspiring.
The Eliminated Chefs return. Are there a couple of cheftestants you might gravitate toward for one skill or the other?
There were a few chefs throughout the season that, to me, really showed they could get down to business like some dependable workhorse: Amanda, Megan, and Carlos for sure. I get that everyone (well, maybe with the exception of Chris) was hoping to capaitalize on Orlando’s chocolate skills. It’s all a slippery slope. In a restaurant kitchen, we benefit from individuals taking ownership of particular tasks. In a competition, however, delegation is much tougher.
Let me ask, do you want help that you’re not particularly sure about at this point in the competition — or would you prefer to fly solo?
I think there needs to be balance. I would leave the most simple tasks — however well they needed to be executed — to the sous chefs in order to focus on the starring elements. Sally took a huge risk in giving Orlando so much responsibility. At the end of the day, it becomes a question of how much you need to control, but also living with the results.
What are the challenges of being asked to make a dessert that is so personal? Is the emotional aspect of this a potential pitfall? Conversely, what are the opportunities to make a dessert for someone you love – and who you know appreciates every aspect of what you’ve put before her/him?
It’s a heavy assignment. While I think it may be easy to channel the inspiration in a meaningful way to the subject of that dessert, will the random taster be able to identify with the references, the emotion? It’s similar to playing with the broader ideas of nostalgia — because all of our childhood memories are unique to each of us, the references may not always work across the board. But then the question is, how important is that level of understanding?
What I remember most about Kings of Pastry was that flavor really was of the utmost importance, whereas, initially, I thought that it would be more about looks. The same seems true here. These chefs are focusing so much on flavor, first and foremost, while balancing that with curb appeal.
It is a whole package. And I like how Johnny looked at each of the chef’s buffet, through that lens of conceptual continuity, from showpiece through each element for tasting. Not only does each bite — bonbon, cake, plated dessert — need to stand on its own, but it also has to make sense as a whole. The visual appeal simply helps tell that greater story. We also can’t discount the simple fact that the design, construction, and cleanliness of the piece can tell a lot about a chef’s most basic skills and dexterity.
I love that they are moving their own showpieces! Okay, so Jordan Kahn is back. Hasty Torres. Valerie Gordon. Jacquy Pfeiffer, Ludo Lefebvre. Who do you know from here? Who might you fear?!
I’m friendly with them all, with the exception of Valerie and Ludo, whom I’ve never met (though I have wanted to taste Lefebvre’s food for many years now — can’t wait for his eventual NYC pop-up!). I would most definitely fear the MOFs, of course, because they are looking far beyond the sum total to really evaluate every single flavor, texture, and technical aspects. But I have to say, just from seeing his critique every week, I think Johnny is head judge for a reason- his remarks are fair but firm and always spot on.
Whose overall table preso LOOKED best? Whose plated dessert had the most intriguing flavor combination? For the record, I think Matt’s playground dessert was a bit scattered. And I wanted Chris’s to have more of a visual wow factor.
I liked each presentation for different reasons. I like Chris’s bold look and the fact that he carried that industrial motif through each element; if there was a disconnect, it may have been with the plated dessert. Sally also created a unified whole, if only her plated dessert had risen to higher level of refinement. I have to admit Matt’s was the weakest, due in part to that lack of overall training and experience. I applaud his diving into the unknown with sugar- and it was beautiful — it just didn’t create that ‘entire package’.
Have you worked with speculoos? When is the last time you made an entremet? And, have you ever had Tom Colicchio’s Parker House Rolls? Crikey! They are amazing.
Sure, I’ve messed around with the Speculoos idea now and then. I usually explain it as a close cousin to gingerbread. I think Matt did very well to introduce that into his lime bonbon.
Though showpieces aren’t on my daily prep list, we certainly assemble a lot of cakes and enteremets. In my view, Chris shined in that category — his seemed the most balanced and well-proportioned of the three. The building of an entremet has to be very calculated; it’s almost an architectural exercise.
Chris wins. Well played. In addition to his independence in executing so much of his EC challenge elements, in comparison to his fellow cheftestants, did it help to NOT put out a chocolate plated dessert?
In a competition, there has to be some common thread to compare, as Johnny said, “apples to apples.” But a smart strategy is to set yourself apart as much as possible. Chris’s experience came through in his plated dessert, but also his bonbon, for which he cast into a different mold. There is that grey area that always comes up on Top Chef — are you rewarded for going out on a limb, or are you criticized for playing it safe? The answer seems to be different each time it’s asked!
As soon as I saw Chef Hamner in the first episode, I thought to myself, “No question, Chris is taking it.” But I have to admit my bets changed each week. At any given point in the season, I would have put my money on Orlando, Carlos, Sally, or anyone, actually. That’s what made this season so fun to watch — the elevated challenges, and the fact that, until the final moments, it could have been anyone’s game.
Finally, Michael, I know you’re leaving Le Bernardin in the new year. I won’t press you on all your plans, because you still have many desserts to serve at LB before your swan song there. I am so grateful to have had your expertise for two seasons of TCJD, and I hope that you will continue to contribute your knowledge and wit with our diners. As a final Q for this season, can you say definitively if you might ever pursue the MOF title?
It’s true, I’ve decided to take on new challenges and opportunities, but not before we push through the coming holiday season. I will definitely be working hard right up until the last service! Of course, I will always be here, Caroline, to help decipher this crazy underworld of chocolate and sugar. It’s that kind of sharing and exchange that I hope to do more of!
Though I can’t quote any statistics, the number of non-French chefs competing for the MOF — let alone winning the title — is extremely low, almost non-existent. As much as I want to continue learning and testing my own mettle… I think I’m starting to get a bit old for that!
I’ll disagree on the old part. We can’t wait to catch up with you, Michael, to see where your imagination and your whisk will take you next. And, of course, we look forward to watching season 3 of Top Chef Just Desserts along with you!