Top Chef Just Desserts Season 2 Finale: Michael Laiskonis on MOFs and Motifs

Michael Laiskonis is moving on from Le Bernardin -- but, thankfully, not from our blog!

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.Continue Reading

Top Chef Just Desserts Season 2, Episode 9: Laiskonis on Brilliant Disguises

"Johnny, 'Where's the beet?' isn't nearly as funny as you think it is."

We’re one episode away from the finale of this season of Top Chef Just Desserts. Michael Laiskonis, Executive Pastry Chef at Le Bernardin, dissects what happened with the desserts in disguise and dishes on everything from cereal to how he moved from punk rock into pastry.

At the start of this episode, Matt eats some Cap’n Crunch in honor of Carlos – and Chris pours some out. Which would you do? And, is there any kid cereal that you still crave once every five years or so – or one that you might consider cooking with?

Hmmm, dumping it out just seems wasteful. And, truth be told, I can’t even remember the last time I’ve eaten any kind of cereal for breakfast. But, I use Rice Krispies a lot — currently in play on the menu as a garnish to a yuzu dessert, where the cereal is caramelized with black sesame seeds. One of my favorite cereal-based desserts was courtesy of pastry chef-turned-restaurateur, Michel Richard (Citronelle in Washington D.C.), who constructed a miniature croquembuche (a traditional French wedding cake) out of Cocoa Puffs! Crazy! Another that I’ve been inspired by, but never cooked with, is Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I’ve also noticed that just the right combination of citrus zest and lemon verbena eerily calls to mind the flavor of Trix…

Clearly, at this stage, every exit leaves a gaping hole in the TC kitchen. What is it like in a professional kitchen when you get close to someone, professionally speaking – you are very comfortable working together and rely on them – and they move on or, worse, are let go?

Friendships in professional kitchens, even at the highest level, do tend to be transitory. However, one of my favorite parts about the business is the larger community of cooks. Even in a big city like New York, it’s really a small, tight-knit world; should two random cooks meet, it’s safe to say there may only be a degree or two of separation with regard to mutual culinary friendship. While those relationships may or may not extend into ‘real life,’ they almost certainly can transcend any particular kitchen or restaurant. When some sous chef finally opens his own place, who do think he/she calls when it’s time to hire staff?!

Orlando may have fared better if he'd created his entire paella dish out of chocolate.

Wow, Matt sounds like trouble with a capital T when he was a kid, and culinary school helped him find his way. I know you were a punk rocker in your not-so-distant youth, while paying bills by working in a kitchen. What made you make the leap, formally and fully, into the kitchen?

I may have had my moments, like any rebellious teenager, but I think I was a good kid! It’s true that I came of age in the ‘underground,’ and was heavily involved in the local scene when I started to work at a friend’s bakery. What started as something I could do to pay the bills quickly evolved into something I ‘had’ to do. For me, it was working with bread — working with my hands I was suddenly able to transform this pile of ingredients into a living thing, with near-infinite possibility. I was hooked at that moment, and haven’t looked back.

Suzanne Goin is in the kitchen. Lucques is one of the few places I’ve dined in LA and it was amazing. Do you know her and/or have you dined at her restaurants? And, Cat Cora! Whoa! This promises to be an all-star ep!

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The Next Iron Chef Episode 6: Chef Marc Forgione on Pressure and Pressure Cookers

The chefs are challenged to transform the old school 24-hour Vegas buffet: "The Chairman wants you to razzle dazzle Sin City with your modern version." — Alton Brown

Competitor and native New Yorker Marc Forgione walks us through what happened in Vegas in this latest nail-biter of an ep of The Next Iron Chef. Threatened with a double elimination at the outset, chef Forgione was sweating it out with three of his fellow chefs until the very last minute.

This show is set in Vegas. What’s your opinion about Sin City and opportunities for restaurateurs? Do you aspire to open Marc Forgione LV?

I don’t know if I would ever open a Marc Forgione in Vegas. We have plans for Marc Forgione restaurant expansion, but New York is my home base. However…if anyone is out there reading this, I have always been interested in having some type of restaurant in Vegas.  Vegas is an amusement park for adults, where everything is bigger and fancier. When people go to Vegas they want to be wowed and spend money. It is for that reason that Vegas is a chef’s dream — you can cook with exotic ingredients and take the word “fine dining” to the extreme.

For your first challenge, Jean-Philippe Maury is your judge. He’s a MOF. Did you see Kings of Pastry? Maury strikes me as the quintessential French chef, especially with his razz of Canora’s dessert. Were you intimidated by him as a judge?

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Top Chef Just Desserts Episode 3: Half-Baked Sale

Chef Michael Laiskonis admits he was nervous about baking a cake for the great Sylvia Weinstock.

The situation on TCJD gets stickier and stickier every week, due to the increasing pressure and clashing personalities of the pastry pros. Thankfully, renowned pastry chef Michael Laiskonis is back to help us navigate what went right and wrong with everything from this week’s wedding cakes to one cheftestant’s dry cupcakes.

My first question tonight is not entirely related to TCJD, BUT I just saw Kings of Pastry and — WOW! Seeing this competition certainly puts TCJD into perspective (insofar as it has NOTHING on the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France). Did you see the film?

I did, of course, get a chance to see the inspiring Kings of Pastry documentary and I’d like to think its theme of intensity, discipline, and quest for perfection is something that will resonate beyond an audience of just pastry chefs. Being awarded the MOF (literally translated, “Best Craftsman of France”) represents the sum total of a candidate’s life work and training, so it is serious business. The judging is ridiculously technical, but it’s a jury of peers — a panel of previous winners — so there is a deep sense of community and support there as well. Sadly, it’s the very spirit of camaraderie that unravels by the end of this week’s episode of TCJD. Whatever the venue, the best competitions manage to reveal the true test — how each individual overcomes his or her own self-imposed obstacles.

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