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 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.Continue Reading

Top Chef Just Desserts Season 2 Episode 7: Doughnuts + Double Eliminations

The yeasty doughnuts Carlos made are pretty cool...

Episode 7 of Top Chef Just Desserts season 2 touched on at least one subject very near and dear to my heart — doughnuts! Le Bernardin‘s Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis is back to discuss doughy treats and chocolate showpieces!

I play in a band called Hot Doughnuts (founded many years before they became trendy), named because we thought that there are few people who do not like a hot doughnut. That said, I fear the trendiness of the simple and humble doughnut (see cakes, cup). Any thoughts on that?

Wow, a band? I never realized you were so multi-talented, Caroline! (Ed. note: Ha! Hardly!) Because fried dough is so ubiquitous — it seems every culture on the planet has some version of its own — it’s almost trend-proof. I guess the only risk factor would be the inevitable poor execution that comes with more folks jumping on that bandwagon. I have to say I am a fan of NYC’s Doughnut Plant; the tres leches creation is that good.

I’ll have to break down and try one of the DP’s doughnuts then. Also, our band is only slightly worse than Crucifictorious. So, create the perfect doughnut! That’s a tall order! My idea of it is a very simple, painfully plain doughnut. I love a classic plain for dunking (note: not ‘Dunkin’!) or a classic light and fluffy glazed. Oh, and an old-school jelly doughnut. What are some of your ideas around perfect doughnuts?

..but maybe not as cool as my band's logo?

Yeah, for the most part, I’m pretty old-school when it comes to doughnuts. Just as we tend to judge pizza on its crust, the fundamental aspect of the doughnut should be the dough itself. If I had one item that came close to Proust’s memory-inducing madeleine, it would be warm cinnamon doughnuts and apple cider, which takes me back to autumns of childhood, visiting the local cider mill in Michigan. And I’ve never really looked into the process that makes a classic Krispy Kreme  so good — maybe that they glaze while still warm — but I always say that one isn’t enough, but two is too many. In a good way!

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Top Chef Just Desserts Season 2, Episode 4: Laiskonis + the Chocolate Factory

"I once ate a snozzberry that was this big!"

Episode 4 of the newest season of Top Chef Just Desserts brought with it the promise of revisiting the sublime Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (and not the abomination that was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!) and biding adieu to two cheftestants. Le Bernardin‘s Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis shares his thoughts.

Michael, I’m not a candy addict, but this movie gets me every time and makes me wish I could eat endless bars of chocolate in search of the Golden Ticket, chew three-course gum, drink from the chocolate waterfall, and eat an endless gobstopper. I trust you have seen the movie – which cinematic confection most intrigued you as a child? And, which one most intrigues you now?

It’s funny, I have seen the movie, but it’s been many years. I’m familiar with all of the iconic references that still float in the culture 40 years later, but most of the finer details are fuzzy to me now. Like the chefs, I kind of wish I’d also had the chance to refresh my memory before the episode as well! And perhaps I’m in the minority among pastry chefs, but I almost never think about the film as it relates to my work; I probably remember it more for the themes that lie just beneath the candied coated surface — greed, patience, childhood innocence. I do think I need to watch it again!

This is Katzie's very clever carrot cake, which guests could pick out of a patch.

Willy wasn’t this guileless nice guy. He was pretty jaded and a dark character. Can you understand how someone might wind up feeling that way after a long time in the food biz — insofar as it is easy to focus on the negative, the demands, and the financial aspects of the business rather than the delight of food?

I’ve never looked at Willy quite that way, but you’re right, and I think there is a parallel one can draw to the life of a chef. The business end of things can be grueling, so it’s not uncommon to loose sight of why you began cooking in the first place. It’s important to recalibrate every once in a while, to get back to basics. For me, it can be simple prep that I usually delegate to others, something monotonous, but altogether enjoyable.

Willy said, “Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.” How do you break down your ratio for invention?

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