If Johnny Iuzzini wasn’t making pastry, he claims, he’d be a housewife (his words). Luckily for us, he is making pastry, and his first book, Dessert Fourplay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef , could not be further from the work of a slipperclad homemaker.
Iuzzini adheres to a classical philosophy, pairing complementary seasonal ingredients, even as he constructs modern marvels that can be assembled or deconstructed at will. That’s the idea behind a book whose title seems at first cryptic and vaguely lascivious, but ultimately reveals a novel way of approaching the combination of flavors, textures and temperatures. His concoctions are anything but ordinary, but at their core is the same devotion to the purely delicious that created the Strawberry Shortcake – with maybe a little xantham gum and soy lecithin thrown in for fun.
The clean, yet complex recipes enumerated in the book’s Table of Contents are based around an unassuming list of fruits (or just a pair, as in “Raspberry and Apricot Fourplay” or a theme, such as “Exotic Fourplay” under the “Winter” category, or “Modern Chocolate Fourplay” under, of course, “Chocolate.” In addition to being divided into the four seasons, plus a cluster of courses devoted solely to chocolate (because no one needs to ask why chocolate merits its own category), each “Fourplay” is its own self-contained tasting menu, three to a category. The goal of this setup, as Iuzzini explains in his own introduction, is “combining the classic flavors of a particular season to make a harmonious dessert that [is] greater than the sum of its parts.” Certainly it seems he achieves this goal with desserts such as his Sweet Potato Cake with Cranberry Foam, garnished with Date Puree and Flax Seed Tuiles – a sophisticated riff on a ubiquitous autumn flavor profile. But just in case all those combinations and permutations are a little too much, there’s a helpful section of “Building Blocks,” which includes basic recipes or, as Iuzzini might see them, blank canvases.
After working under François Payard at Daniel, at age 23, Daniel Boulud offered Johnny a raise to be sous-chef at the then-new Café Boulud. He was promoted to executive pastry chef at age 26, a title he now holds working for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Restaurant Jean-Georges. There’s no question that his illustrious background has permeated the overall impression of this book. Johnny comments, “I just want people to be able understand and connect with what we do in a four-star restaurant. It’s just a different way of thinking about food and learning new techniques. I believe a book is a tool of education. Why buy a book if you already know how to make everything in it?” This mindset clearly shows through in the intricate layout of the “Fourplays,” all plated desserts of the caliber seen at the top restaurants of the world. He refines and modernizes typical pastry fare, turning espresso into foam, praline paste into dust, while staying true to fundamental principles of complement and contrast, always matching a crispy element for every creamy one, balancing sweetness and acidity, never letting inventive flourishes mask the expression of the ingredients.
Though he dabbles in the avant-garde, as in the Chocolate-Olive Panini or the Mustard-Rhubarb Jam accompanying Rhubarb-Flan Tarts, and draws Asian inspiration from Jean-Georges’s international palate, as in the Stawberry-Rhubard Mochi (a kind of Japanese dumpling) served with Basil Gel, every recipe is meant to excite the palate, tease the senses, please the eye and be a lasting memory – the four-star experience.