A look at some of the things that get pastry chefs’ creative juices flowing.
If you look at a tree or an iconic local building or the way the sun casts its shadow on leaves, creating intricate patterns on the sidewalk, and you imagine the elements of a dessert on a plate, then you’re most likely a visionary pastry chef. If your mind works like Michael Laiskonis (ICE, NYC) or Russell Karath (Fontainebleau, Miami, FL) or Annika Loueiros (Prospect, Brooklyn, NY) or any of a number of talented, cerebral and creative practitioners of the sweet arts, then you are open to ideas coming from myriad sources around you.
Crunchy Choux and Chartreuse Mousseline by Michael Laiskonis. Click image above or links below for recipe.
Karath says of his inspirations: “When I lived in NY and Chicago, I would ride my bike and take pictures of buildings, bridges, waterways, sculptures, landmarks, etc. I also like secluding myself in nature. When I was in NY I would find myself every weekend going to Central Park or the Cloisters and exploring new paths, checking out wooded areas, rock formations, different landscapes. But some of the best inspiration is not man-made at all, Mother Nature has provided it for all of us to enjoy.” And not only “enjoy,” but also build upon into desserts on plates or bakery cases, exhibiting all of the colors, textures and shapes inspired by nature. Michael Laiskonis goes even further and says, “In an urban setting which is my home, I tend to look closely at graffiti, architectural details and textures for inspiration. Leaning also toward the Japanese aesthetic, I think about the concept of wabi sabi which refers to something being beautiful but imperfect and in fact is considered beautiful in spite of, and because of, its imperfection.” We’re not talking here about misshapen pate à choux puffs or a tart shell with a droopy side, though. Instead, it might be an intentional notch in an otherwise linear or perfectly rounded mousse or cremeux that lends dynamism to the overall structure of the dessert on a plate. He says: “The creative process is a back and forth dialogue between knowledge and hypothesis.” In his case, the task of applying a new technique to something familiar led to the crunchy choux with its beguiling texture and appearance. “I find it interesting to bring classics such as pate à choux back and look at them with new eyes, questioning assumptions in order to arrive at new solutions or methods to achieve a particular predictable result. In this case, I piped the choux paste into a silicone hemisphere-shaped mold to give the puff a perfectly round shape. I froze the puffs and then laid a thin layer of a streusel-like dough to cover the puff and then baked the assembly. When it bakes, the sugar makes the outer layer expand and break apart, leading to a crunchy, bumpy exterior for the puff.” Inspired by the past but not content to rest on what is known leads to innovation. Innovation only comes when examining the whys behind the hows, and pastry chefs such as Laiskonis and others who do that move the art forward.
Everything old can be new again
Born in Paris but raised close around his Spanish-born grandfather, Franck Iglesias (Foxwoods Resort, CT) looks back into his personal past for ideas. Childhood memories suffused with the flavor of home provide the spark of inspiration for him. He says, “The older you get, the more you want to go back to your roots.” And then he remembers: “My grandmother used to make a rice pudding flavored with Spanish saffron that has found its way onto my dessert menu. And I like to honor the memory of my mom’s apple tart, which she always served straight from the oven. It is a touchstone for all of the warm apple desserts that I serve.”
The knowledge of classics that date back way before his immediate family also informs what he does on the sweet menu. “For me, everything old is new again, and the past is often recycled in ways emerging in often unpredictable ways in my desserts.” He recalls the chicory that his grandmother used instead of coffee (which in her younger years was rationed and in short supply). That memory has led him to augment his coffee desserts with chicory flavor. “I love the flavor combination, but I really love how that dessert evokes her memory.” This inspiration shows up in a Joconde with small profiterole puffs finished with chocolate ganache and coffee buttercream. As a final retrospective touch on this dessert, Iglesias uses chicory to flavor a microwave sponge garnish.
Tapping into drinks for inspiration
Trendy, restaurant-intensive Brooklyn, NY is artisan central, with every other corner store crafting great distinctive foods and beverages by hand, from beer to chocolate to cheese. Here Annika Loureiro, Pastry Chef at Prospect, leads her dining audience on a sweet journey with her inspired dessert menu. “I find myself trapped in a small basement kitchen sharing space with the savory cooks and preparing items for both the sweet and savory sides of the menu. Instead of presenting specific desserts that lock me into serving fixed items on the dessert menu, I am able to unleash my creativity by offering something called ‘chef’s inspiration.’ Priced at $12 each, the dessert I create under this banner can draw inspiration from farmers’ market produce or find a new way to apply classic pate à choux technique to a brownie.” No one’s complaining. She says happily, “Sales of desserts have tripled since I instituted this less structured approach to dessert menuing.”
Part of that approach yielded a Black Forest-inspired dessert that incorporated some traditional elements and some from the world of mixology. Loureiro describes her epiphany in this way: “After a long shift, I had a life-changing Old Fashioned made with rye whiskey and Cherry Heering liqueur. To celebrate the beginning of summer and the end of that long day at work, I was determined to make use of fruitful beauty of a classic cocktail that had been transformed. The rye had notes of coffee and chocolate and the lone bright brandied Luxardo cherry at the bottom of the glass made me truly smile, I knew I wanted to break down the flavors I’d enjoyed in that glass and share them in a way others could relate to.” Inspired, she created the chocolate and cherry dessert with only a nodding relation to the classic, reasoning that “Nothing is better with a brownie than vanilla ice cream. Secondly, the dessert needed acidity to help the eater get through the ‘dark forest’ of flavor. That was accomplished with a soft set pate de fruit. Half of the mixture is poured into a thin layer on a jelly roll sheet to evoke an adult version of a cherry fruit “ roll up” and the rest was poured out and then cut into cubes and placed into the brownie- like tart and baked just briefly enough that the pate de fruit texture is retained after baking.” Here is a pastry chef who is truly thinking deeply, absorbing many influences, to arrive at the complexly flavored yet seemingly simple desserts on her menu.
Ethnic influences subtly transform the classics
Belinda Leong, owner of B Patisserie (San Francisco, CA) takes her inspiration directly from the Asian pantry. Drawn from a variety of Asian food cultures, Japanese mochi and black sesame, southeast Asian young coconut and peanuts and red beans all figure prominently in her desserts, paying homage to the flavors she grew up with but transforming them with a classical Western underpinning of technique Leong calls “French modern.” She elaborates: “Three elements on a plate are the limit for me. Texture is everything and particularly in a retail environment such as mine, desserts have to look beautiful to draw the customer in but flavor and texture both have to be memorable.”
The past informs the present
Weaving some nostalgia into plated desserts has been on Stephen Durfee’s mind in the classroom at the CIA’s baking and pastry program. “I give the students an assignment to reconceptualize a classic dessert. Coupled with that backward glance at sweets from the 70’s and immersion in what others are doing in the field such as Lincoln Carson and Bill Corbett, Durfee gets his ideas from many different sources and eras. “I guess my inspiration comes from the past and the present. I also lean toward desserts that can work in various venues and both chefs Carson and Corbett need to take that into account working as executive pastry chefs in restaurant groups that serve large numbers. I am attracted to the idea of building a cake in a sheet pan and then cutting portions and dressing them out on the plate, and I cover this in my class as well, knowing full well that restaurants with larger volumes are more apt to have pastry departments to which many of my students are hopefully headed.”
Elaborating further on his new-wave carrot cake, Durfee explains: “Here is a twist on a traditional carrot cake, in that this version is made from cooked and pureed carrots, so that the finished cake is orange color – not a spice cake with grated carrots folded in. Two layers of cake are sandwiched with lightly sweetened cream cheese. The garnishes for the dessert are “deconstructed” components from the classic: cream cheese icing represented by a mascarpone “coulis” – literally, a strained puree seasoned with honey. Pineapple pieces and currants are poached in a spiced syrup and cooked via ‘Cryovac.’ Pineapple is also represented in a delicate sherbet – the distinction between sherbet and sorbet being that this frozen dessert contains dairy (milk and cream). As garnishes, baby rainbow carrots are cooked and glazed in brown sugar and cream and micro celery is used to accent the carrots, representing the carrot top.
Looking at things in a different way
All art forms play a part in Michael Laiskonis’s inspiration for dessert. He says: “I tend to frame everything I see in a sense of aesthetics, even when I’m walking down the street. And though food and cooking has eclipsed my interest in art – or at least takes up the time available to appreciate it – I still see artistic possibility in every facet of life.” He finds that educating himself even in a small way about music, photography, design, architecture, fashion and theater leads to ideas for both his pastry work and the teaching he does about it.
As a forward-thinking pastry chef, no matter where you get your inspiration, it is imperative to know and understand and absorb the lessons of the past before you can invent the future. The overarching message from the pastry chefs interviewed here is clear and consistent. Advice from the pros: Keep your eyes open to a multitude of art forms, including the visual, musical, theatrical and architectural, whether the landscape around you is urban or rural. Think “pastry” and “dessert” during most of your waking hours. (Some of the best ideas can occur to you just before sleep or walking the dog, or just walking.) Being obsessed with the field, you and your audience are most apt to get the greatest pleasure out of the work you produce, however difficult or hard won it may seem at the time. Furthermore, the pastry chefs interviewed here seem to be of one mind: The dessert should be seamless and well-conceived in all of its elements, engaging the four senses (yes, sound can be part of the picture). On the other side of the kitchen, without knowing its inspiration, the person eating the dessert should have to do nothing but simply enjoy. The ultimate role of pastry chefs is to put creativity on the plate quietly inching the art forward, dessert by dessert. With good sound technique, the ideas for stellar desserts are there for the taking, ready to be discovered and transformed into sweet memories.
Robert Wemischner has taught professional baking and pastry at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College for the past 22 years and is the author of four books including The Dessert Architect. He is currently at work on his fifth book.
Find sweetly inspired recipes like Carrot Cake, Paris Brest Tart, Black Forest Tart, and Crunchy Choux and Chartreuse
Mousseline in the DessertProfessional.com Recipe section or click the links below.