Katherine Martinelli: You started out as a musician and architect before making the career switch to pastry chef. What inspired you to pursue the culinary arts professionally?
AV: I guess the same as everybody in this business: I like to eat. It was the process of cooking—I find it synonymous with writing a song, just on an organizational level.
KM: Liking to eat and cooking professionally don’t necessarily go hand in hand. What made you decide to do this as a career?
AV: I was cooking a lot at home when I was in architecture school and having a lot of dinner parties on a weekly basis. A cousin from Miami was living with me and it got competitive. I was working at a bookstore so I was using the cooking section as my library. I figured I liked it so much I would give it a try, so I volunteered to work for free at a Provençal French restaurant in San Francisco called Socca. I worked there on my days off from the bookstore.
Six months later the chef offered me a job as a line cook. I also helped the pastry chef, and eventually I became his assistant. Sometimes the pastry chef quits and instead of hiring someone they promote the next person in line and pay him less. I was under qualified for the job at the time. I had to make it work and obviously I did a good job because the chef kept me around. The chef was John Caputo and I ended up working for him in three different restaurants in three different states. It was fun on an explorational level, but I definitely wish I had a little more guidance. At the same time I think being my own boss empowered me in terms of my personality and I got used to it. I regret not working for somebody more skilled, somebody great like Pierre Hermé.
KM: Did you go to culinary school? Do you recommend it?
AV: I did not go to culinary school. I spent four years for music and two years for architecture and I had accrued enough debt and was tired of sitting in the classroom. Instead I apprenticed and worked for free. I also rode my bike around France and worked at Pied à Terre in London and a couple other restaurants. That was the big one that impacted me the most. Considering that I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t advise it, and having seen a lot of culinary students come into the kitchen fuels my fire against culinary school. On-the-job experience is much more helpful.
KM: What is something you wish someone had told you when you started out? What advice would you offer to young pastry chefs?
AV: I wish somebody had told me go work for this guy, whoever that was, and stayed put for a while. In San Francisco at the time there weren’t too many people to choose from but a lot really for me was circumstantial—I was 28 by the time I decided to do this. When it comes to a job, my advice is basically to work a lot. Making an analogy to music, somebody who practices eight hours a day versus someone who practices 12 hours a day, the one who practices 12 hours a day will be better. My people only work eight hours a day because of labor laws and it kills me that people don’t come in early on their own time. There’s a lot more to learn if they stayed in the kitchen 12 hours a day. Stay in the kitchen all day. This job is all-consuming.
KM: What are your three tips for pastry success?
AV: Work all the time, and be cognizant of other techniques and the food of other cultures.
KM: What is your philosophy on pastry? On food and dining?
AV: It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this. If I have a philosophy, I’m not cognizant of it. For me dessert is fruit. And as I get older—I’m 40 now—I’m trying to be more cognizant of what I eat as opposed to when I was younger and I would gorge. To me, dessert is fruit and one of the best things about being in California is we have great produce. Also being in LA—I never thought about living here—and we get a lot of celebrities and they are image conscious and don’t order dessert. There’s a misconception that all desserts are fattening and that’s not the case.
KM: You incorporate many unusual flavor combinations and ingredients into your pastry. Where do you get inspiration?
AV: I try, but I think other people have certainly got me beat. I’m certainly envious when I taste and see things other people have done. Last time I was at XIV I had Jordon [Kahn’s] Concord grape dish and I thought that was absolutely brilliant; I said “why didn’t I think of that?” For me [inspiration] comes from boredom and palate fatigue; just getting tired of what I already know.
KM: How do you go about creating a new dish?
AV: I wouldn’t say conceptually every dish of mine has come together the same way. The kalamansi dessert, for example, I always wanted to do something with soy, which is non-dairy, and something with kalamansi. Different directions serendipitously came together. Other times a produce person might come in with a nice piece of fruit. It’s usually about me wanting to use an ingredient or technique.
KM: What challenges are you facing as a pastry chef (due to the economy or otherwise) and what are you doing to overcome them?
AV: I think the people who come into our restaurant have money and will always have money. While we did take a little dip, it was fortunate that Michael [Cimarusti] was on “Top Chef Masters” because we did get a push from that. It was a little scary there for a while, but we’ll see.
KM: What's next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
AV: I’m hoping to have an ice cream shop and a chocolate boutique.
KM: In Los Angeles?
AV: Well, for now I would have to answer yes. My wife and I both have great jobs, so there’s no reason to leave. But who knows.