CLIO | Boston
Like most chefs, 25-year-old Rick Billings’s entrée
into the kitchen began with a job washing dishes as a teenager.
Rick graduated from New England Culinary Institute in the Advanced
Placement Program in Montpelier, Vermont. Ironically, his favorite
course was Meat Fabrication, and his least favorite was Pastry.
"I didn't connect with the display case desserts with all their
diagrams of assembly and the pounds of buttercream. They all just
sat there in the case looking sad, and I didn't see much love in
Rick choose to intern at L' Espalier in Boston, where
he was exposed to a completely new take on cooking. Then moving
back to his home state of Utah, he worked under Jonathan Perno at
the Metropolitan. But the east coast beckoned again. Returning
to Boston, Rick found Kristen Murray, the talented pastry chef at
No. 9 Park, who helped him see the way a well-organized pastry
kitchen was run. Under Kristen, Billings was exposed to a working
environment where everything was fair game in pastry (including
such unusual ingredients as sweet peas, tobacco, mead, and parmesan).
After spending a day with the then-pastry chef of Clio,
Alex Stupak, Rick was opened to an entirely new way of approaching
"Alex doesn't think like anybody else I know. His take on
what dessert is and what it could be is a huge part of how I view
pastry’s role in dining.” Rick is now the Pastry chef
at Clio restaurant, where Chef Ken Oringer’s limitless
creativity and inspiring techniques push him to create desserts
that balance the cuisine of Clio.
Having spent the majority of the last ten years on the savory side
of the kitchen, Rick approaches pastry the same way he did savory
cooking. Constantly seeking a balance of flavor and texture while
applying new techniques, his desserts at Clio admittedly
ride a little closer to the savory side. The same curiosity that
drove the young dishwasher to "constantly want to learn and
move to better restaurants and just absorb every possible bit of
information and technique available" is the same that pushes
him to this day.
AT: How did you enjoy
your culinary school experience?
RB: I loved NECI. It was a
lot of fun and a great experience, but ironically my least favorite
course was pastry. I never got into the display-case desserts that
were built to last in a case for hours using buttercreams and heavy
mousses. I didn't see any life in them. I like that plated desserts
have a short life. Ice creams melt, foams fall, herbs wilt –
there’s much more life to that!
AT: What restaurants that you
have worked in as a pastry chef have been the most influential?
RB: I would have to say as
assistant to Kristen Murray at No. 9 Park. My experience
there taught me a lot about the way a pastry kitchen should run.
As far as the desserts, anything was fair game, and we had a lot
of fun with the tastings. While at No. 9 we went to Clio
to get a dessert tasting, and I was in shock at the stuff Alex Stupak
was doing. I was completely intrigued, so I arranged to work a day
with him. Alex was so open with everything. He showed me anything
I wanted to know, every recipe, nothing was secret. He was very
generous with information and definitely a huge influence on how
I feel about pastry.
AT: What pastry or kitchen
tools can't you live without?
RB: 1) The Pacojet –because
I have a sub-zero (-30°F) deep freezer, I can spin every ice
cream to order. With the Pacojet, you can come up with completely
new textures, powder, liquids, and get a perfect texture every time.
2) The Vitaprep – I have a lot of agar-based sauces, and you
need a powerful blender to get the gels to be totally smooth.
AT: What are your top tips
for dessert success?
RB: Work in the kitchen as
much as possible. That’s where all the real learning and inspiration
comes from. I definitely feel that pastry chefs should plate their
own desserts. I work hard to come up with plates, developing the
recipes, sometimes for weeks before I'm happy enough with it to
put it on the menu. I get a lot of satisfaction out of plating it
the way I envisioned it. I think you lose touch with the food if
you only prepare the dish, and never plate it for the customer.
AT: Who are your pastry heroes?
RB: Michel Bras (for all his
food) and also Oriol Balaguer from L'Estudi de la Xocolata in Barcelona.
I really admire the way Sam Mason and Alex Stupak are pushing pastries
forward here in the States as well.
AT: What are your favorite
RB: My grandma's cobblers and
fruit crisps. She's this little Swiss lady who can seriously bake.
There’s so much love in all the food she cooks, I'd never
want to make anything I wouldn't serve to her. Aside from that,
copious amounts of Coca-Cola and mint-chip ice cream.
AT: What trends do you see
emerging in the pastry arts?
RB: A lot of chefs are using
new technologies and ingredients that weren't used for fine dining
before. Gels, gums, new starches. I think there’s going to
be some incredible things happening in the next few years.
AT: Where do you see yourself
in 5-10 years?
RB: Eventually, I'd really
like to have a place with great cocktails and amazing desserts.
I think what Ferrán Adrià is doing with cocktails
(liquid nitrogen, glass-less, hot foams) is going to influence what
we start to see in lounges and restaurants in the near future. Good
drinks and dessert, what else do you need?
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