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StarChefs

On the Plate:
The Architecture of Pastry Plating at Chicago’s North Pond Restaurant

by Emily Bell
vol. 26
January 2011

For Pastry Chef Greg Mosko of North Pond, the craft of pastry is all about balancing classical training with his own modern aesthetic. His pastry platings, unsurprisingly, reflect a mix of pastry’s traditional (and exacting) elegance and his own evolving style, which tends to emphasize a clean look. “I’m very much of the belief that you don’t need anything on the plate that doesn’t have to be there,” says Mosko. In a discipline full of dainty flourishes, ubiquitous coulis, creams, syrups, crystallized garnishes, icings, and an embedded geometry (remember, it’s only recently that sponge cake morphed into shapes of  rock and coral), Mosko acts like a referee—he’s not ejecting the players, he’s controlling the look and flavor of the game.

Plating is a huge aspect of that control; it’s the final communication of what the pastry chef believes about his or her creation, how it should be approached and consumed. For Mosko, whose current roster of desserts includes dishes like “Pear, Walnut,” “Huckleberry, Fennel,” and “Chocolate, Pomegranate,” the components determine their own arrangement. “If you go into the dessert knowing you have certain elements you want together,” he says, “you kind of have to force the diner to take all the elements in at one time, to really maximize their effect on the palate.” Mosko works well within this context, playing with the experience and choice of a dessert’s elements. For his Hazelnut Chocolate Mille-feuille, Chocolate Hazelnut Cake, Milk Chocolate Crémeux, Hazelnut Feuilletine, Salted Caramel Mousse, Meyer Lemon Purée, Chocolate Crumble, Chocolate Sauce, and Satsuma Sorbet, Mosko creates a cohesive dessert experience with articulated culinary statements, bridging gaps of negative space with implicit (a faint stroke of chocolate) and actual (the chocolate curl) connections.

If flavor and texture take priority, his personal pastry aesthetic is next in line. And as a rule, Mosko eschews gratuitous flourishes like unnecessary height, garnish, or unseasonal use of color for a more efficient elegance. And he’s the first to admit he’s still evolving. “I’m very young as far as pastry goes,” he explains. “I’m very classically grounded. And I’m still working toward bringing out a modern kind of style to figure out that balance. I’m still very hungry.”

North Pond

Chicago, IL
Framing a Concept
“When I think of my desserts,” says Mosko. “I can always see the dessert in my head,” meaning he moves quickly into the sine qua non of plating: the plate. To some, plates are a basic conveyance of foodstuffs, about as visually significant as a bucket. To others, like kaiseki chefs or chefs of “experiential cuisine,” plates are a continued expression of the dish. Mosko’s plates are a compromise: they neither express the dish nor interrupt its expression. Very much like a blank canvas, what matters is the shape. When the main component of a dessert is rectangular, like his Hazelnut Chocolate Mille-feuille, adding more angular elements can create visual severity, or (worse) the dull coordination of parallel lines with the visual impact of graphing paper. Mosko chose a simple round plate because “the round edge doesn’t limit your eyesight. It doesn’t make you have to focus or draw you away.” And the brim of the plate “gives you extra negative space,” he says, “to make everything pop.”

North Pond

Chicago, IL
Color
“I don’t concern myself with height,” says Mosko. “I think it’s kind of an outdated idea as far as desserts go.” But he does love to play with color. And his color palette is largely determined by the seasonal. In fall or winter—which, in Chicago, can be unforgivably monotonous—Mosko tries to work with the seasonal palette rather than against it. “The colors are a bit more muddled, a little darker,” he says, “but the flavors are still really there. You want to keep everything in season, keep everything on the plate so the guest knows ‘this is winter.’” Just as he balances gaps and connections, Mosko’s colors are a play of contrast and compliment. Here we have citrus, among the few vibrant colors of the season, rosy and yellow against the earthy beiges and browns of the hazelnuts and chocolate.

North Pond

Chicago, IL
Composition
Somewhere, the components of a dessert are being stuffed into a ring mold, girded with a moat of sauce, and garnished with stiff sprigs of mint and a blizzard of powdered sugar. But by and large, pastry plating is compositionally mature, and for his part, Mosko leans toward minimalism without striding too close to the visually stark. “When [components] are too far away from each other,” he explains, “it’s not a fluid plate.” Mosko’s platings generally balance clean components, negative space, and fluidity. He angles the Mille-feuille—a textural composition in its own right—away from the Satsuma sorbet, Meyer lemon purée, and chocolate crumble. “I knew I’d have the chocolate curl to connect the two elements,” he says, “and a couple little citrus segments to draw your eye away from the rectangle.” The segments are far from extraneous garnish—they’re a natural visual echo of the citrus in the dish, creating an implied connection.

North Pond

Chicago, IL
Coherence
An arrangement that predetermines how a dish is eaten is often necessary, a vital step to plating and the responsibility of the chef. “If you’re playing with fire,” says Mosko, “using something that diners are not accustomed to, you want to figure out a way to make it attractive on the plate but still separate it out a little bit”—i.e., isolate the scary ingredient—“so the diner can figure out the best way to enjoy the dish while still getting the full range of flavors.” But Mosko also understands that approaching the dessert and making choices about how to deconstruct it is one of the most exciting options the modern pastry chef can give the diner. Desserts like this present two separate compositions with suggestions of connection but no necessary path to enjoyment. “Diners,” says Mosko, “can figure out their best way to eat the dish.”