Emily Bell: This book is heavy on inspiration. How do you settle on a concept or ingredient for a dessert four-play?
Johnny Iuzzini: The book is in direct correlation to what I do on a daily basis at Jean Georges. The menu is divided up into four-plays. Each four-play has four different components or mini-desserts. The focus may be on an individual ingredient like cherries or chocolate or it may encompass a whole season like spring or fall. My job is to find a way to showcase that ingredient in four different and—more importantly—delicious ways. I do this through a manipulation in form, primarily focusing on a contrast in temperatures and textures, as well as intensity in flavor. For example, we get amazing tri-star strawberries for a short time each year. They are amazing by themselves in a bowl, but I thought, ‘What fun four bowls of berries would be!’ We may do a sorbet and swirl it with an herbal ice cream, or a sheet of crispy strawberry paper studded with lavender seeds, or a mochi with rhubarb. The possibilities are truly endless, but the important part is that you don’t lose focus of the ingredient—it must be the star—anything you do to it must not destroy or muddle its flavor.
EB: Dessert FourPlay turns the sweet course into an experience. How do you think people perceive dessert typically?
JI: I feel that desserts are often considered an indulgence, but I like to think of them as an important final chapter to the meal. It contains the last details of the meal that the guest leaves with. And people tend to take more chances when it comes to desserts, ordering out of their comfort zone partially because they have already been satiated by their previous courses. This allows the pastry chef to be a bit more creative and take a few more risks and chances then his or her savory counterpart. Dessert is often thought of as the bonus course or treasure at the end of the meal, and may also be the course that triggers many emotional and childhood memories of food, flavors, and combinations.
EB: What about the quartet works for the diner?
JI: I actually inherited this format when I crossed the park from being the pastry chef at Daniel to Jean Georges. It was definitely different and the format has its pros and cons. A pro is that it really challenges me to work harder to make the desserts work individually and in conjunction with each other. And then there is the fact that when there is a table of four people, they could potentially have 16 different desserts on the table at one time, which is visually stunning. The cons are that it really challenges me to work harder! We almost never repeat desserts from previous menus or seasons and when I want to change a dish, I am actually changing four. In general people really respond well to the format. The desserts get people talking about the food. They are sharing and passing and just having fun in general. I guess the only complaint could be sensory overload.
EB: How much to you emphasize contrast versus harmony amongst the four elements?
JI: Contrast is important to show dimension in food [because] otherwise everything would be flat, bland, and one dimensional. Contrast comes in many forms; besides sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, there is temperature (hot versus Cold) and texture (creamy, crunchy, icy, cakey, crumbly etc.). I love [for] each bite to be a bit different than the last. But in the end the dish must be balanced and must be delicious.
EB: The book provides alternatives for some of the techniques so the home cook can attempt the recipes. Did you want to bridge the gap between professional and home pastry preparation?
JI: Well, at first I wanted the recipes in the book to be exactly the way I did it in my kitchen at Jean Georges. This would have been a very technical book and as my publisher [said], it would appeal to a very small audience. They essentially put it in perspective when they said, “Do you want to sell 5,000 books to chefs or 50,000 books to home cooks, foodies, amateurs etc.?” In the end, the book does have to sell, publishing is a business. As an artist your ego tends to get in the way and the last thing you want to do is compromise the integrity of your work. So of course my answer was 50,000! Now the challenge was to find a way to appeal to both audiences simultaneously. We did this by simplifying some recipes and adding shortcuts to others but as a whole my style remained.
EB: How do you feel about the finished product?
JI: In the end I feel like the book still represents me and it also appeals to a much broader audience then my original idea would have. Cooks from all levels can find plenty of recipes to make at home or in their professional kitchen and integrate into their repertoires. I feel the whole idea of a cookbook should teach you something about food that you don’t already know. Isn’t that the point? Why buy a book if you already know how to make everything inside? You should learn something, whether a technique or a flavor combination or a general philosophy and approach to food. These are all things that make cookbooks wonderful and exciting. I don’t think I have ever picked up a cookbook and had it not teach me something.
EB: What are some of your favorite cookbooks for pastry or savory?
JI: I love cookbooks; I have a pretty large collection. I love every category as well, from the rustic bakers and humble pastry shops all the way through to the elite Spanish and French three-star Michelin chefs. There is something to learn from all of them. I even get ideas for desserts from BBQ books. My friend Chef Chris Lilly from Alabama just sent me his Big Bob Gibson BBQ book and it’s awesome. His flavor index is amazing. I wish I had time to read all my books—I just got a whole new set and am trying to find a slice of time here and there to dive in.
EB: How important is it to you to have your own voice in your cookbook writing?
JI: There are two schools of thought here. Some people believe that they must write the books themselves in order to relay their message or voice. I believe you just need to find someone that can truly harness your energy and who understands you and your philosophy. A great cookbook is so much more than a collection of recipes. For me it traces my journey from being a dishwasher in high school to my position as a three-star Michelin pastry chef. I was happy to share my thoughts, passion, and inspiration and to give credit where credit was due. Too many chefs forget that part! I believe many people read cookbooks like novels, so there must be soul to the book. My coauthor Roy Finamore is my polar opposite in many ways, but for whatever reason [he] was the only person who could decode my ramblings and overly-hyper personality and somehow get my thoughts and ideas into words. I am truly grateful to him because there was no way in hell I could sit in front of a computer long enough at any point to write a book.