Amy Tarr: Who or what inspired you to be a pastry chef?
Rick Billings: I learned pastry by necessity at first, but was drawn in to the unlimited freedom you have with ingredients. With pastry, any ingredient can take on countless forms; frozen, hot, liquid, powder, crunchy, soft. I think it gives someone a wider arena to play with compositions.
AT: What is your philosophy on pastry?
RB: I start with flavor combinations that I like and that go well together. And from there I go from what textures I want each ingredient to take on to complement each other and give the dish an overall balance. I'm really not into wowing people with crazy combinations. I would rather impress them with familiar flavors in a way they aren't familiar with. If you can make one flavor of sorbet, you can make a million types of sorbet but it’s still just sorbet. Above all, I strive to keep the sweetness way down, and I try to keep it very balanced. I get really bummed out when I try a dessert that looks amazing, but flavor-wise is all too sweet.
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 desserts?
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?