Interview with Pastry Chef Rick Billings of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon - New York, NY
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?
Pastry Chef Rick BillingsL'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
57 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022