Whatever wise soul once said “we eat with our eyes first” must’ve been looking at Juan Contreras’s desserts. It’s no secret that first impressions are lasting impressions, which is exactly why Contreras, pastry chef at San Francisco’s Beloved Atelier Crenn, strives to appeal to all of his guests’ senses when composing his desserts—and his plate ware
Contreras’s plating considerations don’t begin and end with white porcelain. “I’m trying to have something that’s going to set the tone, evoke an emotion, stir up a conversation. I think people dine here not only for the food, but for the experience as well,” he says. Contreras sees the table as a point of intersection between chef and diner, a kind of stage for the guests’ experience. To set the scene, this renaissance pastry chef is going beyond the whisk and spatula; he wields stone polishing and wood working tools to create engaging, one-of-a-kind serving pieces that’ll blow your regular bone ware out of the water.
“I took a one year sabbatical at Alinea and Oud Sulis, and got charged by the freedom of expression I saw there—not stopping at prepping the food and the components, but prepping the plate itself, even incorporating aromas,” he says. “A flat white rectangle doesn’t allow for the incorporation of other elements.” So Contreras started working with California producers and foragers, collecting raw materials and fresh ideas. His expressive plates are all locally harvested and sourced. “It’s stuff that you might see on the side of the lake. For one person it’s just a limb torn down from a tree, but I’m like, with a couple of modifications it could be turned into a plate.”
Flavors of Squash
Eucalyptus-Menthol Cream Popsicle
Beet-Chocolate Sorbet, Sheep's Milk Yogurt, Mandarin Purée, and Edible Flowers
More importantly, Contreras isn’t just polishing a cedar plank. His dishes go beyond plate ware and into the realm of art. His recent autumnal squash dessert was built on a plate of glass set atop a bark-covered box, providing a window into a whimsical still life of dried leaves and mosses contained within. Mignardises arrive on a stone island, tucked amongst rocks and mosses, and a presided over by a pint-sized bonsai tree. For an upcoming honey-themed dish, Contreras met with beekeepers all around Napa and Sonoma, sampling honeys and collecting age-darkened pieces of honeycomb. “I’m trying to incorporate a piece of the land. Honeycombs are constructed in hexagonal shapes, so this dish will be hexagonal. It’s an extension of the theme.”
Working on these serving pieces not only allows Contreras to offer guests a more cohesive experience, but it allows him to expand his horizons outside the kitchen. Recently, this has meant working alongside stone artisans in Baja to create rough-hewn lava rock bowls inspired by the shapes of traditional Mexican mortars and pestles. Back at the restaurant, he uses these primal vessels for a refreshing palate cleanser—a eucalyptus-menthol popsicle set against a spray of spiral eucalyptus leaves.
With such effort and consideration in each of these serving pieces, Contreras composes a set of desserts and their serving pieces with the intention of running them for at least four months—during which time he’ll plot next season’s tastes and presentations. “It’s a lot of labor. I get really attached to the plates because I put a lot of work into them,” he says. With only one full time pastry cook to help him, Contreras has more ideas than he’s able to actualize at any given moment. “It’s kind of a running joke in the kitchen. ‘New dessert concept for 2014 … 2015.’” Despite the hard work and related expense of producing his own plate ware, Contreras sees it as an integral part of the experience he offers at Atelier Crenn.
“I’m not trying to show off or anything, just trying to create a piece. Guests look at it for a minute or two and maybe discuss it a bit, and finally they eat it, which is the most important. At the end of the day it’s the flavors and pleasing the guest.”