A Glass Act

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
December 2013

When Pastry Chef Thomas Raquel of Chicago’s Acadia plated his Autumn Olive Berry dessert at the 4th Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition, what did he reach for? A classic rocks glass, one that would lend his dessert structure and give the judges a crystal clear window into his pastry genius. Raquel isn’t alone. Top pastry chefs from east to west are presenting their desserts in glass variations from vintage to modern and crystal clear to colorful, and the results are stunning.

Pastry Thomas Raquel of Acadia in Chicago, IL

Pastry Thomas Raquel of Acadia in Chicago, IL

Autumn Olive Berry Frozen Marshmallow, Tomato Ice, Fennel Emulsion, Pear Gel. Dessert by pastry chef Thomas Raquel of Acadia in Chicago, Il at ICC 2013 - New York, NY

Autumn Olive Berry Frozen Marshmallow, Tomato Ice, Fennel Emulsion, Pear Gel served in a Bormioli Rocco Cortina glass. Dessert by Pastry Chef Thomas Raquel of Acadia in Chicago, Il at ICC 2013 - New York, NY

Pastry Chef Meg Galus of NoMI at Park Hyatt Chicago in Chicago, IL

Pastry Chef Meg Galus of NoMI at Park Hyatt Chicago in Chicago, IL

Soursop-Aloe Sorbet, Strawberry Nectar, Compressed Strawberries, Coconut Pebbles, Fluff, Coconut Marshmallow, Lace Tuile in a Bormioli Rocco Cortina glass by pastry chef Meg Galus at ICC 2013 - New York, NY

Soursop-Aloe Sorbet, Strawberry Nectar, Compressed Strawberries, Coconut Pebbles, Fluff, Coconut Marshmallow, Lace Tuile by Pastry Chef Meg Galus at ICC 2013 - New York, NY

Pastry Chef Bruno Feldeisen of Four Seasons in Vancouer, BC

Pastry Chef Bruno Feldeisen of Four Seasons in Vancouer, BC

Ice Cream “Sundae”: Whiskey-Fig Ice Cream, Vanilla Cremeux, Speculoos Crumble, Maple Chicharrones “Pop Corn”, Blood Orange Sauce by pastry chef Bruno Feldeisen at ICC 2013 - New York, NY

Ice Cream Sundae: Whiskey-Fig Ice Cream, Vanilla Cremeux, Speculoos Crumble, Maple Chicharrones “Pop Corn”, Blood Orange Sauce served in a Bormioli Rocco Manon glass by Pastry Chef Bruno Feldeisen at ICC 2013

Autumnal Morning: Ginger Panna Cotta, Sweet Potato Pudding Cake, Goat Yogurt, Soy Milk Ice Cream, Pickled Red Currants, Red Currant Gel, Pecan Gianduja, Purple Beets, and Applewood Smoke

Autumnal Morning: Ginger Panna Cotta, Sweet Potato Pudding Cake, Goat Yogurt, Soy Milk Ice Cream, Pickled Red Currants, Red Currant Gel, Pecan Gianduja, Purple Beets, and Applewood Smoke

Pastry Chef Sean Pera of Herons at the Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, NC

Pastry Chef Sean Pera of Herons at the Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, NC

Veteran Pastry Chef Bruno Feldeisen of the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, has seen his share of glassware platings, and he’s an old pro at making the most of the medium. “Glasses and plates are like a theater stage,” he says. “Shape, color, thickness, reflection, are all important factors. A glass too thick and the view is distorted; wrong shape and the dish is trapped.” Eschewing the typical parfait cup he serves his Whiskey-Fig Ice Cream “Sundae” with Speculoos Crumble, Maple Chicharrones “Pop Corn,” and Blood Orange Sauce in a clean and modern tumbler. The sauce and an orange-painted white chocolate tuile provide a bright pop of color, drawing the eye into the vessel. “I am always mesmerized by the colors that autumn gives us. There is a deep emotional connection between the fall, winter, and dessert creativity.”

Pastry Cook Sean Pera—consummate pastry competitor and showpiece-maker extraordinaire—of Herons at the Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, North Carolina, also draws on the season’s rich palette to guide his desserts. His picturesque Autumnal Morning combines ingredients based on pigments that naturally compliment each other.  “The idea is that color itself has flavor,” he says, demonstrating the kind of insightful thinking that made him champion of the 4th Annual Pastry Competition. The dish—Ginger Panna Cotta, Sweet Potato Pudding Cake, Goat Yogurt, Soymilk Ice Cream, Pickled Red Currants, Pecan Gianduja, Purple Beet Root, and Applewood Smoke—is constructed inside a glass bubble. “I chose to present this dessert in a glass specifically because it resembles a terrarium. It allows the diner to peer into something that seems suspended in time,” he says. “Sight is one of the most powerful sources of inspiration because it directly influences memory. The colors and the layout remind me of an autumn forest floor.” The applewood smoke wafting out of the dish clinches the impression of a richly-hued brisk fall day, and “brings the diner into a moment in time integrating their own personal memories.”

Over at the Chicago Park Hyatt Hotel and NoMI, Rising Star Pastry Chef Meg Galus (who, like Raquel, plated her Round 1 dessert in Steelite’s classic Bormioli Rocco “Cortina” glass at the 4th Annual Pastry Competition) builds her menu on the resonant nature of cold-weather desserts with an added touch of the unexpected. “Holiday desserts have such a strong hold on people’s minds and hearts—mine included,” says Galus.  “And it’s naturally a nostalgic time of year. The challenge, especially with plated desserts, is to honor the nostalgia but to still find new ways to surprise and delight our guests.” Her Fall Grape Tumbler, combining pillowy Coconut Marshmallow with Concord-Moscato Granita, Coconut-Tahitian Vanilla Sorbet, Cassis Gelée, Basil Pearls, and Candied Lemon, takes advantage of the bountiful local grape harvest to recall the sticky fingers of childhood, but in a decidedly sophisticated setting. Her decision to present the dessert in a tumbler, partially fueled by considerations of “structural integrity and how the colors and shapes played with each other,” was also driven by her desire to keep diners engaged. “There’s an element of surprise—you don’t really get to see everything that’s in [the glass] right off the bat.”

With the infinite variety of forms and applications, not to mention opportunity for pre-plating and quick fire times, there’s no doubt glassware has serious staying power. “Glasses have always been trendy, at least in the world of sundaes and floats!” says Feldeisen, while Galus adds, “There’s almost always something in a glass on my menu.” And whether they’re making use of existing bar stock or sourcing new and unusual shapes, we’re seeing more pastry chefs venturing outside the world of porcelain to build captivating presentations. “We’ve all seen glass dishes used at Alinea, L2O, and Eleven Madison Park, but I think it’s time to bring back a resurgence of glass in different forms,” says Pera. “I would be extremely interested in seeing how Martin Kastner at Crucial Detail would approach using more glass in his designs. If anyone could start a trend by using glass as a vessel in a unique way, he would definitely be the top contender.” Your move, Mr. Kastner.