Dessert Fourplay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef

by Emily Bell
May 2010

It might be surprising to hear that four-star pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini was once an avid club kid with reasonable expectation of making a living on the city’s pulsating night life. What isn’t surprising is that Iuzzini, recipient of scores of awards and honors (including James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef Award), published a cookbook the caliber of Dessert Fourplay, a polished and professional study of his dessert quartets at Jean Georges. If anything, the culinary world has come to feel secure in its high expectations of Iuzzini, and Dessert Fourplay serves as yet another confirmation of the pastry chef’s enduring talent.

With a decade of professional pastry experience, including formative years at Daniel in the disciplined kitchen of Executive Pastry Chef François Payard as well as opening Payard Patisserie as pastry sous chef, and with thousands of miles of self-guided international pastry education under his belt, Iuzzini became one of the youngest executive pastry chefs to preside over a three-Michelin starred restaurant. And it’s there, at Jean Georges, that Iuzzini continues to push the boundaries of the sweet course with the complex, elegant creations that inspired his first cookbook.

Dessert at Jean Georges has never been merely a sweet addendum to the savory part of the meal, especially when dolled out in measured and premeditated Tastings—small portions of composed dessert items that served to simultaneously focus and intensify the experience. But when Iuzzini took the helm in 2002, he enhanced the dimensionality of these Tastings with another quartet, for a grand total of 16 potential desserts on a table at a time, all based on a specific ingredient or concept. And this seemingly simple addition enabled Iuzzini to play freely and meticulously with flavors, textures, and concepts without structural overcrowding.

The eponymous cookbook, Dessert Fourplay, distills the concept of the dessert quartet—its purpose and composition—into a clear and comprehensible guide. It expands upon the original spirit of the Jean Georges Tastings, showcasing a particular ingredient or concept with four distinct iterations. Iuzzini’s four-plays turn the dessert course into an exploration of textures, temperatures, and flavors. "I wanted to grab the diner," says Iuzzini in the introduction, "with every bite of each element on the plate."

The cookbook presents 15 of Iuzzini’s seasonal quartets in a professional but still accessible guide. Iuzzini provides “Make It Simpler” tips to streamline or otherwise simplify these recipes without losing any of the integrity of the finished dish. For example, for his Beet Parfait with Chocolate Brittle Gel and Beet-Raspberry Fluid Gel, part of the “Indian Summer Fourplay,” Iuzzini recommends replacing the chocolate brittle gel with chocolate ice cream rolled in cookie crumbs. “That way,” says Iuzzini, “you’re bringing another layer of crunch to the plate,” so the textural component isn’t lost.

Iuzzini isn’t afraid to offer minor alterations for his recipes; the point isn’t mimicry, after all, it’s inspiration. If one word could encapsulate the spirit of Dessert Fourplay, it would be imagination. Each set showcases the creative and technically proficient ways in which Iuzzini manipulates an ingredient or dessert concept in both form and flavor. The only limit is the pastry chef’s imagination. The simply named “Raspberry and Apricot Fourplay,” for example, actually expresses multiple dimensions of apricot: as a delicate floral component in Raspberry-Rosewater Soup, as a sweet counterpoint to mint in the Apricot Panna Cotta, as a buttery roasted textural contrast to sandy shortbread, and as the golden, nectar-sweet hidden center of a spicy Chocolate-Chile Cake.

As seasons drive Iuzzini to new ingredients, his roster of four-plays is constantly evolving. But while the menu at Jean Georges marches on, Dessert Fourplay crystallizes the essence of Iuzzini’s imagination, acting like a cookbook kaleidoscope full of his ideas. One peek inside and the full spectrum of Iuzzini’s imagination will be colorfully, brilliantly apparent.