Pastry chefs have put up with a lot of teasing from their cohorts on the hot line for their dull knives, neckerchiefs, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but the truth is, the new breed of pastry chef is a rare and sturdy hybrid. As we reached the midpoint of 2007, we opened our Pastry Trends survey and found out how hundreds of pastry chefs and cooks across the country are capitalizing on this year's culinary opportunities. Hybridization turned out to be the key word – rather than practice one exclusive philosophy, most of the pastry chefs we surveyed have been finding new and inventive ways to pique the diner’s interest in pastry while reinventing their own approach to the craft. Here are eight of the trends we noticed on tastings across the country that mirror the responses:
The New and Improved Cheese Course: 2 in1
After spending so much time together on the menu, the cheese course and the dessert course have become like an old dog and its owner – virtually indistinguishable. A lot of innovative chefs (42% of our surveyed pastry chefs) aren’t just slicing the cheeses, pairing them with a couple of compotes, and getting on with their dessert menus – they’re thoughtfully incorporating a specific cheese into a complimentary dessert. Matt Tinder of Brick in San Francisco uses blue cheese shortbread to lend an idiomatic and literal bite to a bowl of soft, lightly-perfumed vanilla grits; Boris Portnoy of Campton Place perches a quenelle of vanilla ice cream by a pool of stinky, runny Epoisse and drizzles it with argan oil. Dessert? Cheese course? Their lovechild, the composed cheese course, is pleasantly confusing.
Role Playing: Pastry Chefs Sharpen Their Knives
Chefs this year confide that it’s harder than ever to find and keep a pastry chef, and the expense doesn’t always make sense. Maybe it’s a survival instinct triggered by the pastry chef economic shortage but pastry chefs aren’t just crossing the savory lines in their desserts, they’re crossing them in their kitchens. In San Francisco, Elizabeth Falkner is opening Orson (another film industry reference from the film major who built her reputation on Citizen Cake’s quirky pastry) while running a savory menu at Citizen Cake. Her Steak a la Mode, a little joke on apple pie, is composed of a few slices of rare beef with blue cheese ice cream and crisp onion rings. It may look like it was made by the pastry chef, but the same perfect quenelle that gives it away is pungent and boldly savory, holding the dish together rather than garnishing it. In New York, Pichet Ong applies his eye for design and flavor to the savory dishes at P*ONG, with a menu divided simply into three parts: savory, sweet and savory, and sweet.
Set Theory: Interdisciplinary = Awesome
A budding interest in interdisciplinary relationships is one of the most important happenings in the industry this year. The philosophy is trickling down to consumers and changing the way we think about food and cooking. As chefs look more and more to that sliver of space where the Venn diagram of various industries intersects, the walls between them become permeable. An exciting development is New York’s Experimental Cuisine Collective, founded by Pastry Chef Will Goldfarb, but attracting progressive cuisine and pastry chef members alike. The group meets once a month to collectively muse intelligent discourse, with members running the gamut – from chemistry professor Kent Kirshenbaum to professor of neuroscience Robert Margolskee and chefs like Sam Mason, Iacopo Falai, and Johnny Iuzzini.
The Interactive Experience: Choose Your Own Adventure
As Frank Bruni gently mocked in March, chefs are more inclined to think of the dining experience as a whole and then invent ways to control the guest’s specific experience – the most successful (and least pretentious) ways tend to involve a guest’s interaction and a chef’s sense of playfulness. Heston Blumenthal’s virtual sweetshop begins and ends the guest experience at The Fat Duck and suggests Blumenthal’s playful philosophy. Similarly, Boris Portnoy uses a simple paper fortune teller with ingredients and methods in its folds to allow guests to choose their own menu adventure at Campton Place. 48% of our surveyed pastry chefs admitted to fooling around with multi-sensory elements to enhance their diner’s experience.
Supply and Demand
Smart, opportunist pastry chefs found a way to profit from pastry chef shortages – 11% of our surveyed pastry chefs began selling wholesale in the past year. Rhonda Ruckman of Doughmonkey, who was supplying several Dallas restaurants with her desserts while simultaneously selling them retail from her shop, recently became strictly wholesale and Will Goldfarb of Room 4 Dessert took over the dessert program at 5Ninth in January with plans to take on more New York restaurants.
Olives: The New Olive Oil
Remember when olive oil ice cream was really exciting and new? Looking back, it wasn’t so much of a stretch to incorporate the round, mellow bouquets of olive oil into a dessert. Olives however, with their high salt content and distinctly savory connotations, are much more of a challenge to pair with sugar. Pastry Chef Jordan Kahn, famously undaunted by mushrooms, frankincense, tamarind, and taro root, caramelized Picholine olives and paired them with sweet potato ice cream, yuzu and yogurt for a seriously savory, but nonetheless well-balanced dessert at Varietal. Ryan West of XYZ in San Francisco lets olive gelée be the surprise at the bottom of a shot of orange soda topped with fennel and vanilla foam – this garnishes his Cara Cara orange push- pop with back olive caramel and shaved fennel and orange salad, a decidedly savory composition.
Speaking of savory compositions, 61% of our surveyed pastry chefs use vegetables in at least one of their current desserts. And not those sweet-tasting vegetables that have always found themselves in the pastry kitchen (pumpkin and carrots in pies and cakes), but a whole new generation of vegetables. Leena Hung pairs excruciatingly hot Thai chilies with dulce de leche and for an addictive flavor tug-of-war that’s not unlike a savory Thai curry: a mild throb followed by a complicated, apologetic sweetness. At wd~50, Alex Stupak uses cucumber, coriander, eucalyptus, and avocado in his hyper-creative but still accessible, controlled desserts. When incorporated successfully, which is to say, with thought given to the entire dessert’s flavor and texture rather than shock-value, vegetables give the impression of belonging in the pastry kitchen.
Pastry chefs move away from the classic French tendency towards frozen purees and prepared fruits and think about their menus seasonally, committing to dessert menus that change with the availability of local produce. We asked, what percentage of your produce comes from a 50 mile radius? And were pleasantly surprised with the results: while only 3% could honestly say 100% is local, notice how many are committed to a lesser, but nonetheless impressive amount of local produce:
FYI More Stats
*47% of our surveyed pastry chefs use alternate sugars like isomalt, Trimoline, glucose, and agave
*24% of our surveyed pastry chefs have traded in their traditional ice cream spinning machines for a compact, multi-functioning Pacojet .
*55% of our surveyed pastry chefs collaborate with the restaurant’s savory chef on their desserts