Pastry Rebel with a Cause

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
February 2013

Sauce, crumble, quenelle, repeat. When it comes to plated desserts, most pastry chefs follow a formula for composing a dish. From homey pies to modernist landscapes and deconstructed bread puddings, desserts often have one component in common: ice cream.

The ubiquity of any product can cause gastronomic boredom (see the fates of kale and pork belly). Dessert's loyal sidekick, ice cream is no exception—for Pastry Chef Matt Tinder, at least. There's not a scoop or quenelle on Tinder's pastry menu at San Francisco's Coi. "I kind of feel like everyone's desserts look the same nowadays," he says. "Not to talk trash, I've been there. But as you get older you try to define your own style."

Pushing the envelope and emphasizing personal style is at the core of Tinder's philosophy, and with his pastries at Coi he works to emphasize each dish's individuality rather than simply re-imagining flavor compositions within the same rigid structure. "It's something we do to tie one hand behind our back, to think outside the box."

Soy-White Chocolate, Coffee, Kiwi

Soy-White Chocolate, Coffee, Kiwi

Frozen Lime Marshmallow, Coal-Toasted Meringue

Frozen Lime Marshmallow, Coal-Toased Meringue

Passionfruit Baba Cake, Shiso, White Chocolate, Honeycomb

Passionfruit Baba Cake, Shiso, White Chocolate, Honeycomb

Tinder further defies convention by transcending the traditional role of pastry chef. At Coi, he's currently producing tofu, soy milk, butters, crème fraîche, and breads for use in savory dishes. "A pastry chef that works in a restaurant every day has to be able to break down some crab or clean some vegetables." His approach requires pastry chefs and chefs to integrate the sweet and savory kitchens into one cohesive unit. This exchange of techniques, ideas, and mise en place helps foster a better understanding of the larger picture—one that may not involve recycled iterations of cake- and ice cream-based desserts. "We have to move forward with the evolution of pastry chefs."

With the proliferation of gourmet ice cream shops, Tinder thinks the time is ripe for pastry chefs to refocus their energies on revolutionizing dessert—not selling ice creams that guests could purchase down the street for $4 a scoop. It doesn't take a Michelin-starred restaurant to serve a transcendent bowl of ice cream, he argues. "These shops do all the cool flavors that Alex [Stupak] used to do at wd~50."

Don't call him a hater. Tinder admits he's not 100 percent set against using ice cream: "Sure, I do [use] ice cream once in a while, when I feel like I need that component. But I think there are better ways to get a lactic element across." Removing ice cream from the plate forces him to find that better, more interesting component, opening up pastry's potential and transforming his craft one scoop-free dish at a time.