Pastry on the Curve: The 2005 Trends in Desserts

by Amy Tarr
August 2005

Restaurateurs and executive chefs often underestimate the power of pastry, but anyone who’s really looking at the bottom line in this business knows that the profit margin on dessert – which is often composed of lower cost items like sugar, flour, butter and cream – is usually greater than the margins on savory items. With a great dessert menu that’s effectively promoted, restaurants can significantly increase their average check.

What’s more, nothing delights customers more than a gorgeous dessert. Whether it’s an elaborately plated confection with six different garnishes, or a simple slice of apple pie à la mode, dessert makes people smile. And what’s the point of a terrific appetizer and entrée followed by a mediocre dessert? Dessert is the last impression that you give your guests, so it’s important to make it last – and it will certainly help you to build a loyal customer base.

So what’s hot and what’s not in pastry these days? StarChefs went to the source – we surveyed over 350 executive pastry chefs, pastry cooks and top executive chefs throughout the country on the industry’s top trends. We also dug our forks and spoons into a bit of primary research – tasting the desserts of top pastry chefs in major culinary destinations across the country, including New York, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Washington Dc, Seattle, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

We asked respondents to our pastry survey what their number one selling dessert is. Any type of chocolate dessert was the clear winner – no matter whether it’s chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, chocolate soufflé or any other chocolate creation. The runners up included variations on apple tarts – apple pie, tarte tatin – followed by cheesecake and crème brulée.

Pastry chefs are looking to old-school treats like Twinkies and Moon Pies for inspiration, and coming up with their own versions, minus the preservatives. Pastry Chef Sue McCown at Earth & Ocean in Seattle is a master at recreating these goodies and tapping into America's nostalgic food memory. Her upscale versions of old-school packaged desserts are definitely not just for kids. Cheery Crackle Pop is her artisan rendition of cherry Pop Tarts, while Retro Rock & Roll is her riff on HoHos.

Another hot trend right now is drinkable dessert. In addition to serving classic milkshakes, pastry chefs are experimenting with flavors and ingredients to create innovative liquid desserts, as in the Lime and Tapioca Pearl Parfait created by
Pastry Chef Pichet Ong of Spice Market and 66 in New York. Pichet serves his parfait with a straw wide enough for the tapioca pearls to fit through. Often a dessert "shooter" is an accompaniment to a more traditional plated pastry, adding another layer of flavor and texture.

As with the savory side of the business, pastry is tremendously influenced by Asian and Latin cultures, following the US demographic shift. Pastry Chef Maximo Santiago of Norman’s in Miami looks to a variety of fruits from South America for his desserts, like his exotic cheesecake sampler. Some of his favorites are lulo, a citrus fruit whose taste resembles sour apple; guanabana or sour sop, with its creamy, pasty center and a flavor similar to pineapple and banana; caruba – a mix of passion fruit with subtle citrus notes, whose shape is elongated like a banana; and mora – South American wild blackberries, commonly found in Colombia.

Pastry chefs are playing up the entertainment factor of dining out with whimsical desserts that incorporate things like doughnuts, lollipops, pop rocks and cotton candy. Pastry Chef Ralph Perrazzo of Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas serves a Reconstructed Cappuccino - a mountain of cinnamon munchkin doughnuts fried to order and then precariously placed inside a moat of cappuccino broth. The interactive dessert is served alongside homemade cream soda garnished with a vanilla straw, a caramel pixy stick and caramelized popcorn.

More and more, pastry chefs are taking risks and daring to be different to make their work stand out. For New York Pastry Chef Sam Mason of wd-50, the walk-in is fair game. If he sees beets and foie gras, he won't hesitate to create a dessert with them. Beyond the increasingly popular concept of pairing savory and sweet, Mason assembles the “creepy” and “comfortable” on the dessert plate and pushes his diners to experience something out of the ordinary. Some chefs are also teasing patrons with deconstructed dishes and sweet versions of familiar savory items, as with Pastry Chef Kenny Magana of Sensi in Las Vegas, who creates a "Caprese Salad" with alternating slices of macerated strawberries, panna cotta and basil, drizzled with balsamic syrup.

Dessert "stories" are on the rise – a plating style in which three or four miniature desserts are composed on one plate as a kind of tribute to the season. This innovative style of service is best exemplified by Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini at Jean Georges in New York. Iuzzini composes an individual dessert sampler divided into four quadrants. Within each quadrant is a play on colors, tastes, textures and temperatures – tying in a variety of ingredients that symbolize the season – whether it’s an ode to autumn or a spring revelation. Each section can stand on its own as a complete dessert; taken all together, the effect is spectacular, like a brilliant, jewel-toned Zeffirelli opera.

By far the biggest trend in pastry arts, and one that is projected to have a lasting impact on the American dining scene, is the development of the standalone dessert bar, such as Finale in Boston, Sugar in Chicago, and Chickalicious in New York. With their relatively low price points (Chickalicious' prix fixe dessert menu is $12) and hip ambiance, these late-night outlets are ideal for post-theatre and filmgoers. Suggested wine pairings for each dessert item are popular and boost revenue.

The hospitality industry is experience a tight labor market right now – that means there are more job openings than there are qualified candidates to fill them. Restaurant owners and hotel operators come to to post jobs on our JobFinder, and the position of Pastry Chef is currently the hardest one the fill across the country. So if you are talented and motivated, you can take advantage of the diverse opportunities in pastry right now. And you can find some of the best pastry opportunities listed on