Monday, July 18, 2011

Considering Dessert

I have enjoyed my subscription to Art of Eating for years. It is an opinionated quarterly, and a rare kind of food magazine in today's publishing world, a work of diligent food journalism that has thus far not diluted its content to the full color photography driving most monthly magazines. When I received the latest issue with several articles addressing desserts and pastry, it was as if Edward Behr and his team had peered into my recent thoughts on the sweet subject.

Mr. Behr himself wrote A Point of View in Pastry, describing the talents of Shuna Lydon. In writing about her work history, he is able to discuss the differences between east and west coast sensibilities regarding the final course. I like what he has to say about Lydon, and his observations of the craft. His conclusion particularly resonated with me. "A dessert has to fit the whole of the restaurant. It has to mesh with the savory part of the menu; the waiters have to be able to describe and sell it; the time between order and pickup can't be too long." As usual, his observations extend beyond creativity, and place it within the context of the logistics of a restaurant.

I started my career in cooking as a baker and pastry chef. Now, after many years of savory cooking, I am once again directing the pastry program at Park Kitchen. My perspective has changed, and my approach to desserts are more of an extension of the savory meal. I think this makes my menu more consistent, and the transition from savory to sweet is more seamless. I also set out to make the desserts complete without fussy garnishes and inedible decorations. I was inspired by influential pastry chefs like Claudia Fleming to make desserts as seasonally focused as the rest of the menu. So I was eager to read Mitchell Davis' well written article, Where is Dessert Headed? and see what he thinks of American desserts in the twenty-first century.

Mr. Davis begins by proposing that American tastes have evolved over the last half century, but "our dessert tastes are for the most part stuck at a five year old's birthday party circa 1952." I suppose this is true inasmuch as America loves comfort foods. He proceeds by asking the question "what makes a dessert great?" Is it innovation or is it satisfaction? It really depends on the audience. Mr. Davis describes a recent meal at the James Beard House in which Matt Lightner served his creative seasonal cuisine with mixed responses. Although Mr. Davis enjoyed the meal immensely, "it felt as though half the dining room was in rapture and the other half wanted their money back." This is usually the response to very personal creations. They may seem like a revelation to some, while being completely lost on others.

This is especially the challenge of restaurant desserts and pastry. In the restaurant industry, desserts are a loss-leader. The ingredients cost a lot, perishable fruits and fine chocolates, and the techniques require a lot of time and skill. The price of desserts rarely covers the cost of their own production. This is perhaps the reason why the world's most innovative pastry chefs have abandoned their posts, and in many cities, pastry chefs are becoming as hard to find as sommeliers. In Spain, Albert Adria, former pastry chef at El Bulli is now the owner of a tapas bar. In America, Alex Stupak, former pastry chef of Alinea, now owns a Mexican restaurant, and Sam Mason, former pastry chef of WD-50 is now a bartender. This seems to me to be at the heart of the question "Where is dessert headed?"

America will always love apple pie and cupcakes. The classics endure for two reasons, because their flavors and textures are simple pleasures, and because they are affordable. Fine dining desserts require extravagant bells and whistles to entertain, whether they are the old world spun sugar cages and towering spires of chocolate sculpture, or the new world liquid nitrogen and high tech chemistry. They are less likely to have the endurance of the classics. Mr. Davis recalls his most memorable dessert, a simple "slice of lemon tart served unadorned" at the legendary restaurant of Fredy Girardet. Although that perfect simplicity might exhibit a certain sophisticated restraint, it was the conclusion of a $250 lunch that few can afford.

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