If you need proof that Del Posto executive pastry chef Brooks Headley has written a different kind of desserts book, all you have to do is turn to page six. There you will find the foreword written by music producer Steve Albini. And if you have to look up that name, this might not be the desserts book for you. “They say that all arts aspire to music, but that’s a con,” writes Albini. “Music wishes it was food. Music cries itself to sleep over not having been born a ripe fig or shank of lamb.” When Headley was a teenager he would run to the record store every 16th of the month to buy the latest issue of Maximum Rocknroll — and given this it’s likely that Albini lands somewhere between hero and god for the Maryland-raised chef. But we wouldn’t know much about Albini because we didn’t talk to Headley, a drummer serving in a line of successful punk and hardcore bands, about music. There was no pressing him about Flying Lotus or the new Ex Hex record.
Though it would have been fun (you dude, what's up with C.R.A.S.H.?), Headley is a chef. A master of sunchoke crudo with yeast gelato and sour apricot sorbet. In 2013, he won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef and when you're drinking beers at White Horse Tavern with one of the country’s most-creative and original chefs — period — there’s no reason to start swapping Spotify playlists. There's no time for that business.
This book, Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts, of course has a bunch of recipes — dessert and some savory keepers from his 15+ years in the industry — like chocolate-covered honeycomb and a carrot cake that intentionally leaks out of the pan for maximum crunchy edges. Think of those as the barbecue burnt ends equivalent at the pâtissier station. There’s something called “donuts the hard way,” which is interesting and very likely hard. But this collection of recipes, along with essays and photos, thoroughly reflects on the 41-year-old chef’s past. It’s a memoir half-disguised as a cookbook with guest essays from Sloane Crosley and Robert Sietsema, and photography from Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin. For the visuals think less soft-focus panna cotta, more fisting of a large filone. Just go buy the book and put it on your nightstand. You will laugh a lot. Also, you will learn a bit. And, in fact, we learned a bit too during our talk. Here are some highlights from the chef and rising veggie burger boss.
On the tradition of closing a long tasting menu, including desserts, with a plate of chocolates
"I’ll eat the shit out of some chocolates in the middle of the day, but I don’t necessarily crave to eat those confections at the end of a meal."
On kitchen pay at fancy restaurants
"You never make that much money working in a restaurant. And the nicer the restaurant, the less money you’re going make. That’s across the board from the lower-level cook up to the sous chef. And that’s fine. I know that now and I’m used to it. It sort of bothers me. When I have people that come on to work with me, and they’re really good and I really like them, I just wish I could pay them more. It’s kind of like if I had my own small little place, I could, but in this big, fancy situation, it doesn’t work out that way."
On how young cooks live and work in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
"I have no fucking idea how they make it work."
On writing the line “the MC Hammer pants of NYC desserts” in the book
"What the fuck did I mean by that?"
On reading cookbooks
"I would go and sit in the cookbook section of Borders for hours and just read cookbooks, because nobody was going to kick me out. It was basically Claudia Fleming, Lindsey R. Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts and shitloads of Dorie Greenspan."
On Del Posto executive chef Mark Ladner
"He’s super important to everything I’ve done or accomplished. We just work really well together and it’s just a very satisfying place to be. I’ve worked at Del Posto for six and a half years and I have other friends that are pastry chefs that have worked in five other places in the same amount of time. In a lot of ways, I just really got lucky."
On Pok Pok chef-owner Andy Ricker
"He’s so humble, not an arrogant dick. And so many people are, and it’s such a bummer. Plus, his food is delicious. It’s just insanely violently satisfying."
On Fancy Desserts' art direction
"You can blur your eyes and just flip the pages, without even looking at specifics. The colors just work together."
On ripping off ideas
"What’s always aggravated me about chef cookbooks is that everyone’s like 'oh, I’m a genius and oh, I’m infallible.' That’s why I wanted to write in the book, you know, 'I ripped this off from this.' Or 'this is exactly this.' Or 'this is highly influenced by this.' Because, that’s true for fucking everybody. I’m sure that there are people who will tell you that they don’t have influences from other food, but I just don’t believe that."
On the contributors in his cookbook
"I knew that I wanted to have other people have stuff in it so I just thought of all the people that I know – friends of mine, or some people that weren’t my friends, just people that I really liked their writing style or aesthetics. Some of them are kinda funny, and some of them are pretty serious, and some are kind of technical. I wanted that kind of balance. Because I knew that the images and the cover and everything was gonna be kind of wacky."
On delusions of grandeur
"A lot of times chefs will get a book deal or want to put out a book and maybe have these delusions of grandeur — that it’s going to be the next French Laundry cookbook. I kind of had zero of that with this. I just wanted to get the story and the recipes down. And I got lucky because my publisher Norton kind of agreed to all my ridiculous demands."
On being the veggie burger king
"I have eaten one billion veggie burgers in my life. But I would like to think that the veggie burger that I’m working on is the best. I want it to feel like you’re eating a Shake Shack burger. Or like you’re at Kuma’s Corner in Chicago. Like this delicious, awesome, umami-laden thing."
On doing the Danny Meyer owner-restaurateur thing
"I’m not very smart, and I’m not very savvy. And I’m definitely not very good with money. The veggie burger thing is just a passion project. People say what are you gonna do with this? Open up a bunch of Shake Shacks! And I’m like how would you do that? I don’t know how to do that. I don’t have a guy throwing money at me. Everything that I’ve done, from band stuff up to restaurant stuff, it’s always…you just work really hard. And if you’re willing to sacrifice – friends, relationships and stuff, it’s probably gonna work out in the end. But you can’t do it halfway."
On presenting at the heady Mexican food symposium Mesamerica
"Diana Kennedy is there, sitting in a chair and talking. And then there was Christopher Kostow with his slideshow about the human farmer. And I’m watching like, fuck! I’m dead! And then, I basically read the hospitality essay [from the book], which had to be translated into Spanish since I don’t speak Spanish. And then my friends were playing background music and I ended up playing drums for one song, and it was just so stupid and so ridiculous. We had to borrow equipment in Mexico City and had a guy’s van pull up and we’re pulling equipment through. But it was just so funny because at the end of it, we only played a loud song for maybe 90 seconds or whatever. I walked off the stage and I was like (makes a painful-sounding groan). But Enrique [Olvera] came up to me and gave me a bear hug and was like ahhhhh!"