Pastry chefs are a rare breed. They’re recipe nerds, technique junkies. What they do tends to involve more precision, more science than the rest of the kitchen. In the world of desserts, there are no pinches of salt or splashes of wine added on a whim. Everything must be measured and timed meticulously. It’s the difference between, say, mousse and, well, not mousse.
Sadly, being a pastry chef can be a thankless job. The sweet course is literally an afterthought — not only for diners but, too often, for the chef de cuisine. Yet dessert is the last memory diners take with them when they leave a restaurant. Pastry shops are where we go to treat ourselves, to buy edible gifts for the people we love. Last week, bakers, pâtissiers, chocolatiers and confectioners from around the world took over a few blocks in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood for what was christened a “chocolate think tank.” Some of pastry’s biggest stars showed up for the two-day event, which was orchestrated to help kick off the opening of the new École Valrhona. Chefs gathered to share ideas, gawk at their idols, network, and get inspired by their colleagues’ sweet creations. The sugar rush was contagious.
The event kicked off with a TED-style talk given by the one of the great masters of pastry: Paco Torreblanca of Valencia, Spain. He spoke about the sources of his inspiration, which include nature and art. How and where top chefs get their ideas was a main topic of conversation. Given their grueling schedules and at times solitary role in the kitchen, coming up with new creations can be a challenge. Clusters of young cooks poured out of the Torreblanca seminar full of exuberant chatter, excited to have a glimpse into the legendary chef’s process.
“Seeing all these people whose names you see bandied about, I do think I’ll come away inspired,” says Garner Beggs, co-owner of the Duchess Bake Shop in Edmonton, Canada. “Paco Torreblanca, especially. Just to see where he gets his inspiration—that intersection of fine art and food has always been interesting to me. It makes me want to go back home and inculcate that into my staff. Like, ‘Hey, guys, staff field trip to the museum!”
Patrick Roger, an icon in the field of chocolate, gave his presentation to a hushed audience. He clicked through slides showing the forest outside his childhood home in France, the helicopter he owns and pilots, his state-of-the-art lab in Paris and the astonishing sculptures he’s carved out of cocoa. These include a life-size orangutan and a 23-foot-long tableau of hippopotamuses made of four tons of chocolate. In one image, Roger himself stared out from beneath a mask of cocoa powder. He claims to be able to control his body temperature, which allowed him to be covered in chocolate long enough to be photographed without it melting on his skin.
Roger’s sculptures have been cast in bronze for posterity. These works are more than outrageous stunts for the chocolatier. He uses them to raise awareness about endangered species and other environmental issues. In his seminar, Roger expounded on his philosophy for sourcing ingredients, which extends from the concept of terroir instilled in him as a child. He somehow also finds time to design furniture, his employee uniforms and, oh, yes, impeccable chocolate jewels that melt in the mouth.
“There are really just three guys I’d be really nerve-wracked about tasting my stuff,” said William Werner, whose San Francisco shop Craftsman and Wolves has earned him a place in the pantheon of American pastry greats. “Oriol Balaguer, Patrick Roger, and Paco Torreblanca. Being in the same space as these guys — I mean, when does this ever happen?”
Werner was showing off a few of his sweets at one of several pop-up stations during the event. Hitting several major dessert trends, he had a pineapple-mezcal pâte de fruit, a yuzu-almond caramel, and kettle corn with coffee milk jam and a verrine made with Valrhona’s new Illanka Grand Cru chocolate from Peru. A pair of guys in chef whites came by to sample the goods, and Werner braced himself ever so slightly for the scrutiny.
“Pastry chefs never get together for this kind of conference,” he continued. “It’s good for me to come and see what other people are doing. I think everyone is comfortable and humble enough here to ask, ‘Hey, how did you do that?’ Because, as a chef-owner, it’s crazy town, right? So to be able to slow down for a minute and get re-inspired, see your heroes, it’s great.”
At the Michelin panel, chefs from the likes of Per Se, Daniel, and Le Bernardin spoke about what it’s like to do pastry in a fine-dining establishment. You might have more freedom as a chef, given that you have skills no one else in the kitchen shares. And unlike in a lower-end restaurant, you can spend $85 on a pallet of perfect strawberries. But even at this level, chefs still seemed to struggle with the stigma of pastry being less important than the rest of the menu, despite the fact that, as one panelist stated rather matter-of-factly: “All pastry chefs have a more refined palate than savory chefs. We just do.”
“I think pastry chefs are not always understood,” said Ricky Webster of the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles. He was standing with Veronica Arroyo of Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak in San Francisco. The two had just met, but it turned out they followed each other on Instagram. There were indeed a lot of smartphones being whipped out to snap bonbons, macarons and the luminaries in attendance.
“We can chat with our team all day about what we want to do,” said Webster. “But it’s nice to have this camaraderie and be in a supportive space where we get to spread our wings a bit and bounce ideas off each other. Like, ‘Hey, I was thinking of doing something with pineapple, too!’”
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