Anthony Bourdain hit the nail on the head in his iconic book Kitchen Confidential, when he said, “pastry chefs are the neurologists of the kitchen.” We like things just so, and will stop only at premeditated murder, to make sure it stays this way. We are organized to the point of scary, and we guard our (often tiny) stations like junkyard dogs.
Pastry chefs like things clean, orderly, in excellent working order, and labeled. When I worked at Bolo in NYC, I would lock our station’s chinois (fine mesh strainer) in my locker and would refuse the chef’s request for it, even when he begged. I knew our pristine chinois would be introduced to garlic, or worse: a 4 oz. ladle. (If you must force something through this expensive, delicate piece of equipment, use the smallest ladle: 1-2 oz.)
As some of you know, I’ve spent the last seven days baking up a storm for a major plated dessert tasting I have today at noon. I’m working primarily out of restaurant kitchen in San Francisco, which is great because, in my one bedroom flat in Berkeley, I don’t have a walk-in refrigerator. Nor do I have a row of burners and any number of ovens for various sensitive custards and buttery shortbread.
But working out the details has been a logistical challenge. Lists and lists and lists get made, sometimes twice a day. I’m arranging time sensitive batters, freezing times, a fight for space in an extremely busy establishment, and I want the seven people eating my desserts today to taste the freshest of flavors! I’ve only been able to be in said kitchen from @ 6:30-9/10 AM a few days, and the rest of the time I’m testing components in my home. I’ve also wanted to build in time for testing, tasting and re-making if needed. Disasters always take more time than we think they will.
The trick to plated desserts is to create a menu that is all things to all people. Desserts need to be:
Both comforting and innovative, cold and hot, soft and crunchy, smooth and toothsome, sweet and a little salty, a balance of acid and fat, pretty to look at, right-sized and worth the price (don’t get me started on this), eaten only with one utensil, have a pronounce-able name on the menu, sweets the waiters like, something you want to eat after that which came before, have a plating style which matches the aesthetic of the dining room/savory food/the diner’s outfits, seasonal or mostly chocolate, flavorful or too sweet, dumbed down or esoteric and conceptual.
As you can see, it’s a tall order.
Pastry chefs are responsible for feeding you your last morsel. We can help you to leave happy or discouraged. We can save a mediocre meal or confuse a good one with awfulness. We can give you more of what you’ve been eating since the 80’s: creme brulee, warm molten chocolate cake, apple tart, lemon bars, hot fudge sundaes and mint leaf garnishes. Or we can introduce you to fruits at their peak of flavor, subtle herb infused ice creams and pot de cremes, seemingly savory ingredients infiltrating the last course, and allow your imaginations to soar as we push the envelope for you.
If you trust the pastry chef, you can take virtual trips to sights unseen and explored! Beyond your wildest imaginings…
The pastry chef’s prep lists at Coi.
To this end, I bring you a game. The Plated Dessert Menu Game.
I give you 6 mains, and a list of possible components. Each main needs at least 3 components to comprise one cohesive plated dessert. You can take creative license with one dessert and add a component that’s not on the list, but you have to say why you chose to do so.
1. Butterscotch pot de creme 2. Carnaroli rice pudding 3. Warm milk chocolate veloute 4. Ricotta cheesecake (this has no crust) 5. Pate a choux doughnuts 6. Lemon Sherbet
Crunchy poached rhubarb dice, Vanilla Egg Cream, Chantilly, Malt ice cream, Cherries, Brown Butter ice cream, Candied Citrus Zests, Mesquite flour, Rose geranium, Pecan shortbread, Warm chocolate sauce, Cherry vinegar, Double Vanilla Shortbread, Cocoa nibs, Fleur de Sel, Dacquoise, California Bay Laurel gelee, Shuna’s Famous Graham Crackers, and Swiss meringue.