A chef wears many hats: manager, role model, advisor, educator, enthusiast, inspirer. And for all of those (sometimes overwhelming and always time-consuming) roles, the pastry chef is right by his or her side, working the early hours, managing the relationships between chef and staff, and bringing the quiet calm of a detailed scientist into the sometimes rocky ship of the kitchen.
But where the chef gets the glory, the fame, and the television deal, the pastry chef is often left in the background. And while some are embracing new fame, many remain out of the limelight. After all, how many seasons was “Top Chef” around before “Just Desserts” showed up? (It’s eight, for those of you that avoid couch potato status.)
That brings us to today’s somewhat unsteady state of the pastry kitchen, a topic we’ll discuss in depth at this year’s 7th Annual International Chefs Congress with top toques Johnny Iuzzini, Jordan Kahn, Michael Laiskonis, Sam Mason, and Alex Stupak. More than ever before, this culinary world has some of the nation’s premier sweet talents focusing on the savory side. Mindy Segal lead the way with her restaurant-dessert bar combination HotChocolate in 2005. Stupak and Kahn (two of my favorite pastry savants) now run some of the most in-demand ethnic savory restaurants. And Elizabeth Falkner’s made the move into Italian cuisine with her soon-to-open Cobble Hill outpost Krescendo. As their mentors do it, we imagine more pastry chefs will continue to “cross the line” into the realm of the savory chef. And it’s not just the trend we highlighted last year, but what could add up to an exodus. As Stupak recently, and bluntly, explained, “Pastry isn't dead, but it’s dying.”
But pastry chefs aren’t just crossing the taste line, they’re also influencing their savory brethren in turn. In Atlanta, we came across the wildly catchy imagination of 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Taria Camerino, influencing the menus at all of Chef Ford Fry’s three locations, with both her menu of fair trade chocolate and her sweet-savory garnishes, like the candied coriander that ended up on our charred octopus dish at The Optimist. “She has this gift of inspiration in the way she talks with people,” Fry told us. “You’re just more passionate after working with her. You got to roll with her or she’ll pass you up.”
Pastry chefs are also rummaging through the mixology cabinet. 2012 Austin Rising Star Pastry Chef Plinio Sandalio spent time working as a bartender at Anvil Bar & Refuge and will bring his bitter(s) approach to a Hands-on Workshop at ICC this year. (Iuzzini has also spent time behind the bar, doing guest mixology appearances, although the word’s still out on a future nightlife spot of his own.) And savory influences often come from savory experiences. Pastry Chef Dominique Ansel worked as a line cook before turning to the sweet side and his addictive menu (including a fluffy egg sandwich on pitch-perfect brioche) benefits from it. (Learn his French technique in a Hands-On ICC dough demonstration).
Of course, we continue to keep our eye on the sweet kitchen, from Shawn Gawle’s modern interpretations to the nostalgic inspiration behind Angela Pinkerton’s playful Eleven Madison Park creations. (Both will show off their skills in ICC workshops.) And I can’t wait for 20 of the nation’s top pastry chefs bring their A game to our 3rd Annual International Pastry Competition (meet some of the competitors ahead of time). It’s one of my favorite parts of our International Chefs Congress—as many of you know, I’ve got a serious sweet tooth—and it’s a great way to survey the pastry landscape as a whole.
While you wait for the excitement of ICC, keep your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers coming. We'll be traveling to coastal New England, San Francisco, and the Carolinas in the upcoming months, tasting our way through these cities’ sweet shops and pastry menus, along with their savory, mixology, wine, beer, coffee, and artisan offerings. And follow us on Twitter and like us Facebook, for real-time updates on the food and drink that inspires us every day.