Are Pastry Chefs an Endangered Species?
Most pastry kitchens are tiny. A convection oven; a proofing rack; a giant Hobart mixer, looking like a squat, gunmetal-gray R2-D2; a long prep table (in marble for chocolate, if you're lucky) for tarts or laminated dough or maybe a few plated desserts; more speed racks, stacked high to make the most of any available space. Instead of imagining a French patisserie, think Das Boot. And that's if there's a pastry kitchen at all. Often there isn't: The space in any restaurant kitchen is at such a premium that the tables and ovens tend to be taken by the savory chefs.
And if the world of pastry chefs has long been a small one, it has gotten even smaller since 2008, when the economic downturn translated into a disproportionate number of them losing their jobs.
"The financial crisis was devastating to pastry," pastry chef Roxana Jullapat tells me on a recent morning after breakfast service at Cooks County, the Mid-City restaurant she co-owns with her husband, chef Daniel Mattern.
If you consider the hierarchy of a traditional kitchen, the pastry chef usually is the lowest-paid managerial position, making an annual salary that was consistently quoted to me as about $35,000. Desserts often are seen as less important than the main courses, an optional portion of the menu that can easily be outsourced, with breads and individual desserts being brought in from an outside contractor. Or, increasingly, desserts are made by the chef or someone on staff: a few homey standards, say a batch of ice cream or a chocolate pudding, which can be made ahead and kept until needed.
"It's very frustrating," Jullapat, a veteran of the pastry kitchens of Campanile, Lucques and A.O.C., says of non-pastry staff taking over a restaurant's dessert production. "I've had terrible desserts from great chefs."
"Pastry chefs have always been on the fringe," Elizabeth Belkind agrees. She's the executive pastry chef and partner at Cake Monkey, a North Hollywood–based pastry and cake business. Before that, she spent three years in Nancy Silverton's pastry kitchen at Campanile and was the opening pastry chef at Grace.
"It's always been a last thought," Belkind says, one that businesses try to downsize or eliminate in order to survive. Desserts often are considered a luxury, both in terms of the menu and the restaurant's business plan. "You piss off a table, you send out dessert. You give them away."
Dessert wasn't always optional. In white-tablecloth restaurants — once the locus of a city's restaurant scene but now themselves nearly obsolete — the beautiful architecture of the plated dessert is the flourish of the entire meal, an accomplishment wrought from tempered chocolate and flaky pastry, from unbroken sauces and blown sugar.
It was not your mother's pie recipe, or the scoop of ice cream with seasonal berries that you'll see anchoring the dessert menus of so many well-regarded restaurants today.
"In our field you have chocolate work, sugar work, bread, dessert plating," says Sherry Yard, who spent decades running the dessert section of Wolfgang Puck's empire before leaving early this year to open what will doubtless become her own empire. "Desserts are all about form and function, about warm and hot and cold. I want every component to hit your palate on different levels at different times. You have to know when to give up control, and if you go to a good restaurant, you have to give it up — it's a trust factor."
For years Yard was famous for the control she exerted from Spago's pastry kitchen, and for the influence she had, by extension, over the city's other restaurants and bakeries.
It's a measure of just how small a world L.A.'s dining scene is that an astonishing proportion of working pastry chefs came out of just two kitchens, Spago and Campanile, and thus trained under just two great pastry chefs, Sherry Yard and Nancy Silverton. If not literally, then laterally, as the pastry chefs trained by those two chefs in turn trained the chefs and populated the kitchens of the entire town, their techniques and sensibilities moving out, as traceable as the fault lines of butter in a pâte brisée.
Through Yard's pastry kitchen came Karen Hatfield, co-owner of Hatfield's and Sycamore Kitchen; Michelle Myers, who not only trained many pastry chefs at Sona but also opened Boule, a patisserie that had an astounding influence itself in the all-too-few years it was open; and Clementine's Annie Miler, who also spent almost five years at Campanile with Silverton.
Silverton herself came out of Spago, where she wrote her influential 1986 dessert cookbook, Desserts. (She and Yard never worked at the restaurant at the same time.) Other Spago alums include Miho Travi, pastry chef at Fraîche and Riva, who's now at Littlefork; Sally Camacho, of WP24 and now the Jonathan Club; and Zairah Molina, pastry chef at the new restaurant Bucato, ironically next door to Yard's new project in the Helms Bakery complex.
But even in the heyday of fine dining, before the recession, Los Angeles' dessert scene was different from other cities'. Maybe because fine dining itself has always been different here, less entrenched, with never more than a handful of truly world-class restaurants. Maybe it was the huge influence of farmers markets, with stunning fruit available year-round.
"In California, you're on a first-name basis with fruit," Yard says. "You take a beautiful Blenheim, you don't want to mess with it. If you have the most beautiful strawberry, cherry, whatever — why do you want to fuck with it?"
While it may be true that Alice Waters taught America about the importance of farmers markets, in Los Angeles it was not Waters — or even Yard — who taught us about markets as much as it was Nancy Silverton.
"At Campanile," Miler says, "the farmers market was part of the training."
Silverton's ethos, of rustic desserts made with perfect technique and utterly fresh ingredients, spread out from her original La Brea Avenue bakery and pastry kitchen to pretty much every part of town. You can find her influence at Clementine, Cooks County and Cake Monkey — she trained Miler, Jullapat and Belkind.
The pastry chefs who trained in her kitchen also include Dahlia Narvaez, currently Mozza's pastry chef; Sumi Chang of Europane Bakery; Little Flower Candy Company's Christine Moore; Karen Yoo of McCall's Meat & Fish, which recently expanded to include a bakery; and Danielle Keene, Top Chef: Just Desserts vet and owner of Pasadena's Bittersweet Treats.
These days you can find Silverton in the kitchens of Mozza, the Hollywood pizza, pasta and salumi empire she started with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in 2006. (Silverton left Campanile in 2004 after her divorce from chef Mark Peel, with whom she opened the restaurant in 1989. It closed last year.)
"What's interesting," Silverton says, "is that I could go back to the desserts I did at Campanile and not feel that they were dated — and sometimes I'm very tempted to. What I liked was very clear, and I really embraced it."
Silverton credits much of her ethos to perseverance ("You know when something's not finished, and that doesn't mean it needs seven elements"). She also points out that Los Angeles is much more of a laid-back city than, say, New York, which has a competitive edge that we don't have: "In New York, it's more a combination of the high-end and the rustic. Here it's pretty much rustic. Rustic to retro."
Even before the economic crisis, the rise of gastropubs and the era of pie, comfort food was an important aspect of the Los Angeles dessert scene. Maybe because we have a kind of passive-aggressive approach to formality, or a more invested belief in democratization than other towns (you, too, can come here with nothing and reinvent yourself!), we've always loved unpretentious desserts. Even Sherry Yard's most famous dessert at Spago was not one of her elaborate confections but her Kaiserschmarrn, a homey, Austrian baked pancake smothered in strawberries.
L.A.'s love of things your mom could make can be problematic for the pastry profession. After all, if your mom could make it, then maybe you don't need a professional pastry chef to do it for you.
"There's been a period in the last few years when chefs have been trying to figure out how to get rid of their pastry chefs," Jordan Kahn says.
One of the town's best pastry chefs, and one of the few who still does elaborate plated desserts, Kahn is both Red Medicine's pastry chef and its executive chef. He is also one of the handful of noted pastry chefs who did not train at either Spago or Campanile, cooking at the French Laundry, Per Se and Alinea before coming to L.A. to work in Michael Mina's pastry kitchen at XIV.
The pastry chef "is a position that doesn't make the restaurant a lot of money," Kahn explains, noting that it's the only course the diner eats when he's no longer hungry. "Any kitchen can buy an ice cream machine, make a crumble, put a schmear on the plate and call it a modern dessert. You don't need a pastry chef anymore."
If many restaurants are jettisoning their pastry chefs to cut costs, many others are opening without hiring one at all. Some chefs enjoy doing pastry themselves, notable among them Josef Centeno of Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá; and David LeFevre, of Manhattan Beach Post and the recently opened Fishing With Dynamite. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have never had a pastry chef at either Animal or Son of a Gun; Ludo Lefebvre does his own desserts at Trois Mec, the restaurant he recently opened with Shook and Dotolo.
One could argue that Lefebvre is better qualified than most — he studied pastry with Pierre Gagnaire and made his own puff pastry for his recent take on a classic Napoleon. But it's interesting that Trois Mec, where sometimes the staff outnumbers the diners, does not have a pastry chef. Dotolo says he and Shook are finally looking for a corporate pastry chef but says it's been difficult. "We've been trying to find one for over a year; pastry chefs are a dead art."
One restaurant where the art of the pastry chef is not dead is Providence, one of the few remaining fine-dining restaurants in this town. Dessert "is the last impression people leave with. If pastry isn't going to be at the same level as the rest of the food, you're letting yourself down," says chef-owner Michael Cimarusti.
It's only natural that the pastry kitchen is a priority for Cimarusti: Not only is his wife, Crisi Echiverri, a pastry chef, but Cimarusti was at famed New York restaurant Le Cirque at the same time as dessert legend Jacques Torres, who made the couple's wedding cake.
Still, as a restaurateur, Cimarusti is aware of the costs. Pastry "is an economic burden," he notes. "Of course, you could say the same thing about a general manager."
Providence's pastry chef is David Rodriguez, who worked with Kahn at both XIV and Red Medicine. Rodriguez not only does gorgeous plated desserts but also offers a five-course dessert tasting menu. Yet he does comfort food, too, making the desserts at Cimarusti's recently opened "clam shack," Connie and Ted's.
Thus on the same night that his interpretation of a Mont Blanc — a stunning, all-white creation that looks more like a tiny Frank Gehry building than a dessert — is on the menu at Providence, Rodriguez will be making Whoopie pies and Indian puddings at Connie and Ted's.
It's an irony not lost on Rodriguez. "Oh, it's a pie, but people say, 'It's a pie from the pastry chef at Providence,' " he says. "I worked as hard on the blondies at Connie and Ted's as I did the dishes at Providence."
Of course, any good pastry chef will tell you that comfort desserts require just as much technique as fancy plated ones. Zoe Nathan, whose empire includes Huckleberry, Milo & Olive, Sweet Rose Creamery and Rustic Canyon, and who identifies herself as a baker rather than a pastry chef, will tell you that a simple pie is one of the most difficult of compositions.
Nathan, another outlier, trained not in L.A. but in San Francisco's Tartine bakery. "If the dessert menu changes to panna cotta and bread pudding, you're, like, 'Dude! You just fired your pastry chef,' " she says.
"No restaurant has room for their pastry chef," Nathan adds. "Nobody has extra space in the kitchen."
But, as with submarines and Tokyo apartments, sometimes it's not so much the square footage as what you do with it. A pastry chef, fluent in bread and sugar and a thousand varieties of fruit, is maybe not superfluous in such a small kitchen but of profound importance. In any emergency, you're going to need chocolate.
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