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Michael Laiskonis

eGullet Society staff emeritus
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Posts posted by Michael Laiskonis

  1. I couldn't wait any longer to publicly thank Suvir and the entire staff at Amma for providing a great send off the last evening of a recent trip to NY. The spontaneous tasting menu they provided was both comforting and sophisticated, the flavors clean and balanced. The company, as well, was most enjoyable!

    Thank you Suvir, I look forward to next time!

  2. Ted, the description and concept of Jordi Roca's 'Anarchy' is very much in line with what Conticini has been doing with his 'plated desserts' at Petrossian for years. Philippe's desserts, of course, are carefully layered into glasses and bowls. Sure, the motivation and execution may differ, but the elements of chance, surprise, and the diner's own intent play equally well.

  3. Also, our truffle would (ideally) not be "salty."  It would be very sweet with the occasional crunch and surprise of salt flavor.

    I think you're on the right track. By sprinkling a few grains of fleur de sel on the just dipped (I assume) truffle, you will be better showing the affinity for salt/chocolate, than if you simply made a 'salty' ganache. And the character of the salt will be more perceptable as well.

    For a bigger 'pop', try the larger crystal Maldon salt from England. It is likely easier to find, and a third of the price. I now use it more often than fleur de sel.

  4. I feel sorry for the importers that keep trying to sell fantastic wines like Savennieres because they know they are great, but then end up closing them out because it seems impossible to wean consumers from industrial chardonnay.

    When I see a restaurant wine list with, say, a Joly, I tend to assume that it's there almost out of a sense of obligation. But otherwise, if it fits my budget and the cuisine, I'm all over a nice Savennieres. It is often a sign to me that someone actually cares.

  5. ...1996 Baumard, Savennieres Clos du Papillon:

    ...Fabulous nose of chamomile tea, flowers, white fruit, stones, rain water and citrus...

    Chamomile! That's the aroma that has for so long remained ineffable for me. Stones and rain water, yes, but chamomile!

    I, three, am a big fan of Savennieres.

  6. This reminds me of a recent tasting/luncheon we did- the particular producer (of course, my brain isn't functioning; can't recall who it was) also had us play with their dry and 'late harvest' furmints. Very fun to taste the complete range, from dry through syrupy.

    So would the 'late harvest' designation simply be those grapes not hit with botrytis?

    As I write, I recall this might have been a lunch with the winemaker from Vega Sicilia... Isn't it Oremus that operates under their auspices?

  7. Allow me to further agree. Granted, my production is nothing like, say, Tim's, and my chocolates are only for mignardise plates- but I still wind up doing chocolate work (molded and enrobed centers, an array of garniture) if not everyday, then at least four days out of the week. I still temper by hand, and, in fact, I enjoy the process each and every time.

    Becoming fluent in chocolate, by hand, will not only help with troubleshooting down the road, but will also reinforce the importance of cleanliness and efficiency, and ultimately force you to better respect chocolate's amazing properties. For the most part, chocolate is constant- it is the great number of external variables that make the difference. Exposing yourself to as many of those variables as possible will pay off in the long run.

  8. I had read somewhere that icecream was pretty much invisible to microwaves; the idea was that you roll a dollop of something sweet and gooey into a ball of icecream well before-hand, and when it is desert-time, I was going to nuke the icecream and end up with hot  fillling inside cold ball.

    What I've seen of this technique/theory came via Herve This, of Molecular gastronomy fame. I was a bit sketchy on the specifics, as I was reading from the original French.

    johan, could you lay out the specifics of your experiments?

  9. You guys know me well enough; I'm all for experimentation of kookiest kind. But I have to join the chorus and ask, once you nail this, what exactly are you going to do with it? And chefs have been foaming this way for years- what exactly is the difference we're acheiving with this?

    Really, I ask this quite sincerely!

  10. The accidental pastry chef. I love it. I hope you're keeping careful notes -- this is something you should write about someday for a magazine, in order to let people know how the restaurant biz really works. And of course, as ridiculous as this employment selection technique is, in the end the restaurant is probably getting a more enthusiastic, conscientious, and useful pastry chef than it would have gotten by hiring an actual pastry graduate from one of the cooking schools.

    First, just to be done with it, FG's initial comments should not be either taken personal by zilla, nor should any experienced pastry chefs take offense. In fact, I completely agree, and the circumstances here are not unlike my own humble beginnings...

    We'll actually fast forward past my first couple of cooking jobs, because, while perhaps relevant even to this discussion, none of you will be interested in reading my boring, unabridged memoir...

    So I land my first ever job in a restaurant, having previously worked for a bakery, caterer, gourmet shop, and wholesale bread/pastry operation. For some reason, I knew a restaurant was where I needed to be. While I had the pastry background, I didn't necessarily entertain thoughts of becoming a pastry chef, but rather wanted to prove myself as a blood-and-guts line cook, in hopes of becoming a chef like those of whom I was just starting to read about- from a Trotter or Bouley or Ripert, to a Robuchon or Blanc (Georges) or even Gagnaire. At this point, I had already considered school, both locally, and the CIA, but I was dirt poor, living paycheck to paycheck, and decided to follow the old chestnut, "Earn while you learn."

    I didn't know a thing about the local restaurant scene, but I was smart enough to know that if I went to a small, just opened, chef-owned place, the potential for real education would be greater than if I got myself lost in some hotel or corporate restaurant situation. So I somehow found myself hired, part of a tiny staff, in a tiny, and I mean tiny, kitchen- the chef, his sous, the pantry guy, and a part time prep/expeditor. There literally was no room for anyone else! I was to replace the pantry guy, who would move up to the line (mind you, for the first six months, the chef and sous were the line). So I did the amuse, two salads, two apps, and plated the desserts, which were brought in from the outside. And our only ice cream was picked up at the market next door- Haagen Dazs Vanilla, which we served with the 'rustic apple tart' we bought. I think we may have made a coulis here and there, but for the most part, it was all purchased.

    It only took about a month to get the station routine down cold. So with an extra half hour to kill before service, I'd started to knock out a tuile here, a sauce there, just because I felt like it. I'd begun to ask, "Why do we buy our crème brûlée? I can bake them off, and we can even play around with the flavor." And right around this time, having already devoured Charlie's first book, Andrew MacLauclan's book came out- it truly blew us away at the time. So I began taking on more of the dessert stuff; I was still more interested in tweaking the amuse stuff, or coming up with ideas for a new terrine or some other cold app, but I didn't feel as much confidence in suggesting those ideas to the chef (it wasn't until much, much later, as his sous, that I would end up kicking him out of the kitchen, as I thought I had things exactly the way I wanted!). Little by little, we phased out the wholesale items, and I became another "accidental" pastry chef.

    Eight months into my first restaurant job, I was given the title, and even a printed dessert menu- up to that point, desserts were sold verbally. And while I was also responsible for my 'garmo' duties, I produced four or five plated desserts, from top to bottom, and we even procured a cheap home-use ice cream machine. But I still wanted to butcher the ducks, clean the fish, sear the foie, even blanch the asparagus. So my days got longer; I'd come in early enough to blow through my prep list, in order to make myself available to do whatever I could. Luckily, I worked for a chef who let me take a mile for every inch he gave, not because he was lazy or that he didn't care, but because, I felt, he trusted me, and perhaps saw some shimmer of potential. Sure, I made little money, and he certainly got two cooks for the price of one, but that restaurant became my "school," my "laboratory." And looking back, I suffered a lot of defeat and disasters, but his laid back mentoring set me on the path that I continue today. But again, at the time, I didn't see myself becoming a pastry chef. Sure, I enjoyed that aspect, and took an immense pride in what I did, but I needed more. I jumped ship into deeper waters.

    A new restaurant had opened in town, unlike anything else at the time (or to this day, really), and doing food of the sort I had only seen in magazines and books. I had been in to eat and met the chef and GM. I realized I needed a kick in the pants, and this was my chance. I began my trial by fire as a line cook. Finally, I was really cooking, learning a ton, and as part of an elite staff. I was hungry for the discipline, the stress, the quest for perfection. And I got it there. It was there that I developed that internal knot that just feeds on that pressure, but is never satisfied. I loved it, but I also spent a lot of time looking at what was going on across the kitchen in the pastry area. I was amazed with the equipment, staff, and freedom the pastry chef had. I began fantasizing about what I could do with all of that at my disposal. I also think I missed something I had at my previous job (and even a couple jobs prior to that)- a sense of autonomy, the feeling that I had a certain amount of control. I was doing very well, and I knew there were opportunities to advance in this restaurant, but something told me I had to bail. And I eventually did, but back to my first restaurant, where I finally decided to see where I might take the pastry thing.

    Although I took a step backward in terms of the resources available, and the level of intensity, the confidence I had gained made me realize that not only did I seek responsibilty and leadership (even if there really was no one to lead), let alone autonomy, but also that I needed that environment where I could figure out and truly refine whatever style or passion existed within me. So I started where I had left off, building on what knowledge I continued to accumulate. But the place was still too small to afford a pastry chef proper, so instead of working pantry, and because I gained a lot of experience at the other restaurant, I now doubled as the number two line cook. I was content to have my own little private corner of dessert creativity, but I was also butchering those ducks and making sauces. I was still paid shit, but I was in my own heaven.

    I had just been to France for the first time, eating at Gagnaire and Arpege. I had gone to cook with my chef at the Beard House, and then ate myself silly in NY, where I had, to this day, the most amazing dish I'd ever eaten (Ripert's skate sauteed in goose fat, with fennel confit, porcini, and a squab reduction). And also at this time, the first reports of this cazy Adria fellow in Spain were just starting to surface in this country. This was the stuff I really wanted to be doing. The savory gods were calling me again. By this time I had forced myself into the sous chef position, all the while maintaining and executing the desserts. I was an animal. I can recall numerous occasions of juggling last minute sugar or tuile garnishes while cooking off my first apps of the evening, but not being able to crank up my oven, because I still had brûlées in there! Looking back, it's a wonder I just didn't sleep at the restaurant- well, I did, but only a few times! But my creativity with desserts could only be expressed so far. I had no space, no equipment, and still that little runt of an ice cream machine. And have I mentioned that the only freezer was in the basement? Of course, that meant dozens of trips up and down, for an ice cream or sorbet that managed to be incorporated into each plated dessert. So I had hit the ceiling, so to speak, with pastry, and thus continued to wreak havoc with the savory menu. Then one day I heard about a vacancy, a pastry chef position, at another restaurant in town.

    Turns out the opening pastry chef of that big fish in our little pond, the restaurant where I had worked as a line cook, was leaving. Word was that the chef was willing to look anywhere for a replacement, even out-of-state. As much as I loved playing in the fire, I had always wondered what I could have done in that venue. Since I already had an 'in,' it was no problem throwing my hat into the ring and doing a try-out tasting. To my surprise, I got it. I was now a pastry chef. Full time. For real. With a staff. With money to spend. But most important, I didn't slow down. I continued on the pace I had been working, but now I could focus. Building upon the foundation I had begun with little to no resources, my 'style' and vision could now be fully realized and fleshed out. And in four years, that constant push and perserverance has paid off quite well, I think. I just have to keep raising the bar for myself, and I have to create higher and higher goals. I still feel the urge to jump on the line and flip a pan now and then, but I finally know that this is what I want to be doing, that the pastry realm is where I think I can do my best work. Also, though my management skills continue to evolve, I know that I need to do my own thing. I need to have that trust and autonomy and responsibility- the opportunity to run my own show. And for as far as I can see, the high-end restaurant environment is where it's at for me. I can't see myself in a big hotel, doing wholesale, or even in a corporate chef situation, though retail has begun to entice a little bit. I have yet to shake my physical and mental addiction to that daily energy and intensity. I know I may someday change my mind, but right now, that's where its at.

    So zilla, it's awesome that you stepped up. You are young, or at least a fresh face in the business. Do whatever you can, learn whatever you can, wherever you can find it. You may not ever continue with pastry, or this opportunity may just open up doors you didn't even know about before. Don't get hung up on the title, but make sure your work is recognized. 'Cooking' and pastry are really the same thing. Trust your taste and your skills first. But you have to love it. You have to push yourself, and we can only hope your chef will allow you to do that. Be at once humble, because you are a bit green, but also be forceful- set some goals, and make sure the environment you are in will aid you in achieving those goals. If not, consider going elsewhere, whether it is as a prep cook, a line cook, or a pastry cook. In a way, I say, so what if the restaurant or the chef doesn't think enough of the dessert course to warrant seeking out someone more experienced? Be selfish. Use them, instead of having them use you.

    And I sweep the floor, too. I still want to sweep the floor. Keep sweeping the floor. Clean floors are cool.

  11. I never tasted this, but I read a description of a dessert at Vetri in Philadelphia which has stayed with me over the years--warmed olive oil poured tableside onto a chocolate disk, melting it and mingling with the dessert below.  Sounded like nice showmanship.

    This is an eerily similar description to the dish I mentioned earlier, and attributed to the French Laundry. Hmmmm....

    I do think there is a point where the bells and whistles can overshadow the taste of a dessert. I do however like to serve (and be served) desserts or dishes that have a story, an instruction, a surprise, a subtle concept where the way we physically eat it is part of the enjoyment. Engaging the diner, getting them to play along, making them feel as if they play an integral role in the process- it is difficult to pull off well, without crossing the line into pure novelty for its own sake. In the end, it may incite some discussion, furthering the sense of 'relationship' we strive for in the restaurant business. That's really what it's all about...

  12. I wholeheartedly agree with your emulsifying technique, Sinclair. My cooks are not allowed to take a whisk anywhere near a ganache!

    But Clay isn't necessarily off base with his question. Maybe not with regard to whether Popcorn's ganache was 'gooshy' as a result of using the Valrhona Guanaja (71%), but the stability of the ganache, especially if the original recipe intended a couverture with much less cocoa butter, may come into play. A recipe using a 61% couverture may be wonderful, but then the same recipe may break instantly with a 71% in its place.

    As for the problem at hand, a 2:1 ratio should still be rather firm.

  13. Reminds me of a dessert I only heard about, from the French Laundry a couple years ago- not sure whether it was from during Durfee's tenure or after- but the mechanics sound similar. A thin disk of chocolate was set atop some component (it's all fuzzy now), and at table, a hot liquid (maybe it was olive oil?) was spooned over the chocolate, thus melted it and creating a 'sauce.' Something tells me chefg would know about this.

    Sort of a 'kinetic pastry.'

  14. Supercool (pun intended) reply, Randall.

    While we're on the subject of sweet wines, and borrowing the idea from someone else, who mentioned eastern European varieties, I may have your next challenge (assuming some parcel of central coast vineyard bears any similarities to those botrytis-prone plots of Hungary).... Furmint! Sweet, dry, off-dry... I'd love to see your interpretation, whatever form it might take. And surely the name itself, furmint, let alone 'puttonyos' or 'aszu, offers something for the BDV creative/marketing department to ponder.

  15. A few weeks, or months ago, or, hell, I don't really remember- in a recent interview with Lynne Rossetto-Kasper for NPR's The Splendid Table, you devoted most of your time to discussing a rather peculiar winemaker in, I believe, the Loire valley, who is perhaps the poster boy for the most militant faction of 'bio' wine growers. Who was that guy? Apart from the actual agricultural practices, and his refusal to add sulfites to his wines, you described his approach as an almost 'mystical' pursuit. If anything, I sensed you had simply discovered a kindred spirit, or at least another 'demented' thinker!

    How did you come to meet him and what did you take away from the experience? What have you learned and assimilated from, for lack of a better word, the more 'mainstream bio'/commercially viable winemakers in France?

  16. Thanks to all for your contributions- it will be a great help to me!

    As for the wansanbon, I should have been more clear; it is a form of sugar- one that is highly refined and at least here in the US, isn't so easy to procure. I know there have been some Food Arts articles that have made mention, but I thought I'd tap this group for info before I start digging through my files!

  17. A related question: what about using teas -- not tisanes -- such as Earl Grey?

    Earl Grey is perhaps my favorite tea in ganaches, or anywhere else for that matter. Again, I give it a good 24 hour cold infusion (and I do infuse it straight into the cream), and I find it pairs very well with the profile of Manjari. I'll also boost it with a bit of orangeflower water.

    I have yet to play with it, but I'm hearing of more and more uses of the smoky Lapsang Souchong.

    I love cardamom and fennel, not to mention star anise and szechuan pepper, but spices such as those tend to offer a more straight forward approach. I agree that fresh herbs, the question at hand, can be tricky to infuse.

    And any added sugar, just like alcohol, would potentially aid in preservation, but I wouldn';t necessarily factor that into my turnover.

  18. Many thanks for spending some time with us!

    For those who may not be aware of exactly how you produce your 'Icebox Wine,' and for those of us who may simply be a bit fuzzy with the details, could you spare a few words on how your method came about? To what extent is mucat canelli better suited to the freezing, and have you made attempts with riesling, in an effort to capture what we find in Alsace and Germany? To what extent did trial and error reveal the perfect temperature and time for which the grapes are stored? Where or from whom did you stumble upon the use of acacia? Assuming demand for the wine continues to grow, how have your methods and sourcing changed to respond to greater production, or has the process always dictated a fairly limited release?

    And since you've surely been forced to choke down a fair number of desserts paired with the Vin de Glacière over the years, can you recall a few that came close to creating that elusive synergy?

    PS. As it was several years ago (just before you let Alex loose to do your dirty work), I wouldn't expect you to remember, but we shared a table at a dinner here in Michigan, and amid the barrage of wine geek-speak that night, you remained humble yet amusing; I've always recalled the simple bit of wisdom you offered this young novice, something along the lines of Cote Rotie being the 'sexiest' wine on the planet. Thanks for the fond memory, and the years of humour and 'refreshment' since.

  19. Knowing my obsession for odd salts and sugars and powders of various sorts, my boss, Takashi, just returned from Japan, with some fun things for me to play with. I long ago forgot the hiragana, katakana, and the handful of kanji characters I learned in high school, so I can't make any sense of what the labelling might offer in the way of info. Until I can get a thorough translation...

    ume-shio Where exactly does the plum figure in? How is it made? In what is it used?

    kaiso-shio Or 'seaweed salt.' From which variety of seaweed? How is it made? In what is it used?

    sanso-shio (Oxygen salt?) This is simply an extremely fine powdered salt. The illustrations suggest it is an all purpose seasoning. Any special significance?

    A fourth salt, which even Takashi didn't have a name for, but he described it as salt that had been stuffed into bamboo, then burned- the resulting ash apparently having some significance. He went on to explain that some will add a spoonful to water and take it as a 'blood cleanser.' Not so much smoky in flavor, but more an aroma and flavor of sulfur and ammonia, like a hard boiled egg whose time has passed. What the hell is this?! Any culinary uses?

    And finally, he brought me a bag of wansanbon, of which I have long been curious, but had never seen nor tried. I understand that it undergoes a complex method of refinement, and that traditionally it seems to be simply pressed into small candies... Any sources for detailed info or other traditional/potential uses?

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