Sculpting sweet somethings

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Akis Anagnostou is in the zone.

Anagnostou, the pastry chef at Ouzo Bay, Harbor East's new Greek hot spot, holds a saucepan at an angle, rapidly stirring its contents with a metal spoon.

Every few seconds, he lifts the spoon, pulling with it a long tail of sugary blue liquid that extends back into the pan.

After several minutes, he deems the sugar ready, dropping a dollop of the liquid on a nonstick mat. Dipping a small funnel-like tool in the sugar solution, the chef leans over, blowing gently into the funnel as he carefully and slowly draws the tool, and attached sugar, upward.

A blue bubble forms on the surface of the mat, expanding and contracting with Anagnostou's breath.

Drawing himself up straight, Anagnostou sprays the sugar — as thin as a piece of yarn — with a hardening solution, then breaks its connection to the funnel.

The sugar sculpture is light and delicate, reminiscent of the work of glass artist Dale Chihuly. Tonight, Anagnostou'sartwill decorate an Ouzo Bay diner's dessert of baklava, adding a sophisticated flourish to the traditional Greek dessert of phyllo, nuts and honey.

Anagnostou's roots are on display in that baklava. He developed a love of pastry as a young boy, living on the island of Rhodes in Greece. At age 10, he started working after school with his father and grandfather, both pastry chefs.

He acknowledges that as a child, choosing work over playing with friends wasn't always easy. "Most of my friends were having fun after school," he says. "But two of the best pastry chefs of Rhodes were my father and grandfather. By watching them, I learned that you had to invest time into your skills."

At 16, Anagnostou got his first official position as a pastry chef, at the Rodian Amathus Hotel in Rhodes. He followed thatjobwith a course of study in "Europastry" at Le Monde Institute of Hotel & Tourism Studies, eventually making his way to the U.S. to run the quiet kitchen at Ouzo Bay.

In the kitchen, Anagnostou moves efficiently and with grace. His workspace, located along the back wall, is clean and organized, with jars of ingredients and his sugar sculptures lined up in neat rows. The sculptures are created each morning, along with a fresh batch of desserts for the night.

A simple burner sits at one end of his workspace, a standing mixer nearly 5 feet tall at the other. He shares a wall of ovens with the rest of the kitchen staff, but since Anagnostou bakes in the morning, they're rarely in one another's way.

Anagnostou's blue bubble sculptures are only one element in his repertoire — numerous creations are on display in his workspace. Tonight, thin swirls of blue will adorn dense chocolate cake and long thin strands of white will sit atop coconut cake like antennae. Glassy orange sugar triangles will become billowing sails perched on a round of phyllo-wrapped custard.

Sugar pulling and blowing, the techniques by which Anagnostou creates his sculptural garnishes, is notoriously difficult. The techniques seem simple: create a solution of sugar, water, corn syrup and cream of tartar, heat, and shape via pulling and blowing. Perfecting the activity, however, requires intense practice and patience.

According to food historian Harold McGee, the first sugar artists may have been the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, who cut sugarcane for sap as early as 4,000 B.C. The art evolved over the next several thousand years; by the 1400s, sugar decoration was a prominent part of pastry construction in royal courts across Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Today, sugar art is celebrated at upscale restaurants like Ouzo Bay and among chefs at events such as the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie, a global pastry chef competition that takes place annually in Lyon, France.

Wider audiences get a glimpse of the intricacies of pastry creation, including sugar art, on shows like "Food Network Challenge."

In the kitchen, Anagnostou works quickly but without the frantic energy of pastry chefs on those timed TV show competitions.

With his sugar sculptures and desserts prepared in the morning, Anagnostou is able to focus on plate assembly during service. Often using small tongs, Anagnostou places each item on the plate carefully, adding details like chocolate swirls and dots, using a pastry bag.

The chef's speed may be a result of his confidence in his artistic vision. Often inspired by nature, Anagnostou conceives his sugar creations in his head, without so much as sketching them on paper.

"The beauty found in the most intricate details of a simple piece of nature helps me brainstorm my pastries," he explains. "I pay attention to details in all aspects of my life, which can be seen in my pastries."

Those details are apparent to diners. "People think it is awe-inspiring," says Ouzo Bay owner Alex Smith. "He is an artist in every sense of the word."

Once he has the inspiration for a new dessert, Anagnostou's work begins. "There is a lot of preparation needed to create my displays," he explains. "I experiment with new ideas all of the time and use technical tools throughout the entire process. Visualizing the final product helps me with new ideas."

But for Anagnostou, the sugar sculptures are just that — decorative sculpture. Ultimately, it's the dessert that matters.

"I always think of the dessert first. It is the foundation. Once I have that, I can bring my ideas to life with my decorations to create something I am proud of."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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