Desserts are the final say in a meal, the parting shot, a kitchen's last chance to make good. They literally leave a good taste in a diner's mouth--or not. Given this power, it's understandable that many otherwise-terrific restaurants rely on certain old standbys--creme brulee, apple tarte tatin, tiramisu--and troubling that more pastry chefs aren't saving us from such boring, predictable sweets.
Pastry chefs are a luxury for most restaurants; good jobs are few and far between. Even then, a pastry chef never earns as much as a chef de cuisine, which discourages all but the most dedicated cooks from seeking work in desserts. A good pastry chef, in short, is extremely hard to find. L.A. has but a handful. Nancy Silverton at Campanile and Michel Richard at Citrus have long set the high standards. And there are a very few strong young talents in town--dessert makers who end meals with a bang, not a brulee.
Jeffrey Johnson, the chef de patisserie at monrovia's Restaurant Devon, is a shy, handsome, compact young man who is wildly enthusiastic about his craft. He came to Devon when it opened two years ago thanks to, well, his mother, who worked in an office in the same building. As the restaurant was being built, word filtered down to the owner, Richard Lukasiewicz, that Laurie Johnson's son was a trained pastry chef. Lukasiewicz invited Jeffrey for a talk, and the young cook landed his first professional position.
Johnson, 26, grew up in San Marino, studied music and then was classically trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London, where he completed the full cycle of French cooking, studying first cuisine, then pastry. After graduating in 1995, he stayed on for seven months as the school's recipes administrator.
At Devon, Johnson was given free rein with one caveat: He had to make one rich chocolate dessert. His dessert menu, then, always includes something chocolate, along with a cake, a custard pudding, an ice cream assortment, a cheese selection and specials.
The amount of work he puts into each plate is staggering. The crunch in an espresso ice cream, for example, comes from crushing espresso beans, then making them into a crisp caramel nougatine, which, in turn, is crushed and added to the freshly churned ice cream. The ice cream itself is custard-based, and each custard, once cooked, is ripened for 36 hours so that the egg yolks mellow out and the vanilla becomes more pronounced. "I make very small batches of various flavors. To get a rotation going with the maturing processes involved takes some doing."
Ice cream, however, is only a sideline. "Cakes," he says, "are the great center, the foundation of my menu. My fondness for them comes out of my love for the British tradition of tea." His cakes share a moist, fine, buttery crumb that has the lightest filigree of crunch. Indeed, cakes teamed with specific ice creams are among his most innovative efforts. There's the beautifully spicy, seductive red wine cake served with a berry ice cream, and the haunting pear cardamom cake with Fourme D'Ambert ice cream. That's right: blue cheese ice cream. The cheese adds a subtle sharpness to the creamy, slightly sweet ice cream and proves the perfect complement to the pear, its flavor enhanced with cardamom.
"Intermingling the savory and the sweet brings the meal into a whole," Johnson says. "I don't like these big blasts of super-sweetness at the end of a meal. Why not carry the thread of flavors throughout the meal?" His latest cake would seem to carry this sweet/savory idea over the top. A Kalamata olive cake served with tomato Chardonnay ice cream?
Johnson laughs. "You can just imagine how it doesn't sell." In fact, cake and ice cream doesn't get more sophisticated--or delicious. By pureeing the olives, he makes them more of a flavoring; their slightly salty fruitiness adds depth and balances the cake's sweetness and richness. The subtle tomato ice cream adds tones of citrus, bay leaf and the oakiness of Chardonnay.
Johnson's chocolate philosophy can be summed up in four words: bitter, dark, intense and simple. His custards are unusual, like the creme brulee enhanced with seven spices or the flognarde, a souffle-like custard that's crusty like a popover on the outside and rich and eggy with macerated raisins and sultanas on the inside. And his rule for ice cream is, not surprisingly, not too sweet!--and, yes, possibly even a bit savory.
Never idle, Johnson is already at work on his next creation: a rustic, crumb-topped English country apple cake with a farmhouse cheddar custard sauce. He's also thinking about making aged fruitcakes with his own candied peels and glaceed cherries. "Cakes as they're aged and soaked with various brandies turn into this very, very complex confection. I recently had a taste of a 7-year-old cake, and it was one of the great culinary moments of my life. Of course, such cakes would be very expensive to serve. They'd be vintage cakes." Again, he laughs that shy laugh. "People will have to ask for the reserve cake list."
When Sherry Yard was a little girl in Brooklyn, her grandmother would awaken her and her siblings at midnight to eat ice cream. "My grandmother would be in one of her Zsa Zsa Gabor outfits. We had sundaes--and I remember a great strawberry float. Everything was served in 19th century Czechoslovakian china."
With desserts so dreamy and memorable, it's no surprise that Sherry grew up to become a pastry chef. And it's no coincidence that, at Spago in Beverly Hills, her most popular, almost instantly mythological dessert, is the Kaiserschmarren, a creme fra 5/8che souffle pancake served with sauteed strawberries.
Yard, according to the words embroidered on her chef coat, holds the position of "Executive Pastry Wench." "I earned every bit of that title," she says, laughing knowingly. Blond with rosy cheeks and a bright, ready smile, Yard is in charge of developing all of Spago's desserts and supervises the seven-member pastry staff. It's a big job; after all, 65% of the customers at this large, usually mobbed restaurant will order dessert.
Yard, 35, studied cooking at New York City Technical College. After graduating, she first worked as a waitress at the Rainbow Room before taking a job in the kitchen. "I had a lot of fun experiences--like serving baked Alaska to 400 people."
To learn more about pastry, she completed the Culinary Institute of America's master baking program. Afterward, she worked simultaneously at the highly esteemed Montrachet and Tribeca Grill in New York City. But California beckoned, so with $500 and two pieces of luggage Yard came west in 1991, landing at Campton Place in San Francisco, where, within two months, she became the head pastry chef. Three years later, she helped Campton Place chef Jan Birnbaum start Catahoula in Calistoga.
It was at Catahoula that she heard of an opening at Spago in Hollywood. When she interviewed for the job, all she had were cards on which she'd drawn her desserts and labeled all the components. Wolfgang Puck took one look at the cards and went to get a menu. On the menu's cover were his own drawings of dishes, drawings that bore an uncanny resemblance to Yard's. "I knew then, this was it," she says. "I was home."
She worked at the original Spago for three years and then, with Puck and Lee Hefter from Granita, moved to the new restaurant. The Beverly Hills kitchen is a pastry chef's dream, with a huge table Yard designed for pulling strudel dough and a marble surface in a temperature-controlled niche she specified for working with chocolate and ice cream. In preparation for the restaurant's opening, Yard traveled to Europe to study the time-honored way strudel, dumplings and Kaiserschmarren are made in Austria.
Yard has been a pastry chef for so many years now that her extraordinary facility with ingredients and flavorings is second nature. She uses various kinds of sugar for their different effects--krokant (a caramelized sugar), for example, cane sugars and honey. "I believe in layering flavors like a good cook," she says. She routinely expands and enhances flavors with subtly applied spices and herbs. Ice creams may be infused with pink peppercorns, star anise or cardamom. A tangerine sorbet is made with honey and infused with black pepper and basil; a pear sorbet is enhanced with fennel.
Yard's menu is organized under three headings: seasonal fruit, Austrian imports and chocolate. She says with some pride: "You'll notice there's not one cake on the menu."
For fruit, she goes to farmers' markets three or four times a week. "The farmers actually compose my menus," she says. "They'll tell me what they have, and I'll make something from it." A Meyer lemon souffle tart in the winter, perhaps, or a poached Adriatic fig in deep summer.
Yard has adapted classic Austrian recipes to suit California--and her own--tastes. Her Kaiserschmarren is lighter in volume than the traditional version, thanks to the leavening properties of creme franche. And she pulls her strudel very, very thin and just mists it with melted butter. "It hardly has any calories, although that's not why I make it that way. I do it that way because that's how I like it."
She also has a penchant for dark Valrhona chocolate; she makes a deep, dark chocolate and whiskey torte with meringue on the bottom and clabbered cream on top. "The melting chocolate, the heat of the whiskey and the crunch of the meringue should be like an explosion," she says. Her profiteroles are glazed with "10-year chocolate sauce." She calls it that "because it's taken me 10 years to get it this right."
What's in Yard's future? She'd like it to include some form of "giving back." "I'd love to teach or show people what pastry is all about--how it's art and it's food and it's not as difficult as it looks. I want to teach people what ganache is--that it's just cream and chocolate--and they'd never reach for packaged frosting again. I'd like to show them what they're missing."
Angela Hunter is 30 years old and about to test her mettle at two new venues: as a consultant at Blueberry, an American cafe opening this month in Santa Monica, and as the pastry chef in the restaurant at the new L'Ermitage hotel, opening in May in Beverly Hills.
Hunter, a native of Toluca Lake, studied cooking at L.A. Trade Tech for a year, then decided she wanted to make pastries and spent a summer at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. "I learned the French way of making all the doughs by hand and the very specific way of making a charlotte."
She has since made desserts at the Olive, at Sylvie and Rox in the Beverly Prescott, in the Beverly Hills Hotel's restaurant and, most recently, at Boxer, where, in a very tiny space, she created a number of memorable sweets, including one of the city's better warm chocolate pudding cakes and a stunning little pastry box filled with whipped mascarpone cheese and fresh red currants.
Hunter takes a less-classical, intellectual approach to dessert-making than Jeffrey Johnson or Sherry Yard. She doesn't think in terms of a structured menu but works more on intuition, coming up with ideas for individual dishes "usually when I'm driving and not even thinking about desserts." These inspirations somehow add up to a varied, eclectic menu. "My desserts tend to be little-kid stuff redone," she says. Her tangerine flan, she explains, is reminiscent of an old-fashioned orange and vanilla ice cream bar. And the clear peppermint syrup around her warm Valrhona souffle cake is made by melting down the same kind of peppermint candies that her grandmother once put out in bowls.
For Blueberry, she has created mini-muffins (blueberry, of course, and corn) for the table and enormous classic American desserts for the dessert case. "The owner wanted everything huge," she says. A tall chocolate cake. A vast, very simple apple pie. An ample berry crumble. "I had to keep thinking 'grandma' the whole time I was cooking," she recalls.
When they're left entirely up to her, though, Hunter's desserts tend to be small, sized for one individual--"a little bite of really good flavors." She also prefers clear syrups, infusions and fruit reductions to heavier creme anglaise.
For the starting menu at L'Ermitage, she's offering many of her established favorites from Boxer: the signature warm Valrhona cake with peppermint syrup and Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream, the upside-down apple-almond cake with balsamic caramel sauce and ginger ice cream, the tangerine flan, the Gianduja terrine, assorted sorbets. It will be interesting to see how, given a large new kitchen full of the best equipment, she and her repertoire continue to develop. She's already issuing challenges to herself. The menu includes some new items as well, such as "Chestnut Parfait With Praline Shortbread."
What's that like?
Hunter grins. "I don't know," she says. "I haven't made it yet."