The Science of Sweet

One of the most fascinating things about the modern restaurant kitchen is the average savory chef’s complete aversion to the art of pastry. It is as if that particular vocation is the culinary equivalent of learning a difficult foreign language, with even the tiniest errors resulting in failure. With so many would-be chefs rushing into the cooking profession, why is it that so few dare to tread the scientific world of the pastry chef? What drives those who do accept the challenge?

For Tara Barker, pastry chef at 40 Paper in Camden, the draw to sweets was in reaction to being brought up in a household full of health foods and macrobiotic products. She even endured a brief period when sugar was completely banned from the pantry.

“It could be said that my attraction to pastry arts was one of rebellion, sort of a making-up-for-lost-time approach,” Barker admits. “It’s true that I have a sweet tooth, but I honestly do not eat much sugar, believing as I do that it is inherently unhealthy for us. This makes it a bit odd that I have devoted my career to something I don’t generally offer my family at home! I do believe, however, that desserts are not just another thing to put in our mouths. They remind us of cherished family traditions and mark some of the biggest celebrations of our lives; they can give comfort and satisfaction; they can be works of art or simply the final, sweet note that helps balance out a savory meal.”

Krista Kern Desjarlais, chef and owner of Bresca in Portland, has managed the rare feat of being known for her superlative desserts as well as her skill with the rest of the menu. This dual proficiency stems from extensive experience in both sides of the kitchen. She started as a dishwasher and prep cook at the age of 14, eventually working under renowned chefs in New York City, Las Vegas, and Paris. When I inquire why most chefs are so terrified of confections, she suggests that many chefs lack the control and concentration needed to work with the intricate formulas of pastry.

“Savory can be forever spontaneous but pastry requires you to stop, organize, and focus. So often the savory chef is concentrating on so much for the entire kitchen that it is impossible for them to find the time needed to bake properly and create the pastry, so in most cases they hire a specialist to fill this need. Also, learning these skills takes many years, and many cooks do not have time or ability to tackle pastry as they climb the ladder to chef.”

To illustrate her point, Desjarlais cites the preparation of croutons, explaining that a savory cook would cube them before tossing them onto a sheet tray to toast, whereas the pastry chef would neatly line them up on the pan before putting it into the oven. Though both methods are correct, the pastry mentality is meticulous.

Ilma Lopez, pastry chef at Grace in Portland, believes that, “there is a certain creative perfection in pastry. I have always enjoyed baking, and the precise nature of executing a recipe, which often requires a much higher level of patience than that of the savory.”

Although all three chefs can agree on the attributes of a great pastry chef, they couldn’t be more different stylistically. Barker refers to herself as “sort of all over the board,” asserting that her flavor profiles are more traditional, including chocolate, warm spices, custards, seasonal fruits, buttery pastry, meringue buttercreams, and ganache “in its many incarnations.” When creating dishes for the restaurant, she uses these classic tastes as a foundation, but presents them with new and unexpected components. “For example, we’ve currently got a sweet potato budino on the menu, topped with a roasted homemade cinnamon marshmallow. The flavors are very ‘traditional American comfort food,’ but we do it with an Italian twist by adding bitter orange and hazelnuts to the mix. It keeps the dish totally approachable, but at the same time it’s got an air of ‘reinvented’ to it.” All of Barker’s desserts are gluten-free, as she herself has celiac disease. Many customers remain unaware of the restriction because her lofty standards result in confections that need no explanation or apology. “We won’t serve anyone—gluten-free or not—anything that falls short of my expectations.”

Desjarlais enjoys incorporating both classical and conceptual influences. She maintains that the overall flavor is paramount, and bases her visuals on everything from seasons to music to television. “Right now I am serving two desserts, ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘I.C.U.,’ that are visually based on characters from a cartoon called Adventure Time that my daughter Cortland and I watch together.” For her, pastry offers a way to communicate through the use of ingredients in a way that savory cannot, effectively employing both sense of humor and imagination to create a finished product that crosses all borders of age or background.

Having studied under such culinary legends as Albert and Ferran Adrià and Daniel Boulud, Lopez invents creative desserts that rely on bold flavors and multiple layers. This is evident when I taste her passion fruit gelée, served atop a delicate coconut mousse with tamarind foam, dry meringue, crystalized pistachio, tamarind granita, olive oil, and cilantro. Though there is a staggering number of ingredients, they tango in perfect harmony while complementing the main focus of passion fruit. Because each of Lopez’s desserts has unique expressions, it is not uncommon for patrons to come into the restaurant solely to enjoy multiple courses of exclusively sweet dishes. Few things make Lopez happier.

For Barker the true dessert connoisseur is “someone who sees the value of ending a meal on a sweet note, without overdoing it. It is someone who understands that the dessert course is just as integral a part of the restaurant experience as the appetizer, or the wine. They may not eat desserts often, but they make an exception at restaurants, understanding that the work of the pastry chef deserves just as much respect and attention as every other aspect of the meal. Rather than the sugar addicts, my favorite customers are the ones who truly appreciate desserts as a crucial piece of the restaurant experience.”

As the public interest in these confectionary artists grows, it is becoming more common for all chefs to recognize the need for at least basic training in the ways of pastry. This furthers the mutual understanding of all stations in the kitchen, encouraging collaboration and a more cohesive menu as a whole.

At the end of the day, as Barker puts it, “Desserts make people feel happy and festive, and who wouldn’t want to be responsible for helping to do that?”

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