Top chef brings a parade of amazing guest judges each season. Most I know by name, many I know by sight, all make me nod with respect.
But last night I just about jumped when they brought out Johnny Iuzzini.
Iuzzini is on my team, the dessert team. He is the pastry chef at Jean George.
I have never met him, tasted his desserts, or come too close to any of his actual work, but what ever, I still admire him. I have certainly worked with other cooks who have worked for and with him, and his reputation is formidable.
His website provides pictures to fill in the gaps in chatter I have shared with those who worked with him. It also provides pictures of him covered in some kind of white goo. Royal icing is my best guess, or liquid latex, but I think if that were the case it would be a different kind of site all together. Marshmallow fluff I’ve now been told, and I’ll resist the obvious urge to make fluffernut jokes. His reel makes him look like a rock star, with clips ranging from winning the James Beard award to propositioning Martha Stewart.
Iuzzini’s first book, four play, cleverly nodding to the structure of his desserts at Jean Georges, 4 small compositions fitting together on one plate, is set for release this fall.
The quickfire challenge was the first in which all contestants were required to create a dessert. With only an hour and a half, even strong pastry chefs would be pressed to do anything to extravagant.
Richard, put up my favorite dessert, banana “scallops” with a sweet guacamole and chocolate ice cream. What made this my favorite was the acknowledgement that you don’t have to have a mastery of baking and pastry techniques to build a dessert. All savory chefs should figure this out.
Plated desserts in fine dining restaurants are so much closer to a savory course than they are to traditional pastry found in bakeries. However, once the lable, “pastry” gets put on something, most cooks begin to immediately disregard it. I call it the “not my problem” effect.
It was nice to see Richard bust out an amazing composition using the skills he had, rather than trying to fake skills and create a weak plate.
Cant make a souffle? Braise pineapple instead. Never made a custard? Whip up a sabayon with sweet wine. Don’t know how to balance a sorbet? Make a fruit soup. Don’t know how to bake? Make a gussied up french toast, or pain perdu, which when baked in bulk is really just bread pudding. Don’t have a tuille recipe? Fry wontons.
I know that all cooks can look deep in their skill set and compose a dessert. They just need to look at what they have, instead of what they don’t have, and know that a dessert in a restaurant to complete a meal, and an item from a bakery are not the same thing even though they both suffer the same title, “pastry.” Don’t hide behind the fact that you can’t bake.
You can do so many things, and bring to a dessert things a traditional pastry chef may never think of. While it took the pastry chef in me to make a great panna cotta, it took the cook in me to think of a sweet celery and strawberry relish to go with it. It was also the cook in me that made a killer braise of pineapple, or earthy chocolate and potato gnocchi.
And what the heck, watch your pastry chef and cooks, and recognize the components and techniques that you could easily do without being trained in pastry. Ask questions, be interested in what you are plating on the pantry. You never know when you will rack your brain, searching for every bit of pastry know how you might possibly have.