Often, one of the telltale signs of a restaurants disregard for dessert is when there are no printed dessert menus. A server rattles off the offerings because really, this part of the meal does not call for serious consideration. Or, if a dessert menu is produced, there will be very slim choice - two or three selections. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for limited choice if, and only if, they are exquisite. But far too often the tiny pastry menu is the measure of pastry talent in a kitchen.
In the race to the sauce station, where the ‘really important’ work of the kitchen happens, some chefs will take little more than a cursory interest in pastry. Most often the mandatory introductory level pastry course taken in cooking school is their only pastry specific training. When they do finally reach their career apex and take the helm of a restaurant they fall short at the finish. Sadly, in many modern restaurants, this is the rule, not the exception.
It would be wonderful if said chef possessed enough humility to have done a skills inventory and hired accordingly. Or, given the tight fiscal restraints most small restaurants operate under, hire a pastry chef to consult. Instead most stumble along, assuming the mantle, hoping that customers will be so swayed by their skills in the hot kitchen they’ll fail to notice the lack in dessert. Unfortunately, for customers like me, this tact has the ability to diminish the brilliance of whatever preceded it. For me, it’s the last act and I remember it with uncanny clarity.
I spent my career working in small, chef-owned restaurants. In only one case was the executive chef a trained pastry chef. None of the others possessed any formal pastry qualifications. What all of them did share were the rigors of French training. They served apprenticeships that required that they have enough time in the pastry kitchen to gain a measure of competence. More importantly, and all too easily overlooked, they knew their skills would be incomplete without it.
As a result, I worked in restaurants that exercised as much care in pastry as in any other department. Like my mentors, I served ample time in the pastry kitchen. I hand whipped to order the calvados sabayon to accompany Claude Bouillet’s French apple tart. With Neil Baxter I mastered lemon and chocolate tarts, made countless petit fours and, in pre-Paco Jet times, churned ice cream fresh for each service.
At the time I worried that as a female chef in great restaurants I was being relegated to the girls ghetto (as I sometimes thought of the pastry kitchen). But with time, my own competence and confidence in this area of the kitchen has become a source of great pride. Like those who came before me, I was trained to be well rounded, a generalist in many senses, not a specialist, the end goal for any chef-owner.
But this system of apprenticeship has loosened considerably. Where once chefs stayed in one kitchen long enough to complete a circuit of all departments, now moves in restaurants happen with more frequency. The loosening of the French system is not the point, change is good and this is not a rally cry for more idyllic times. It does mean that greater responsibility falls on the shoulders of young chefs to exercise vigilance in their training. If the goal is to head a restaurant, there should be no gaping holes in experience. Expertise in even the most basic of sweet preparations can lead to great ends. I will never forget a sweet cherry galette with vanilla ice cream at Chez Panisse Café - pure, simple, sweet, seasonal bliss. The most difficult element to master is the preparation of tender, flaky, buttery galette dough.
It’s not just the young who fail, men of experience are no less vulnerable. In my recent dining experience I had a very dismal dessert by a celebrated culinary master. A stunning presentation marred by inconsistencies in preparation – tough little fried balls of dough and flavourless puddings. It signaled to me the absence of a discerning eye in this corner of the kitchen. Worse still is blatant disinterest. I was once in a restaurant where clafoutis, that marvel of French country cooking, had been cooked off in advance of dinner service. Trays of very sad, deflated puddings littered the counter in the pastry area. Clafoutis is child’s play to prepare and cook to order. From Bryan Steele I learned how to bring it to the table hot and risen, finished with a dusting of icing sugar and a scoop of ice cream melting in its residual heat.
For me, there is no greater pleasure than knowing that a pastry chef is in house. I remember a dessert celebrating rhubarb that Joanne Yolles and Colen Quinn of Pangaea co-created, as exquisite and complex as any entrée. It was the work of not one but two masters, precisely the type of dessert I long for when going out, an end of meal revelation. I’ve been known to have more than one dessert and relish the pre-dessert offering of many great restaurants. Once at a Christmas lunch in Stratford I went back to the kitchen to beg a second helping of Neil Baxter’s homemade mincemeat tart with lard pastry and brandy ice cream. The first serving ethereal; tasting of more. He happily complied. Dessert is a restaurants ‘bid adieu’, the last magical moment, a ripe opportunity to ensure return.