LOS ANGELES — The final flourish of your meal arrives at the table: a rich pudding of chocolate cremeux, candied pistachios, a crumble made from ground pistachios, and both dehydrated and frozen mandarin. Its deliciousness almost obscures the effort that went into its making. Behind the chocolate, cream and fruit are the blood, sweat and tears that were shed for the sake of dessert — years of practice and hours of production.
Recently, the decline in the economy and the rise of the gastropub might have displaced the pastry chef. All those architectural spun-sugar towers of cake and mousse already had given way to homier, more comforting (and more easily prepared) dishes — the seasonal crostatas and buttermilk panna cotta that were the legacy of Berkeley, Calif.’s Chez Panisse and proliferated by the likes of Nancy Silverton in Los Angeles and Claudia Fleming in New York.
But in a pendulum swing to the fantastical, the pastry chef is ripe for a comeback. In the last year, the climate for dessert makers has shifted. In L.A., Margarita Manzke helms the sweet side at restaurant Republique and has launched its bakery, Sherry Yard will reinvent Helms Bakery, and a new generation of pastry chefs, such as David Rodriguez at Providence, remains on the cutting edge.
“Pastry chefs aren’t going away,” says Jacquy Pfeiffer, who founded the French Pastry School in Chicago, the only professional school in the U.S. dedicated to pastry making, which is now part of the City Colleges of Chicago. The school graduates 144 students a year, up from 24 when it was founded.
Says Pfeiffer: “People will always want dessert.”
David Rodriguez, the pastry chef at Providence, pores over a gleaming porcelain plate with all the concentration of a surgeon. Running through his mind is where to place an edible purple star flower: on top of a strip of poached rhubarb rolled into a tube or next to a cut-out cylinder of beet-flavored genoise sponge cake. In the rarefied world of spectacular desserts, no detail is too small.
Rodriguez, 30, always loved cooking but never thought of it as a career until his ex-wife’s mother suggested culinary school. It was during school at Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena that Rodriguez discovered his affinity for pastry. “There was more attention to detail. I liked the science of it.”
He was determined to land a job at Providence with pastry chef Adrian Vasquez, who eventually hired him. Then he worked with Jordan Kahn at XIV and Red Medicine, whose surreal landscape plating obviously had an influence. At just 27, Rodriguez was tapped as executive pastry chef at Providence after the departure of Vasquez.
“Every day for a year, I was making tart shells a little larger than the size of a nickel over and over again,” says Kriss Harvey, the pastry chef at the Bazaar by Jose Andres, of his induction into the pastry world. “The best pastry chefs know this is how you get good at something. It’s like being a body builder. You lift and lift and lift. That’s what the biz is, people.”
Harvey didn’t attend culinary school. Instead, he worked his way through restaurants from Florida to Paris. He fell in love with it — the ingredients, the flavors. “There was something about serving the guest their last taste. And I thought the flavors were more interesting, brighter, not as muted. There were different notes — of bitterness, acidity.”
Now fully ensconced at the SLS Hotel, Harvey oversees a staff of 17 devoted to making desserts, breads both savory and sweet, yogurt and jams for the Bazaar, the adjoining Saam tasting-menu-only dining room and the more casual Tres.
Della Gossett stepped into Sherry Yard’s shoes as executive pastry chef at Spago Beverly Hills when Yard decided to leave and focus on her plans for Helms Bakery.
Gossett hadn’t always wanted to be a pastry chef. She has a degree in arts education and painting and was an art teacher when she decided to enroll in what was then the Cooking and Hospitality Institute in Chicago. She worked first at Trio in Evanston, Ill., with Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto. Plating desserts “was a good way of putting my art skills to use.” She ended up working for the late Charlie Trotter at Trotter’s in Chicago for 10 years and was an instructor at the French Pastry Institute.
At Spago, her day might include making 100 sesame tuiles for Wolfgang Puck’s spicy tuna tartare in miso sesame cones (which customers still order despite it not being on the menu anymore), wedding cakes, chocolates or maybe 6,000 desserts for an Emmy party.
“Sometimes I pinch myself,” she says. “Because I get to make this.”
Early in his career, Lee Smith, now the pastry chef at the Montage Laguna Beach, moved to Scotland to work at the two-star Michelin restaurant of the majestic Gleneagles Hotel. The work was regimented and hierarchical. From making doughs, he worked his way up to making ice creams. Then sponge and cake bases. From there chocolatier, then banquets and kitchen artist, turning out giant eagles made of butter and ice sculptures.
“It was about discipline,” he says. “Everything has to be spot on.”
Several Michelin-starred restaurants, hotels and countries later, Smith is leading another 24-hour operation, baking every single thing at the Montage, desserts, all the jams, all the breads and, he estimates, about 20,000 pieces of chocolate a month.
“Guests’ tastes change constantly,” Smith says. “It’s only when you learn correctly that you’re able to adapt and innovate. ... It’s what you learn when you’re younger and what you put into it. The building blocks are there; you have to do the time putting in the work.”