by Nico Rosario
After an eight-year stint as the Executive Pastry Chef at Le Bernardin, a Michelin Guide 3-star restaurant that was recently named “Best Restaurant in New York” for the 12th year in a row by Zagat, Michael Laiskonis became The Institute of Culinary Education’s (ICE) inaugural Creative Director in March 2012. After meeting at the “Is Food Art” panel discussion, organized by the Food Studies Program at The New School, I caught up with Michael over email to chat about life after working in the multi-starred restaurant world, the act of cooking, and being a “hustler in the nostalgia business.”
Nico Rosario: The most obvious question would be: How much do you miss working at Le Bernardin? Not only being in that particular kitchen, but the every day routine; the pageantry of service; the feeling of relevance, staying “in touch?” (That last caveat might not apply, due to your current appointment at ICE, which I presume keeps you on your toes!)
Michael Laiskonis: I do miss certain aspects of daily life in the kitchen. After twenty years, the cooking business becomes a way of life, a subculture, and a lens through which one views the world. My role now, while perhaps more difficult to define, requires a certain discipline, but a different one than working 70-80 hours a week in a kitchen. What I enjoy most is that no two days are exactly alike. As Creative Director at ICE, a lot of what I do is behind-the-scenes. I also interact regularly with the career program students and conduct classes for professionals and amateurs. This position was created to allow for a fair amount of outside work as well, projects like ongoing restaurant collaborations, small-scale consulting, corporate advisory sessions, and my own personal research and writing.
One of the primary forces that pushed me out of the full-time kitchen was the desire to replace some of the routine with more time to pursue and realize ideas both creative and commercial. My lifelong goal was to reach the height of a Michelin three-star kitchen, but once there I began to realize I hadn’t set any goals for myself beyond that. With my current list of side projects and my affiliation with ICE I have more time and space to think and at the same time attempt to give something back to the pastry and chef community at large. I still spend quite a lot of time in kitchens, so I do get my occasional fix of restaurant service. The quieter moments of just putting my head down and working – that was what got me into this thing in the first place, so I never want to lose that simple satisfaction! Relevance is a fringe benefit, but I resist that becoming motivation in and of itself.
NR: As someone who spent a decade working in restaurants (but almost exclusively front of the house) I can’t fathom what would make one want to be in a commercial kitchen for 12-16 hours a day. However, as a personal chef for several years, I felt like I could do that work forever, happily, for free. As I read your piece, I thought to myself: what is it about the act of preparing food – either for yourself, your family, or total strangers – that shifts the way we think about that work? Is there an innate contentment about creating sustenance that overrides the challenges of cooking and the inherent lifestyle attached to someone at that culinary level?
ML: I definitely think of cooking professionally and cooking at home for family and friends as two entirely different animals. For years, I would come home after 12 hours of restaurant work and make dinner for my wife and I. It was partly a function of my wife also being in the industry and maintaining a ritual, even if the dinner hour was 1:00am. But even though I may have been physically exhausted at the end of the day, the act of cooking dinner just for the two of us was very different. I’ve never really been able to put my finger on it, but I almost see home cooking as therapeutic, at least for me. Perhaps because so much of restaurant work, especially service, involves cooking for an anonymous slip of paper – a ticket – rather than for someone that you can connect to. For me, too, it’s the difference between spending my professional day in the realm of pastry, and then being able to come home and switch things up with a savory meal. In fact, I very rarely bake or make pastry at home. Maybe there is a subtle unconscious divide that I’ve constructed.
NR: Related to lifestyle, how have you adapted to being out of the kitchen? Do you actually have nights and weekends to yourself now?
ML: I can’t lie, I do enjoy that little bit of extra time during the day to do things like read books without pictures! On the whole, it is nice to rejoin ‘normal’ life and ‘normal’ hours, but some aspects of the cooking lifestyle stick with you. Years of working dinner service still to this day keeps me on a late night schedule, though I’d love to be more of a morning person.
I don’t feel it as much as I did in the months immediately after leaving the restaurant, but I do occasionally remark on the novelty of being out on a Saturday night; I even feel a slight twinge of guilt knowing I might be enjoying a holiday while my comrades are deep in the trenches. As we enter what many cooks refer to as ‘the season’ – October through December – I still get a vague sense of uneasiness although my schedule now is fairly regimented and predictable.
NR: I also wanted to ask about your role at ICE. What exactly does a “Creative Director” do? How does the methodology of teaching differ in a school environment from an apprenticeship in the kitchen?
ML: There are many criticisms that are being hurled at culinary schools these days: high costs, lack of necessary repetition of basic skills, and failure to imprint realistic expectations of the industry. I think it’s difficult to generalize the efficacy of formal culinary education, because so much depends upon the individual – his or her level of experience prior to school, their goals upon leaving, and how they use the available resources while in that learning environment. It is true that a cooking school might not be for everyone, just as it is probably true that one might not be exposed to a broader set of fundamental skills apprenticing in a specialized environment in the ‘real world’.
I never went the route of culinary school, but I do value what that environment of immersion can offer someone who might still be developing that passion for cooking. What I like most about this profession is that the educational process never really stops; one can never know everything. The structured environment of a school, plus all of the additional opportunities and support that comes with it, can help young cooks navigate their first tentative steps in the industry. Again, at the end of the day, it’s how the individual uses the experience. Hard work and desire are necessary, no matter which path is followed.
As a chef running a modest pastry kitchen, with a revolving roster of stagiaires and externs included in the mix, I have considered myself a teacher of sorts for some time. What is different now is the opportunity to slow things up and really get into some of the underlying aspects of cooking that I didn’t previously have time for. It’s also been nice to circle back to some of the classics, especially being able to see them through the set of ‘modernist’ ideals that I’ve worked with in recent years.
One of my favorite tasks is giving a lecture on dairy products to shiny new pastry students on the second day of their 100-lesson program. Though I’m throwing a ton of technical information at them, the purpose at this early stage isn’t necessarily to make them memorize the exact composition and structure of milk, but rather to inspire the students to begin thinking about ingredients and recipes and techniques in a way they probably haven’t before – with equal measures of curiosity and respect.
NR: Lastly, in the “Is Food Art?” discussion, you talk about the idea of “creation” as part of retaining memory. You mentioned creating an apple dessert that referenced a cider-and-doughnut-eating experience you had as a child. Can you elaborate on that? For as long as I can remember, my mother has told me about eating apple ice cream at a HoJo once. (I’d like to emphasize that this only happened ONCE.) Every time someone mentions Howard Johnson (either word), ice cream, apple, road trip… anything that triggers that memory, she goes through this revelry. Somehow, when you related your story about the cider and doughnuts, I was reminded of this…
ML: I had never really mined the depths of the psychology or physiology of our human desire for sweet things before a discussion I shared with GQ columnist Alan Richman a few years ago. Nor had I ever considered my own personal connection to sugar. Alan posed the rather vague and daunting question, “What is the essence of dessert?” I’m not really sure that even he knew what kind of answer he was looking for. After some introspection, I noticed that the desire for sweet things is rooted deep within our psyche: the physiological, the emotional, and a sometimes ineffable sense of pure pleasure (both the hidden, guilty side, and of a sharing, celebratory nature).
Out of all this thinking I had a revelation of sorts, that pastry chefs are really just hustlers in what I call the ‘nostalgia business’. Though savory cooks might retain a capacity to tell stories through their dishes, with sweetness we tap directly into our own DNA. From birth, we’re hard-wired with a taste for sweet. Just when we might otherwise mature beyond that physiological trigger, the desire manifests itself in the realm of emotion. With sweetness we begin to associate comfort, pleasure, reward, envy, and guilt. Everyone has their own personal Proustian madeleine that lights up some fragment of sense memory, and I find my work as a pastry chef, no matter how refined, is a potential portal to one’s own childhood. A sense of responsibility surfaced with this realization, but so too did a renewed sense of play and exploration; I enjoy the challenge of interweaving those nostalgic elements in ways that might not be obvious. Each dessert must have broad democratic appeal, but a true ‘dialog’ emerges when an element of a dish tickles the guest in some ineffable way.
From the moment of birth, we seek our nourishment and comfort in the rich, sweetened form of mother’s milk; it is indeed the only taste we know in our early months (years later as adults, we’re hard pressed to identify our attraction to creamy crème brulee and quivering spoonfuls of fragrant panna cotta. Eventually our sense of taste becomes considerably more complex as the sources of our sustenance widen, but I find it interesting that for us humans, the desire for sweet endures. Personal nostalgia will vary by culture, country, region, or generation. It can be triggered by a freshly baked pie like Grandma used to make, or it may come in the form of mass produced junk food (I’m convinced that all pastry chefs have, consciously or not, tried to recreate a Snickers bar in some way or another). These associations remain through adulthood. Playing to this inner child, for a pastry chef, can initiate the creation of something new; the context of such nostalgia, especially unexpected in a fine dining environment heightens such playfulness.
Apart from the calories, we surely don’t rely on our intake of sweets; our nutrients come in the form of “real food”. While cultures differ in their dessert traditions, virtually all incorporate some form of sugar as the conventional end of a meal, or as a “street food”, or even in a ceremonial or ritualistic way. As Valentine’s Day approaches, we can also ponder the role of candies in courtship. Is it coincidence that we consider chocolate an aphrodisiac? Do we not use the word ‘sweet’ to refer to a kind and lovely person?
As adults we enjoy desserts simply for the pure pleasure of it, though it is often accompanied by a sense of guilt. For some, the bigger and more decadent the better – we still see desserts with ominous names like “Death By Chocolate”. Openly indulging these fat and sugar bombs seem to dramatize the guilt as an ironic cry for help, or to boast to others how many sessions on the treadmill it will take to absolve that sin. And even in a culture obsessed with fad diets that pays lip service to a desire for “healthy” desserts, in practice, most pastry chefs agree that chocolate outsells such desserts two to one. We’re in an age where pastry chefs are increasingly striving to create desserts that are “unsweet” (as opposed to simply “less sweet”!), sometimes successfully and sometimes not. I think it’s always important to remember that it all begins with sugar.
A very personal expression of the Proustian madeleine, the combination of spiced cider and warm doughnuts activates my own sense memory. This dessert calls to mind an early autumn Sunday at a cider mill in my native Michigan. The damp chill in the air, the early sunset, the smell of hay and fermenting apples, the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot. In my memory, that combination of tastes draped me in a thick wooly blanket of happy simplicity. To those guests who’ve enjoyed my refined interpretation of that in a fine dining setting, it’s served under the guise of sophisticated elegance and seasonality, with a wink and a nod from behind the kitchen door.
Another case in point: the tres leches-inspired dessert we added to our menu at Le Bernardin. It was born in conversation with Jesus, one of our youngest cooks in the pastry kitchen. On the surface, it was simply an exercise; how do we refine and transform a rather pedestrian dessert into something worthy of a four-star restaurant? What new techniques can we apply to the original concept? Once manipulated, how do we maintain that reference back to the classic, with or, preferably, without an overblown sense of irony? So before we did anything, we made the original version, without bells and whistles.
As we tucked into the wet, spongy tres leches, I asked Jesus how it made him feel. Born and raised in the Bronx, he made frequent visits to his grandmother in Mexico as a child. It took a lot of coaxing, but Jesus eventually, shyly began to describe every memory connected to the tres leches his grandmother would buy from the bakery in her small town. He remembered her plates and sitting at her kitchen table. Visiting the shop itself was part of the ritual, so he also began to recall the sweet smells and even the color of its walls. “That,” I said, “is what we’re trying to do!”
No matter how much we add our clever contemporary spin, through technique or ingredients, that nostalgia is what we’re trying to access. No matter the age of our guests, whether six years old, or sixty, the potential in tapping those memories can be powerful.
When not on the dance floor, Nico Rosario splits her time between writing about pop culture, making mix-tapes, and Easy Jetsetting.