Going into 2014, let’s take a moment to recognize our pastry chefs. Not so long ago the pastry station in local restaurants was often a responsibility shoved onto the plate of the sous chef. Things are different these days, as the number of full-time pastry chefs has boomed. The adage that all boats are lifted by the tide comes to mind and there has never been a better time to eat sweet in New Orleans.
Like their savory-side brethren, pastry chefs each have their own style. For Shun Li of the Windsor Court’s Grill Room, his guiding principle is that sweetness serves as a means rather than an end. “If you eat something that’s really sweet, that’s all you can taste,” Li says. “I try to use the sweetness to bring out the flavor of the fruit and the profile of the chocolate.” Therefore his desserts tend to be subtle, less sweet and fall on the lighter side of the pastry spectrum.
As far as flavors, Li likes to play with more nuanced ingredients, like the hibiscus flower he used recently in a Japanese pumpkin cheesecake. He infused the cranberry sauce with hibiscus, the tart playing off the floral with complementary colors to boot. Li tends to get a little more experimental for his tasting menus. Sometimes desserts created for those roll onto his à la carte selections, as was recently the case for his Black Forest cake. For this he deconstructed and reinvented the old-school classic. A dark chocolate cream mold is used for the base along with buttermilk-chocolate cake. Mascarpone panna cotta takes the place of whipped cream and a tart cherry sorbet contributes that essential flavor component. Kirshwasser gelée and chocolate flourishes help complete his elegant plating.
At the Link Restaurant Group, executive pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman has overseen the pastry operations for chef Donald Link’s expanding collection of restaurants since 2010. Her responsibilities now include Herbsaint, Butcher, Cochon, Calcasieu and Pêche.
Ruckman’s style swings in a different direction than Li’s. Here the desserts are, generally speaking, Southern-inspired and lean toward big, sweet flavors, though Ruckman tailors each menu to fit its restaurant. At Cochon, home-style desserts such as chocolate peanut butter pie rule the roost. A favorite of Link, that stays on the menu, along with Ruckman’s pineapple upside-down cake. Seasonal items include a recent pumpkin tart topped with maple meringue. Made with fresh pumpkin, the nuances unfold in a delicate way as compared to the generic flat flavor of the canned variety.
Ruckman is a big chocolate fan, sourcing much of it from Patric Chocolate, a highly regarded bean-to-bar small batch operation out of Missouri. She uses their Madagascar variety in a flourless chocolate cake at Pêche. “It has notes of berry and ripe fruit in it,” Ruckman says. “It is tannic as well, which adds a delicious tang.” For her chocolate mousse, she uses their Rio Caribe, which is earthier with slight undertones of licorice.
Going into January, look for her individual King Cakes at Butcher, featuring their signature miniature pig in lieu of a baby. And with the upcoming expansion of Butcher into an adjoining building, expect a wider array of sweets from her kitchen in 2014.
At Coquette, pastry chef Zak Miller often starts his compositions off with something familiar, but then gives them a little twist, like a recent sweet potato pie with toasted marshmallows and brown sugar ice cream that was finished off with a brown sugar gastrique. “The caramelized sugar and vinegar contributes a bittersweet, sour element that helps balance out a dish that would be otherwise too sweet,” Miller says.
Originally from Michigan, Miller started out on the savory side of the kitchen in luxury hotels. He fell for pastry when he rotated through the station while working at the Ritz-Carlton. “I come from a savory background, and it’s maybe unintentionally a little part of my style. I don’t really do things that are super-sweet.” Fresh herbs and unusual elements, like wood smoke, are a few of the tools he uses to compose his plates.
This month, look for ingredients like citrus to be featured. He recently ran a satsuma creamsicle float on a tasting menu, and plans to roll on a satsuma-cardamom snowball he concocted for an event in New York. “I served them in little mason jars with condensed milk and it went over really well,” he says. “Up there, a snowball is usually something you throw at someone.”
Amy Lemon handles pastry for Emeril’s Delmonico and NOLA in the French Quarter. She went to the culinary program at the Art Institute of Santa Monica, where she learned how to handle the crush while working high-profile events like the Academy Awards. Having worked primarily out on the West Coast before moving to New Orleans in 2006, she comes from an ingredient-driven background that has since been informed by research into Creole and Cajun tradition.
“Delmonico is finer dining, so the desserts are a little more refined over there,” Lemon says. As chef Anthony Scanio is a stickler for New Orleans tradition, Lemon peruses old history and cookbooks for inspiration. “Right now I have a café au lait crème brulée with a gateau de syrup, which used to be a popular dessert here,” she says. The gateau de syrup (literally “syrup cake”) is made with Steen’s Cane Syrup, cut into sugar cube-size squares and used as a component on the plate.
At NOLA her menu is more contemporary with a home-style comfort component. She riffs on ooey gooey cake by using three layers of chocolate cake, marshmallows and toasted coconut, and serves it warm.
Rounding the corner into Carnival season, Lemmon will begin running King Cake donuts on the Delmonico’s menu and NOLA’s menu will offer a King Cake bread pudding. “Both of those will run after 12th night,” she says.
Later this year expect to see pastry chef Tariq Hannah unleash his pastry arsenal when Sucré opens its newest location right in the heart of the French Quarter. Along with the expected macaroons, chocolates and entremets will be a savory small plates program as well as a full bar.