Chatting With Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini
You could be forgiven for thinking of pastry chefs as grumpy, sugar-geeks. You may also be forgiven for thinking the desserts of a three star Michelin restaurant as being so safe, secure and obsessively refined that they lost their luster years before.
You could not be forgiven, however, for thinking this if you stepped into the pastry kitchen of Restaurant Jean Georges. In this NYC, three-star Michelin eatery, you will find Johnny Iuzzini, the Ducati-riding, tattoo-baring rock n’ roll chef who lives to create and innovate, dazzle and delight with some of the most sizzling and satiating modern desserts.
On a recent trip to New York Jeremy Emmerson sat down with the chef, and this is how the conversation went…
G.C. - Can you describe your kitchen/culinary philosophy?
J.I. - I take food seriously but I don’t take myself too seriously. My dishes are based on classic culinary foundations but I strive to be forward thinking with the ingredients and techniques.
G.C. - Do you follow or apply a specific food design?
J.I. - My style is “fourplay”. Each dish is comprised of four individual, small desserts that showcase a single ingredient or theme. For example, one dessert may be four different preparations using strawberries, another may be four different desserts influenced by the season. My desserts exploit the versatility of the ingredients and highlight their taste, texture and look. I want to grab the diners’ taste buds with every bite.
G.C. - Where do you get inspiration?
J.I. - My inspiration comes from anything and everything - from the seasons, from conversations, from my team. I like collaboration, so when I want to work on a new dish, I place a notice in the pastry kitchen and I write the premise for the new dish. It could be anything let’s just say peaches, for example. I ask my team to jot down their thoughts, what we could do with the ingredient. I then collect the ideas and explore and experiment with them.
G.C. - In using savory items as part of a dessert, which ingredient have you had the most success with and which ingredient have you been working with that has yet to yield your desired result?
J.I. - We use salt in nearly every dessert – this surprises a lot of people. I have had success with tomatoes and root vegetables. Success with grape leaves, on the other hand, is a different story!
G.C. - I read an article about you recently where you were called a "molecular gastronomist". How do you feel about that?
J.I. - Not good! That is such a horrible term, just because you have a modern style and use some modern techniques does not mean that you are a molecular gastronomist! That term doesn't sound delicious at all!
G.C. - What are your feelings towards molecular gastronomy and the effect it is having and will have continue to have on our industry?
J.I. - Cooking is ever evolving; use the new techniques and new ingredients if you understand how to use them.
G.C. - In our current economic climate with a decrease in corporate and luxury spending, we have seen many examples across the nation of change in the professional pastry kitchens. Do you feel this recession will affect the way pastry chefs like you will continue their specialized work? Have you changed the way you design your menus or prepare your desserts?
J.I. - I think everyone is feeling the effect of the current economy. My mission has been to make every dish as good as it can possible be, to make it better, to make it perfect. If a customer is going to dine out at a great restaurant once a week instead of three times I want them to have the best food here, I want to make Jean Georges the restaurant that they want to eat at.
G.C. - What do you feel are the three most important traits of a first class pastry chef to a business?
J.I. - Quality-driven, cost-conscious and super organized.
G.C. - What do you feel is the most important trait of a first class pastry chef to the customer?
J.I. - To remember that you are cooking for them, not yourself!
G.C. - How would you describe your leadership style in the kitchen?
J.I. - I have worked for some of the greatest pastry chefs, but many of them were dictators, some create an almost emotionally violent environment. So I have taken the best and left the bad behind. I would term my style professional, focused but fun.
G.C. - How would you describe your cookbook "Dessert FourPlay"?
J.I. - Looking back I would describe it as starting off as an ego trip, but after a couple of tries, it finished differently.
G.C. - How long did it take to put together?
J.I. - Three years!
It’s a book you can cook with whether you’re a professional or cook in your home. Each dish is a collection of four desserts, a professional could create all four and serve them together, and a home cook could just recreate one of the four and still have a great dish (Dessert FourPlay $23.10 at Amazon.com).
G.C. - What was the greatest learning experience?
J.I. - To place myself in the user’s environment, that is where you need to be mentally when you are writing a cookbook. I found that a challenge at the onset.
G.C. - Will you be working on another book anytime soon?
J.I. - Yes, right now… I am not going to say too much, but it is for a younger audience.
G.C. - Is there a pastry chef or two that inspire you?
G.C. - Is there a pastry chef dead or alive that you would love to spend a day working with?
J.I. - Gaston Lenôtre, so much of what we do today comes from him.
G.C. - Can you offer a few words of wisdom to the pastry chef of tomorrow?
J.I. - Learn about and understand your ingredients. Learn the classics and the foundations of the pastry kitchen; learn where it all comes from…
Johnny Iuzzini - Recent Career Timeline
May 2002 - Chef/ Owner Jean Georges Vongerichten named Johnny the Executive Pastry Chef at his famed name-sake, Restaurant Jean Georges, as well as its café, Nougatine.
November 2002 - awarded the title of “Best New Pastry Chef” by New York Magazine's Gael Green in its First Annual Chef Awards.
April 2003 - nominated for “Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation.
June 2003 & 2004 - named one of the “10 Best Pastry Chefs in America” by Pastry Art and Design Magazine.
June of 2005 - joined Jean Georges in the opening of his newest restaurant, Perry Street. Johnny assumed the role of Executive Pastry Chef for this restaurant in addition to his responsibilities at Restaurant Jean Georges and Nougatine.
November 2005 - Restaurant Jean Georges earned its most prestigious award to date, three Michelin stars. It was one of only four restaurants in New York City to receive this honor.
May 2006 - awarded James Beard Foundation “Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year”.
March 2007 - Forbes.com identified Johnny as one of the 10 most influential chefs working in America today.
December 2008 - first cookbook “Dessert FourPlay” published.