Friday, September 20, 2013
Q-and-A: Le Cordon Bleu pastry chef readies his sweet tooth for baking competition
Joe Baker prefers a savory and floral route to dessert, but he's got his work cut out for him.
There is, for some reason or another, an abundance of aphorisms that relate ease to the craft of cooking pastry – ‘easy as pie’, a ‘piece of cake’ come to mind. But in truth, the skills required of making even those two pastries are significant, and are certainly no less difficult than braising a leg of lamb or roasting a chicken. Perhaps ‘simple as coq au vin’ might be more appropriate?
Regardless of the well known sayings, it is obvious to those with even the smallest bit of experience that pastry is indeed no simple task – as Joe Baker and 19 other Pastry Chefs from around the country will demonstrate at the Starchefs.com International Pastry Competition in New York from September 29-October 1. The event, which highlights restaurant pastries – that is to say, pastries that can be practically served in a restaurant setting, is the fourth annual. It is Joe’s second round; he’s a Pastry Chef Instructor at Le Cordon Bleu (he has contributed several insights to savory baking with us) and we asked him to chat about creating pastries in the presence of his culinary heroes, talking smack with some of the more respected pastry chefs in the country, and why he prefers a little reconstruction here and there.
Entree Dallas: So you’ve got a pretty big weekend coming up, Joe — can you get a little specific about what this competition is all about?
Joe Baker: Well, in my opinion it’s probably the best pastry chef competition in the nation for restaurant-specific pastry. Usually when you’re in competition, it’s all about cakes or a showpiece or one specific aspect. This is all about multiple aspects, and it’s just full of outrageously talented chefs — people who I’ve looked up to for the majority of my career, and I’m flattered that I’m able to compete against them.
Specifically, it’s plated, contemporary desserts. When you look at other groups like the ACF (American Culinary Federation), they’re based in tradition. This is very food-forward, very contemporary, modern cuisine. This is where trends are established or demonstrated, and where we can really show off without worrying about customers or the bottom line or anything else.
So the lineup is pretty renowned?
Absolutely. Sometimes I stand back and just think ‘Should I be going?’ If nothing else, the people who read this interview need to go look at the list of competitors in this event. It’s so established — it’s clearly an indication of the craft. These aren’t one-hit wonders; they’re talented individuals and they’ve worked at it and it’s truly worth seeing. Each chef brings their own aspect to it and it’s amazing to watch.
Are there any specific ones you’re worried about?
I’m anxious about all of the competitors. There are a couple who I know a little more closely and who I really hope that if I don’t win, they do. Probably the closest one to me is Meg Galus (Pastry Chef at NoMI Restaurant in Chicago). We call each other all the time when it comes to talking shop or something like that. She’s amazing. And speaking of Chicago – Bobby Schaeffer at Grace is in it, too, and he’s crazy good.
What about the judges?
The judges for this are just rock stars – some of them are my heroes. I don’t get nervous around people … but these people I get nervous around. For me, I’m always really excited to see Michael Laiskonis, and then Francisco Migoya – he did the main stage presentation last year. I remember the first time I saw Michael Laiskonis last time, he was standing next to me as a floor judge and was holding a clipboard, and it doesn’t happen often, but I just got giddy and locked up, like ‘Oh, my God, it’s really you.’ It’s a lot of heavy hitters like that: Elizabeth Falkner, Dominique Ansel – it’s an amazing group of people judging your food.
As for the criteria, it’s judged on flavor first and foremost, then obviously there’s a skill aspect to it, and then – perhaps my favorite – is how appropriate is it for a restaurant setting? The most elaborate plate in the world isn’t actually good for a restaurant. We have a time limit to put out nine plates of each course, and it’s not a difficult time limit, but it’s definitely limiting. You can’t have 30 elements on a plate like you’re at Alinea and have some huge staff. You have to be able to pick up nine of the same plates at the same time to show that it is something that’s appropriate for a restaurant.
So what is your style? What’s going to set you apart?
It’s a huge focus for me when creating desserts to step a little bit away from the deconstructed plates that we see everywhere. I love crumbles, and I love dots, but I think everybody’s seen that for so long that we’re starting to slide back to composed, assembled pastry. Obviously that includes some flair and some modern techniques.
I would say my pastry style is very revisionist, and a little whimsical. It’s no secret that I use flowers – a lot – which a lot of chefs are a little afraid of, and a heavy hand with salt. So for me, it’s a lot of savory and floral – flavors that everybody knows, but have never tasted in that balance.
Is there much smack talk going on?
All the time. It’s all in the best nature; typically, I’m the one who starts it, but there’s also a pretty heavy amount of defaming humor that goes in there as well.
Can we have dibs on leftovers?
(Laughs) Sure, but I’m not bringing them back from New York.
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