Friday, January 24, 2014
Q-and-A: CBD Provisions pastry chef talks sweet vs. savory desserts
Chef Ruben Toraño believes there's a time and taste for each.
DALLAS There’s no real secret to it, according to Ruben Toraño. There’s nothing revelatory that he has up his sleeve; no great previously unknown pearl of wisdom to bestow. His secret to successful pastry rather sounds like a good teammate giving a post-game interview:
“It’s tasting everything, making sure you have a good quality panel of close friends, of colleagues that you know will tell you the truth if it’s good or not, I mean I have a great assistant and my team’s very honest and truthful: 'Chef, I don’t like this, or chef this is great.' And it really helps build our library and our repertoire of just awesome items to make, especially for Weekend Coffee and or for CBD – just good desserts.”
Toraño is eager to share the credit for his successes, and as executive pastry chef at The Joule, he and those around him have had plenty of success to share lately. His responsibilities range from managing the pastry side at CBD Provisions, which has of late taken the downtown Dallas dining scene by storm under Executive Chef Michael Sindoni, to handling all pastry-related issues at the entire hotel — conferences, in-house events, weekend coffees among them. It’s enough to get him his kitchen, and it is in there that we found Ruben, who took a little time from his duties to chat CBD, mignardises, and why novelty alone does not necessarily a good idea make.
Entree Dallas: Thanks for taking some time to talk with us, Ruben. So we’re here in your dedicated pastry kitchen in the Joule Hotel in the middle of downtown Dallas. What was your path to this point?
Ruben Toraño: Oh my gosh, let’s see. I went to school at Johnson and Wales, I have a bachelor’s degree in Baking and Pastry Arts – I’ve been doing it all of my life. My father is a chef and my grandfather is a chef, so it’s pretty much in my blood. When I came to Texas after school, I worked at Central Market in Fort Worth doing some bread work. Then, when I came to Dallas I started working at ZaZa, where I was the assistant pastry chef; I worked at Nobu, I was Nana’s pastry chef – I just kind of worked my way up. Then, when Charlie Palmer and the Joule was opening back in 2007 and I seized the opportunity to become the pastry chef here, and I’ve been here six years ever since.
And even before school, you had some pretty interesting cultural influences, right?
Yeah. I was born in Killeen, but my family is Puerto Rican and I’ve lived in so many different places because of my dad being in the army that I don’t even know … let’s see, I was born in Texas, and I lived in Puerto Rico, but I’ve also lived in Rhode Island and Tennessee and Kansas and really all over the U.S. and Germany. I’ve been to so many different places that I suppose it’s made me try to be a little more worldly – a little more open to all kinds of ways of life.
So with all that exposure to different cultures and the experience you’ve had professionally, how would you define your approach to pastry?
You know, I think I feel like a different pastry chef depending on what my mood is! Like today, I worked on a lot of bread items, I did sourdough and I did some ficells and I did bread items, so I just felt like a baker today and that maybe I’m a stronger baker than I am a pastry chef. I bet you tomorrow it’s going to be different! (laughs) I guess it depends on my focus, since this hotel has so many different aspects and things are always changing. It’s very dynamic, and some days I have to put different hats on.
As far as pastry, I like to go back to all the favorite things I grew up with. I mean my father being a pastry chef, I had a lot of exposure to different kinds of pastry and different kinds of desserts. Plus, we traveled a lot throughout Europe – mostly because he was in the army – but we traveled a lot and I got to see a lot of different things; I always try to remember a lot of what I was exposed to in the past and even now things that I have learned. I’ve always tried to find ways where I can expound upon this or that, or to see what else can I make – kind of like an offshoot of an idea, you know? It may be a different version of a classic, or just reinventing a classic, or just making a good apple pie. Honestly, I feel like you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you’ve just got to make something that’s really good that everyone’s going to enjoy.
Are there specific flavor profiles that you go for? Is there a key ratio to sweet and savory?
Honestly, I try to be all over the board, but not in a disorganized way. You want it to make sense and taste good, obviously, but you always maybe want to turn yourself – as well as everyone else – on to new flavors and to new ideas and thoughts; to think, “This is a really cool combination! Why haven’t I tried that before?”
Do you have a personal favorite? Something you put together and said, “This is the single best thing I have ever made”?
It seems like I go in phases; every six months or so I’ll do something and be like, “Oh, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever made.” So right now I’m making a pretty damn good croissant that is just awesome. We’re also doing pop-tarts on weekend that are really good. Then, we have liège Belgium waffles on the weekend, and that’s like my most favorite thing in the world (laughs). That’s how it works. There are some desserts I’m working on for CBD, and those are probably going to be the greatest things to me. I guess they’re all like my children; I can never definitively say one’s better than the other!
What’s the craziest-sounding item you’ve ever created?
I did a couple mignardises before at Nana that were very … out there.
Well, a mignardise is a little sweet, a dessert item at the end of the meal – just something to say thank you, essentially. It may be a little truffle or a little taste of mousse. So I made one with Roquefort cheese and I tried to sweeten it – I thought it was good at the time, but now I think about it, it wasn’t. So you know, thats also part of that education that evolution and making sure you have good people that you can trust to tell you “Hey. Wait. This is no good.” (laughs)
But novelty is nonetheless a big aspect of what you do, right?
I’ve done a whole bunch of different things, but you know that’s part of that education — just throwing crazy flavors out there and going, “Hmm, this might work.” Of course, it might not, either.
On that note, should desserts always be sweet, in your opinion?
No, they don’t have to be. Definitely not. I think I’ve actually started an evolution in myself. A lot of my desserts were never really overly sweet, I like to always strive for balance, but I think more recently, especially in the past two to three years, I’ve started to incorporate even more savory into it. Some days, depending on how I feel, I’ll add blue cheese and rosemary to something and see how that works. Then the next day I’ll make an apple turnover that’s freaking awesome. I just think it’s always good to always be open and just experiment.
What about the appearance of a dessert? How critical is the plating aspect?
I think it’s very important. I don’t know if you can quantify it – you obviously want the food to taste great, but if it’s not eye appealing then nobody is actually going to taste it and know that it tastes great. Sometimes there are some pastries, especially baked items, that are just kind of brown or a certain color all the way across. And unless it’s like a croissant or something that people are already familiar with, it’s hard to say, “Well, trust me. It’s good.” If it doesn’t look beautiful with multicolors or whatever, it becomes a more difficult sell.
Finally, do you have any thoughts on creme brulee? We’ve noticed that it seems to be the bane of many pastry chefs’ existence.
Honestly, I love custards, I love creme brulee. I just feel like once you do it so many times there’s that stigma as a pastry chef where you’re like, “I’ve done this so many times, maybe I can do something else and people love that as much.” So, I don’t hate it, but I’m ready to do new things or ready to turn people on to other stuff besides creme brulee.
Thanks for the time, Ruben. How many hours will you be here today?
Honestly I’ve been coming in a lot more earlier than I used to. Sometimes I’m here at four, five in the morning, and I don’t leave until you know, with CBD, I”m here all morning early, all the way to maybe into midnight. Everybody works at least an eight to 10-hour shift. Sometimes I work two 8-10 hours of shifts, but that’s the nature of business.
They should probably give you your own room across from your own kitchen.
Yeah exactly! (Laughs) You know, I actually wouldn’t mind that.
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