A Passion for Pastry
Balance, surprise, artistry, a good sense of humor and an active Twitter account —it’s harder to be a top-notch pastry chef than you might have imagined
By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Patrick Tregenza and Angela Aurelio
Pastry chef Ron Mendoza was waiting for the last diners to finish up at Aubergine in Carmel one night last year when he checked Twitter on his cell phone. He was amazed to see a series of tantalizing dessert photos coming through from a benefit dinner in New York City called “Killed by Dessert.”
“Chefs always have special dinners and the pastry chefs usually just tag along, but this time pastry chefs were standing up on their own,” he recalls.
What a novel idea. In the back of the house at the finest restaurants, pastry chefs have always been thought of as “their own breed” or the “red-headed stepchild of the kitchen,” derided by fellow chefs as “sugar- burners” working in “candy land” and rarely touted on a restaurant’s own website.
“At my first job in France, the head chef didn’t even know the name of the pastry chef,” says dessert guru Michael Laiskonis, who finally made a big name for himself working at Le Bernardin in Manhattan and organized the first “Killed by Dessert” event. “In order to become well known back then, you had to open a shop of your own, but maybe that’s changing.”
It’s certainly changing in the Monterey Bay area, where the fast-talking Mendoza wasted no time in enlisting the help of three pastry colleagues to replicate the New York experience here. Yulanda Santos from Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Ben Spungin from Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley and Stephanie Prida of Manresa in Los Gatos joined him for the “Dessert First” event held last November in Sand City to showcase their talents and benefit MEarth, an environmental education program at Carmel Valley Middle School.
The group organized a second all-dessert dinner called “Citrus, Chocolate and Spice” and a master pastry class in February around a visit by Chef Laiskonis, who throws around terms like thermo-irreversibility and rheology like a college chemistry professor and is considered one of the world’s top pastry chefs. They call themselves the Central Coast Pastry Chef Coalition, and have been sharing ideas and dreaming up new events ever since.
Pastry chefs have a reputation for being the craziest and most temperamental ones in the kitchen, but soft-spoken Yulanda Santos— pastry chef at Sierra Mar—disagrees.
“Some pastry chefs get upset about putting a birthday candle on one of their creations, but to be a good pastry chef you should want to please people,” she says, adding, “you have to be organized and very conscious of timing.”
Santos is the organized type. She grew up in San Diego with a Filipino father and Japanese mother and at first she went into banking. But her love of baking led her to take cooking classes at night and eventually an apprenticeship at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. “The first night I worked in the restaurant, there was so much energy and such a great vibe, I was just hooked,” she says.
Santos went on to hone her craft at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in Las Vegas and then his Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, mastering the basics and what she calls “new-school methods to add flavor, texture and balance.”
Her delicious desserts at Sierra Mar, like those of her cohorts, have a striking sense of place—hers being inspired by the extensive gardens on the Post Ranch Inn property. Recently expanded by executive chef John Cox and his new director of ecology, Fiona Bond, the gardens give Santos access to everything from berry bushes and edible flowers to a pink peppercorn tree. Diners are regularly served a pre-dessert, usually a sorbet to cleanse the palate; a dessert they select and a plate of mignardises—little snacks to enjoy with coffee.
For the centerpiece dessert, she and her fine-dining colleagues all present creations with multiple components—almost micro-courses. “It’s not just making something sweet,” she says. “ It’s a balance of something creamy, something crunchy, a play on temperature with something warm and something cold, and an acidity or lemony tartness.”
An example of her inventive, nature-imbued creations is the Meyer Lemon Tree, which was served at Desserts First and pays homage to the entire tree with several distinctive elements, including white chocolate smoked with the lemon tree bark.
A little surprise
“The traditional way of thinking is to finish off a meal with a big scoop of chocolate mousse or a piece of chocolate fudge cake— in a sense it’s pure gluttony,” says Mendoza. “In a restaurant like Aubergine, where balance runs through the whole meal, why would you want to end with a sugar bomb that’s like a lead weight in your stomach?”
So he tries to surprise diners with desserts that are light and playful, like his Japanese cheesecake with cucumber sauce or the strawberry ice cream he sometimes makes with dried strawberries and strawberry pop rocks.
“As you are eating it, there’s a little fizz that’s unexpected. It reawakens your palate and reawakens you cerebrally. Then once you realize it’s pop rocks, everyone starts acting like a child and it reinvigorates you,” he explains.
Mendoza—who has been at Aubergine six years—came to Carmel by way of Patina in Los Angeles and Napa’s famed French Laundry. He started out chopping vegetables in a Los Ange- les steakhouse and loves to tell the story of his first night on the job, which he spent slicing heirloom tomatoes at a private birthday dinner for none other than Julia Child.
“The Central Coast has really good products but lacks the influences of the big city; that’s the difficult part of being here and it’s also the nice part,” he says. He stays completely immersed in the culinary world and keeps up on the latest dessert trends through social media, trading photos with pastry chefs around the world on Instagram. He also writes his own food blog called “One Spoon Quenelle.”
While top pastry chefs have always had an arsenal of precision equipment and techniques at their disposal, Mendoza sees their style of creativity now blossoming on the savory side. “Chefs now use many of the same techniques as we do. They don’t just sear a piece of meat and add some potatoes. There are lots of ideas going back and forth between pastry and savory.”
Aubergine Chef Justin Cogley, who in April was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s 2013 Best New Chefs, for example, uses pastry techniques in making his Black Trumpet Mushroom Gelée, as well as savory mousses and ice creams, which he plates in careful dessert-like compositions. Likewise, Mendoza draws inspiration from the savory dishes. Recently, a coriander carrot side dish spurred him to add carrot cake with coriander ice cream to one of his dessert plates.
Still, always having your dish served last after multiple courses of appetizers and entrées has its downside. “Sometimes that really bothers me,” admits Stephanie Prida of Manresa. “I try to make the desserts as light as I can, but I like to do chocolate.”
The graceful 27-year-old chef grew up wanting to be a painter and definitely has an artistic bent. “I chose to go into pastry because I knew I wanted to do something more artistic and creative, but I was 18 and also knew I didn’t want to work on the hot line,” says Prida, a California native who came to Manresa a year ago from Chicago, where she’d already become a celebrated pastry chef and last worked at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Prida enjoys incorporating ingredients like rhubarb, sorrel and lovage from the restaurant’s garden at Love Apple Farms and has even been known to slip tomatoes into her desserts. This spring she joined a group of co-workers, weeding and mulching at a citrus farm in Watsonville, where she was rewarded with her choice of fruit from among dozens of varieties of citrus. She came back with winged limes, mandarinquats (a cross be- tween mandarin oranges and kumquats) and red-tinged mandelos.
“Every single day I’m here, I learn about a new product or produce and I’m still trying to figure out how to use all the farm produce to the best of my abilities,” she says.
Having one of the nation’s most famous chefs—David Kinch, whose new book we re- view on p. 29—as your boss, is another perk of the job. Prida accompanied him on a trip to France last spring and says, “He’s a real ad- vocate for cooks to find a balance in life and sometimes takes us all out on the weekends so we can bond socially.”
Her pastry chef colleagues are another source of friendship. “The competitive era of this industry is over,” she says. “We get to- gether for cocktails, talk pastry and inspire each other.”
A sense of humor
Spungin, like the others, works alongside a great chef—Cal Stamenov—and thinks diners sometimes undervalue the pastry side of even highly sophisticated kitchens like theirs. “I don’t know if people realize how much the pastry chef is an integral part of the meal. They prepare the bread, the crepes, croutons, gougères, the pre-dessert, the dessert that’s ordered and then the petit-fours.”
This man knows his bread. He grew up in his dad’s sandwich shop in Durham, N.C. and worked through high school as the “bread boy” at Sara Foster’s popular gourmet market.
He got into pastry when he grabbed a chance to prep for pastry star Stephen Durfee at The French Laundry, chopping up big blocks of chocolate and putting it in little bags.
That experience inspired a love for working with chocolate. On holidays he lets his imagination run wild, and he recently made chocolate models of works by British sculptor Steven Whyte for the grand opening of his exhibition. “I love the creativity, the art value, making pretty things that taste good,” says Spungin, who just debuted a chocolate chess set so diners can linger over brandy and a game after dinner.
One of his favorite desserts is called the Chocolate Terrarium. It includes chocolate mousse cake, garden mint ice cream, edible plants, herbs and flowers strewn with chocolate streusel that looks like dirt and is covered by a glass dome. (The dirt alone can be procured in jars at the Bernardus Winery tasting room in Carmel Valley.) He also does a dish called Illicit Sweets with elements that look like recreational drugs and, with coffee, he sometimes surprises diners with eyeglasses and mustache disguises made from chocolate.
“People kind of go crazy when they see these desserts, they start laughing and taking photos of each other,” he says.
As the line between pastry and savory chefs becomes increasingly blurred, who knows how things will end. Some say chefs dedicated exclusively to pastry may become as extinct as the dinosaurs. Others point to the success pastry chefs have had, opening their own businesses and restaurants. Two of this year’s hottest young chefs—Jordan Kahn at Red Medicine in Los Angeles and Alex Stupak at Empellón in New York—began their careers as highly creative pastry chefs. Let’s hope the limelight our local pastry chefs are enjoying today will inspire even more cre- ativity among the ranks of this special breed of chef.
Parker-Lusseau: A shop of their own
Husband and wife pastry chefs, Anne Parker and Yann Lusseau, were working in Carmel—him at Casanova and her at Highlands Inn—when they took the plunge and opened their own shop 18 years ago. They still bake every day at the original Parker-Lusseau location on Munras Avenue in Monterey and have expanded with a second shop in the historic Fremont Adobe on Hartnell Street and a third one at Ryan Ranch.
“I always wanted to have my own shop. It’s more work, but it’s more satisfying,” says Anne, who was captain of the American team in the World Pastry Championships—La Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie—back in 1989.
Yann is more outspoken: “The restaurant business is all hype and you get fed up working for others. Chefs can be prima donnas, and we didn’t want to put up with the politics anymore, so that’s why we opened our own shop.” He’s a native of France and says the Monterey Peninsula reminds him of where he grew up in Brittany.
He makes what some locals call the best croissants outside of Paris, and the couple is famous for their French-style apple galette and their quiche. They stay busy baking exquisite cakes, authentic Parisian macarons and chocolates for every holiday.
Yann notes Americans eat fewer desserts than Europeans, perhaps because entrée portions are so large here. Ann goes to two Farmers’ Markets a week and uses organic ingredients as much as possible for soups and sandwiches that they’ve added to the menu.
But the couple is still very proud of their bakery. “Often our customers come back from France and tell us they couldn’t find a decent croissant anywhere,” he says, smiling. —D.L.
EVENTS: For information about the Central Coast Pastry Chefs Coalition’s upcoming events and to purchase tickets, go to www.wedemanddessertfirst.com.