(This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
In recent months, many diners have become aware of artistic, yet somewhat formless, desserts. In the current landscape of restaurant dessert offerings, these desserts are commonplace. Often nestled in a bowl, one may find a spoon of this and a pile of that, perhaps covered by one or many crispy tuiles. The complaint is not that these desserts aren’t tasty, it’s that the diner isn’t able to relate their own dessert sense memory to them. Without purposeful lines, shapes, textures and contrast, not only is the enjoyment of the plated dessert diminished, but the opportunity for the pastry chef to express themselves at the highest level is lost. Why have the beautifully designed and intricate plated dessert works of the past disappeared?
One significant goal of each pastry chef is to develop a signature style. A style that’s unique, yet unobtrusive to the experience of eating dessert, but recognizable enough to convey a personal message. The ability to tell a story through dessert with a unique viewpoint is among a pastry chef’s highest aspirations. After all, are pastry chefs not artists as well?
One impressive trait of the work of Pablo Picasso is that no matter what medium he chose to express himself in – sculpture, paint, ink – his lines, his signature markings are apparent. When one experiences a Picasso work, immediately the strength of his lines convey identity, perspective and story. Well-designed plated desserts have this ability as well.
Two refreshing examples of desserts with viewpoint can be found in Chicago. Pastry Chefs Kyleen Gray and Nicole Guini are using the medium of plated desserts to delight and impress diners with visually compelling desserts that taste amazing, reveal gorgeous lines and convey a sense of identity.
Chef Guini’s work has always represented a display of culinary craft. She was the last pastry chef to design impeccable desserts at the renowned restaurant Blackbird. Now at Adalina Restaurant (www.adalinachicago.com/) she continues to deliver succinct desserts with concise plating. Her celery root cake with raisins, hibiscus-infused compressed pears, pear butter and banana gelato align two stacks of unique textures side by side. The chef’s hand touches are apparent, a composition seemingly not aided by molds overshadowed by a plate. Ms. Guini’s desserts would be equally attractive on a tablecloth or sheet pan. In similar fashion, her Cotton Cheesecake with preserved peach, rose, olive oil granola, and citrus vanilla lavender gelato presents a rustic yet refined plating that is stoic and understated. Although subtle in appearance, each bite reveals more and more complexity.
Kyleen Gray’s desserts show sophistication on several levels on her menu at Koto Restaurant (www.kotochicago.com/ ). It would be difficult to find a pastry chef with similar geometry, visual drama or design creativity. Each dessert is a work of art. A diner is compelled to experience them all. Murasaki-imo features Japanese sweet potato, black truffle mousse, sable Breton, and koji pearls. All the dessert elements are composed tightly together and become unwound with the touch of a utensil. Another dessert, Roasted Corn Crème Brûlée, with popcorn and shiso butter ice cream, huckleberry jam, and roasted corn husk tuile, is served with a huckleberry port sauce tableside. This dessert’s stunning layers are breathtaking. Chef Gray balances classical elements with distinctive flavors whose interactions tell the story. Each dessert is uniquely different, yet convey a signature feel that is the chef’s own.
These two examples share no apparent design similarities. Each work is well defined by description, by flavor and by taste. As a result, each dessert shares the viewpoint of its chef creator and reveals their complexity and experience. For this reason, I encourage all pastry chefs to ‘paint’ with lines like Picasso.