HomePeopleAndrés Lara: Pastry Chef, Problem Solver

Andrés Lara: Pastry Chef, Problem Solver

(This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Andrés Lara’s career strategy was simple: work for the best in the world and soak up as much knowledge as possible. And having worked in the pastry kitchens of some of the world’s finest restaurants and companies, he’s soaked up quite a bit, and today, as the Executive Pastry Chef and Instructor at Melissa Coppel Chocolate & Pastry School in Las Vegas, he’s giving back.  We caught up with him in between classes to get his perspective on paying his dues, his newish career in teaching, and the dessert book he recently co-authored with Vinesh Johny.

What characteristics do you possess that make you right for pastry?

The biggest thing – and I credit my mom for this – would probably be my knack for discipline and organization. I think that’s one of the things that I love most about pastry. I mean, I never considered pastry chefs artists. I think there are pastry chefs who are amazing artists, but I think it’s a craft, first and foremost. But I think one of the aspects that I love most about pastry is that for you to be really successful, you need to be organized. You need to be disciplined. And I like that very militant structure that’s needed. And my mom was a very loving and warm person, but she was also very strict in the way she brought me up. You need to make your bed. You need to fold things like this. When you eat at the dinner table, your napkin needs to be folded a certain way. And I think all of those things (although it drove me crazy growing up), translated very well and gave me a lot of OCD habits in pastry, which hopefully I pass down to people who have worked with me. So I think that’s probably one of my favorite things about pastry, creativity aside.

You’ve worked with some great chefs – Paco Torreblanca, Albert Adria, René Redzepi. What was one important thing that you learned from each of them?

I would say three people impacted me the most: René Redzepi from Noma, Albert Adria, and Ramon Morató. Those are my reference points. When I was at Noma [in Copenhagen], although I was the pastry chef, René was very much involved in everything going on and in every aspect of the kitchen, including pastry. So, it’s not like you were just let loose to do whatever you wanted. Everything had to be within the confines of what Noma and Scandinavian food was, especially at that time. Those were the early days of Noma. It was probably the hardest experience of my life, but at the same time, it really taught me. It gave me, more than any other experience I’ve had, another approach to pastry and the opportunity to look at pastry and food through the eyes of a savory cook, rather than just the pastry chef. And I think that’s where I learned to use my senses to really taste my food, to be critical of myself, especially because the standard that he was giving himself and the restaurant at that time was so high. It was always constantly, “Is this good enough? Taste it, taste it. What could be better?” And that’s something pastry chefs don’t do enough of. I think that pastry chefs – it doesn’t matter how meticulous or creative they are – they get so used to being robotic and following a recipe. And they lose that sense of feeling with ingredients that chefs have.

From Albert, obviously it was El Bulli, so at that time it was just like, “Wow – this is creativity.” And I think my definition of creativity isn’t coming up with something cool or new. What creativity was to them was really a certain structure and discipline, and how to look at an ingredient or a recipe and say, “Okay, what else can we do with it? And how do I get there?” And to really break things down and ask yourselves, “Okay, if I want to do this, how do I do that? If I change this, what happens?” And that to me was creativity. And I think that’s echoed throughout my career and life, even just from a food science perspective. Students will always ask the question, “Oh, can I do this? Can I change this ingredient and this ingredient?” And I’ll usually end up responding, instead of giving a quick, easy answer, like, “Yeah, just do this,” I’ll usually say, “It depends.” You have to understand every single aspect of every ingredient. If you want to take this out, what are you losing? If you put this in, what are you gaining? It’s more of an analytical approach, and I think that’s what El Bulli and Albert instilled in me. Not just, “Oh, creativity is making new stuff.” No, it’s actually a whole discipline, a structured thought process, very analytical.

And then from Ramon what I learned most was probably from a technical standpoint and food science. I mean, I was an assistant at the school there before Cacao Barry took over. I absorbed so much there, like a sponge, from just being around him all the time.

Was there ever a time during this period where you went through some self-doubt and were second-guessing your career choice?

Yes, all the time. Probably first when I was in Europe, when I got my first taste of what it was like to be in Michelin kitchens. Before Noma and El Bulli, I actually spent about a year in Norway. I worked at a one-star restaurant there. And that was a really lonely time, I think. I by-passed the whole college experience after high school and I lost touch with a lot of friends. I pursued that nomadic, just-go-and-find-the-best- places-and-chefs-you-can lifestyle. And it was cool – some of the best memories and experiences of my life were those really simple moments. Looking back, I think, “Wow, I got to do some really cool stuff.” But there were also just a lot of very lonely moments. I remember working in Norway, and I had one day off and I was working 16, 18 hours a day. And I was getting paid under the table. I had enough to basically pay the rent for my room and have a little bit of food. And there’s not much else left over. And being in Scandinavia – Scandinavians are quite cold to foreigners – and basically the kitchen was either Scandinavian or it was French. And then there was me. So, it was a good experience, but it was hard. Oftentimes you go to bed and you’re like, “What the hell am I doing?” You’re in Norway. It’s the middle of winter. There’s no sunlight. You don’t really have too many friends. On their days off Scandinavians just drink a lot. And you don’t fit in with the French crowd. So, you’re just like, “F–k, what am I doing here?”

There were many moments like that at Noma, as well, although I love Copenhagen, I love Danes. Working at Noma was one of those situations that, at that time, you don’t realize what you learned from it, because you’re just so in your shit every moment, and you hate life every moment, and you don’t eat healthy. You don’t exercise, you don’t sleep. Now, it’s much different. But you’ve got to remember, I was there before anybody even knew what Noma was. It was funny because when I was at El Bulli, my roommate was Christian Puglisi. He has a couple of restaurants in Copenhagen now, really well-known chef. And I remember him talking about Noma when we were in Spain. And everyone was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” Right? And then he’s like, “Hey, look, we need a pastry chef.” And he sent me the book, which was their first book. And still nobody knew what Noma was. And he said, “Do you want to come over?” And I was like, sure – I had no idea what the hell I was getting myself into. It was just like, “Hey, it’s another country. Like, whatever, cool.” And oh my God. It was a lot. It was rough. It was really, really rough. But it was cool. I mean, Copenhagen’s probably still one of my favorite cities ever. I would live there in a heartbeat. But yeah, it’s one of those things you don’t realize what you take away from it until you’re out of it. And you don’t realize how special it was until you reflect back on it. Every day, every night there, sometimes you’d cry yourself to sleep. It’d be like, “What the hell am I doing here?” But I didn’t give up, because I was too far in.

“I always have had, and always will have, a very food science-driven approach to pastry, just from the places I’ve been and the people that I’ve worked with”

How did you get into teaching, and what is the level of your typical student?

So, I’ve been here [ Melissa Coppel Chocolate & Pastry School] probably just over two years. I’ve known Melissa for quite a while, for almost 15 years. And we hit it off, both being Colombian and both being quite passionate about food. So, we just ended up being friends for a long time. And when I was working for Cacao Barry in Canada, Melissa invited me to come down and just take a class and hang out. And then she asked me if I would be interested in joining her here, and taking over the pastry side of things. So, that’s how that happened.

As far as students go, obviously now everything is online, so we don’t have the same interaction with them. But just from the questions we get, you can tell that it’s a big mix of people who take the classes – you get people that clearly have been in the industry for a while and know what they’re doing. You have people that are doing this as a passion and just for fun. And you have people that have no idea what they’re doing, but they want to make a home business out of it or open something, and they have the means to open it, but they don’t have the skills.

Did you transition to online teaching as a result of COVID?

Yes. Last March, when COVID happened, we decided to do everything online, otherwise there would be no school. And it was well received. And I think at the time, we were the only school doing live classes. And we got people from all over the world taking classes. So sometimes, it’s 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. here in Vegas, and you have students from South Korea or Hong Kong or Kuwait or wherever taking classes. And you’re like, “Oh, wow, it’s pretty late over there for you.” We do have our first hands-on class starting again in July. But we’re limiting it – we’re only going to allow six students here at a time. And we’re just going to see how it goes. The online classes aren’t going to stop. I think we realized that there’s a big market for that, and it’s doing really well. So, that’ll stay as a permanent fixture, I think.

What motivated you and Vinesh Johny to team up and do a book together?

Vinesh is probably one of my closest friends. He invited me to Bangalore [India] to Lavonne – the school that he’s a co-owner of – to teach a class. And that’s where we really, really hit it off. I taught my class and I ended up spending a couple extra days. We went to Goa together with a couple of his friends. They really, really took care of me – it was awesome. And then he ended up inviting me to teach at the school every year since. We had always joked around about doing stuff, whether it was opening a shop in Bangalore together with our names or just crazy, random ideas. And then one day, we were saying, “Oh, we should just do a book, just do the stuff we want to do.” And it was a joke at first. And then, literally a couple of weeks before I was going there, we decided, “Yeah, let’s just do a book.” Vinesh said, “Yeah, f–k it. Let’s do a book,” very casually.

And the really wonderful thing about India is that everything is chaotic, but if you want to get something done, there’s always a way to get it done. And there’s always somebody who can do it. So, I taught a class, and I stayed an extra eight or nine days. And the whole thing was beautifully orchestrated. If it hadn’t been for the support of the school, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. We had a team of photographers. We had a team of ex-students that flew in – Lavonne paid for them to fly in. So, I think we had a team of like 10 ex-students, and a kitchen for ourselves. We literally shot 70 recipes in seven days. I mean, looking back, I’m like how the hell did we do that? It was really cool because as we were shooting and developing the recipes, literally onsite for the shots, we had someone documenting everything. And then later on we retested and changed a few things. So, we did everything backwards. Instead of looking for a publisher first, we decided to shoot everything the way we wanted it. We had a buddy of ours who’s a really good artist do the editing, and also some of the art. And then we just started approaching different publishers. And luckily, it wasn’t that bad. I thought we were going to go through a lot of rejections before we would find somebody. I think it probably took us like five or six tries. And then Page Street Publishing out of Boston really liked it. And the idea was never to make a super fancy book that was only for pastry chefs. That’s not what we wanted. We wanted recipes that pastry chefs would want to make, but also people making the recipes that, if my mom wanted to make the frickin’ vegan lemon yogurt cake out of it, she could just get the ingredients at Whole Foods or Sprouts and go home and make it. That was the idea.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?

Yes — the Rice Pudding Baba Tart. It’s inspired by this Indian confection called gulaab jamun. They look like little babas, these little balls that are soaked in a sweet honey syrup with rosewater. So, when you bite into them, they’re just super juicy. They’re ridiculously sweet, but they’re also one of my favorite Indian confections. So, actually, I did a tart that was a take on that. But the aesthetics of the tart look very, very different, very unique. The fabrics that we shot it on were really beautiful. Taste-wise it was just awesome, so that was probably one of my favorites.

What are some of your favorite flavors that you’re working with now?

This week, I’m working on ice cream. One ingredient that I really love is called gjetost cheese. It’s a Norwegian caramelized cow milk cheese, which luckily I can get here at Sprouts without a problem. I love it. It’s awesome. I love it because it has a lot of umami characteristics. It almost tastes nutty and almost like miso, but a little bit sweet and super strange. And I’ve done stuff with it in the past in pastry. But last week I was working on some ice cream recipes made with it, and they came out really well. So that’s probably one of my favorite ingredients right now at the moment.

 “One of the aspects that I love most about pastry is that for you to be really successful, you need to be organized. You need to be disciplined. And I like that very militant structure.”

Do you do any vegan recipes?

I think I always have had, and always will have, a very food science-driven approach to pastry, just from the places I’ve been and the people that I’ve worked with, and because I love that aspect of it. So, if you had asked me a year ago before the pandemic, “Do you make some vegan recipes?” I would have been like, no, that’s just stupid. But then, when we started doing everything online, I’m like, “Okay, there’s a market for this.” And instead of complaining about it and letting the ego get in my way, I kind of gave myself a different approach. I said, “Okay, look at this as a food science challenge.” And that’s the thing. I never worked in places where we did vegan stuff and never took classes, but it’s not that difficult if you just look at it. If you have a food science love for pastry, instead of looking at the recipe, like, “Oh, I need to make it vegan,” look at it as like, “Okay, what do I need to do to basically remove the eggs from this recipe? What do I need to replace? How do I get the same structure that butter, eggs, or whatever.” And that’s how I started to approach it – as more of a challenge to myself to make things that were vegan and were actually tasty. And now one of the recipes in our book that is one of my favorites is a vegan lemon yogurt pound cake. And it’s one of those recipes that if you give it to anybody, they would never know that it was vegan. And that for me has been the goal – like making a keto or a vegan chocolate chip cookie, and giving it to someone who loves chocolate chip cookies. And if they just say, “Hey, this is awesome,” then you know you’ve succeeded. So I make it challenge and make the focus very food science-driven.

As a teacher, you obviously need to keep up with the latest developments in pastry. So, how do you do that?

Good question. It’s a double-edged sword. Right now, there’s a lot of information, which is good and bad. You can go on Instagram, Pinterest and social media, where you’re given everything. You can see what everyone’s doing, etc. So, that’s cool because it gives you access to information that was never there before. Whereas before it’s like, you had to work for your knowledge. And then recipes got handed to you because you worked for a place. Now, it’s great because you have access to a lot of information, but at the same time, it takes part of the craft away, because people don’t want to work hard for things anymore. So I try to stay away from that, and I try to just focus on problem solving. And that might sound weird, but I try not to pay attention to what other people are doing, because the second you start doing that, it’s too easy to become influenced. And especially if you’re at a point where you should have your own style, your own identity in your craft, it’s too easy to lose that by focusing on other people’s work. So, rather than doing that, I try to do a lot of problem solving. I’ll say, “Hey, I want to create this. I haven’t done it before. How the hell do I do it?” And I should have enough knowledge in my little brain to be able to do it. I still have really good relationships with Barry Callebaut and Cacao Barry, and they’re always working on interesting stuff. So, a lot of times information gets passed down via them. But a lot of times it’s just trying to focus on the things you’d like to make and problem solving. And how do you keep evolving from there?

“I pursued that nomadic, just-go-and-find-the-best- places-and-chefs-you-can lifestyle. And it was cool – some of the best memories and experiences of my life were those really simple moments”

What do you find is one of the most difficult parts of teaching?

Especially now, because we have all kinds of skill levels taking classes, it can be tricky to balance a class, knowing that you might have beginners as well as people who really know what they’re doing. And someone might ask a question and you have to take the time to answer it. And someone else might think it’s a complete waste of time, but for that person asking, that might be gold that you’re giving them. So, balancing that content – making it super nerdy and techie or food science-y for the people that know what they’re doing, but also approachable for the people that don’t. I think that getting that balance right, well, it’s not easy.

Dessert photos by Manek D’Silva

Tish Boyle
Tish Boyle
Tish Boyle is managing editor of Pastry Arts Magazine and an experienced food writer, cookbook author, pastry chef, and recipe developer. Her previous books include Chocolate Passion, Diner Desserts, The Good Cookie, and The Cake Book