(This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Sous chef, pastry chef, Instagram star –whatever you want to label him, this chef’s modest persona belies a giant talent.
By Brian Cazeneuve
David Vidal strongly encourages student participation when he teaches his master classes in pastry for a simple reason: “I don’t think I’m that interesting to listen to on most days,” Vidal says. “Maybe the students have more to say. I can learn, too.” Even on a normal day, Vidal’s remarks are a fleeting whisper, easily lost in the cacophony of culinary bluster.
The location of his regular workplace, albeit picturesque, doesn’t help build hype. The Laholmen Hotel in Stromstad, the fishing village of 1,200 people in Northern Sweden, is easily dwarfed by the majesty of the nearby fjords. Vidal’s desserts need a bullhorn and mega screen built for giraffes. Instead, they are often gone in a blink.
“When I do something, it’s okay for that minute, but then I’ll probably never do it again,” he says. “On our à la carte menu, once we do a dish for three months, we take it off for good. If we bring it back, it could be the same taste, but probably with a different texture or in a different form. I’m that type. I’m never happy. I don’t want to relive it.” But surely there must be a plated creation that would make him flaunt his peacock feathers. “No,” he insists. “I’m never proud of what I do.”
In what can sometimes be a vocation with ego-spiced enhancement, Vidal is missing a few key ingredients. The menu at his restaurant might as well feature eggs that are soft-boiled, wines colored in blush — many held in reserve – and desserts garnished with shrinking violets and a very, very mild sauce.
Yes, look for the reviews touting Vidal’s creations, but just make sure he isn’t the one writing them. You’d never want to go. He’d ignore the vibrant colors, the celebration of harmonizing flavors that balance his dishes and the multiple applications of chocolate he calls upon in single desserts.
It wasn’t supposed to be anything special. Vidal was born in Canada, but grew up in Malta, a country of fewer than half a million people, roughly 50 miles South of Sicily and a vital Allied shipping center during World War II. Vidal helped out in his uncle’s pastry shop, setting decorations only so he would have enough money to buy the next PlayStation. He tried his hands at carpentry, but considered himself to be “all thumbs – even extra thumbs.” So he entered the county’s Institute of Tourism Studies, wedged himself into the culinary subdivision and began his kitchen career on the savory side, an unlikely candidate for the confectionary creations and the Internet superstardom they would earn.
Near the end of his schooling, Vidal was assigned a mandatory externship at a hotel near London’s Gatwick Airport. He made no desserts there, but did make one sweet discovery at the hotel, where he met his future wife Johanna. Vidal wanted to travel, but felt the obligations of his burgeoning career. “I didn’t have hobbies other than reading cookbooks,” he says. “I really felt I had to work at 100 percent.”
Maybe Vidal needed time to smell the coffee, even in the form of tiramisu, but a work promotion intervened. He moved to his wife’s hometown in Stromstad, where he became a head chef at a harborside restaurant at age 25. “It was a mistake,” he says. “I was too young. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I was trying not to mess things up instead of learning. Sometimes you need to make mistakes to understand how to get things right.”
If I leave behind one piece of advice, I tell them: don’t do this for the money. It isn’t worth it. If you love it, you should pursue it. Fail many times if you have to, but always try again.
He moved to his current address as sous chef in 2015, and then fell into the pastry world soon afterwards when the hotel needed someone to oversee the garde manger or cold section that produced desserts and salads. Ironically, Vidal was more comfortable putting together some greens and dressing. Desserts? Vidal had never even tempered chocolate. The detour would only last six months, he was assured. Then he could shelve the cakes and tarts and return to the familiarity of salmon. In the meantime, he used his mornings to volunteer at a friend’s restaurant and soon fell in love with dessert plating. “It was like those photos I would see in books and magazines,” he says. “I learned to use what was seasonal, to see what was around. It felt like I could be more creative, more cheffy.”
The man who once slinked away from wood chips was now embracing chocolate chips. Maybe hammers and nails couldn’t coax him to build, but piping bags and spatulas could. “Even those early desserts I made were very visual,” he says. “I liked that. The visual is very important. I was always taught that you eat with your eyes first. I want people to see it and become excited to eat it.” Vidal’s confectionary aptitude had quickly made him a valuable, if not so voluble, asset.
Sometimes he found his inspirations for shapes and textures; other times, they found him. “When my daughter went to cut her hair, I saw in the window,” he recalls, “there was the shape of a flower, and I thought I that would make a good tuile, so I put it around a mold I had for a strawberry dessert.”
I tend to improvise a lot. I found I like to work with what’s around me. I don’t sketch my ideas as much as I used to. I’m open to first seeing a dish one way and then making it come together differently.
Vidal’s younger brother, Mike, joined him in the kitchen, and the pair sometimes flustered their co-workers with the one form of animation Vidal could muster. “We started speaking in Maltese,” he recalls, “so people figured it was pretty serious. Really, we could always raise our voices with each other.” (One side note: the music the Vidals play in the background usually comes from Vidal’s favorite band: Red Hot Chili Peppers. Hey, why waste a musical preference on a dull ingredient?)
With Mike’s encouragement, David also raised his game. Offerings have included a white chocolate and pistachio spring roll with Granny Smith sorbet; a smoked apple and whiskey bonbon; hazelnut, milk chocolate, sea buckthorn and sour cream; and a plated specialty featuring raspberry cream and gel with lemon curd, liquorice crunch raspberry meringues, Orelys cremeux, then finished with cress, herbs, edible flowers. And even though Vidal was late to tempering, he rarely lets his desserts offerings pass without including at least one chocolate option.
Sometimes you need to make mistakes to understand how to get things right.
Granted, life in a pastry kitchen entails more work adherence to formulas and structure, lest the bread proof a millisecond too soon or too late. But while Vidal’s design looks well structured, it is not always preplanned, his ideas reshaping themselves throughout the process. “I think more like a chef than a pastry chef,” he says. “I tend to improvise a lot. I found I like to work with what’s around me. I don’t sketch my ideas as much as I used to. I’m open to first seeing a dish one way and then making it come together differently.”
His unconventional style has led Vidal to some of the travels he missed as a savory chef, though he recalls being offered dates in Italy and literally asking: “Why me?” Now he enjoys the trips every few months. “Once I get past introducing myself, which I hate, then I can show people the little I know and I enjoy it,” he explains. “If I leave behind one piece of advice, I tell them: don’t do this for the money. It isn’t worth it. If you love it, you should pursue it. Fail many times if you have to, but always try again.”
On friends’ advice, Vidal put his sparkling work on the web, thanks to his wife’s keen photographic eye. “I am not much for promotion,” he admits, “but I thought I would just put up a few pictures. Maybe people will see it; maybe not.” And thus was born an accidental Instagram superstar. Tucked away or not, Vidal went viral and his confections became infectious. First hundreds and then thousands. Faster than he could take a dish off the menu, @Vidal31 had 440,000 sets of eyes, and, no doubt, mouths eyeing the chef’s creations. The bread had proofed beyond the tray of anonymity that was supposed to contain it. “I did not imagine so many people,” he says. Requests poured in. Vidal didn’t plan to offer custom projects, but he had trouble saying no. “Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew,” he says. “People ask for custom cakes and projects. First I tell them it’s something we don’t really do, but then I do it anyway. You know, I don’t like to disappoint people.”
Vidal’s story is an exemplary tale of its time, a confluence of excellent food and the capacity of timing social media to make it rise like a soufflé. Some modern chefs chose their status; others are chosen. For Vidal, a new book with recipes and elements of history is in the works. “I’m not sure what I’ll make next,” he says. Even if it’s humble pie, it is sure to have a following.
Black and white photo of David Vidal by Damiano Brusegan; all other photos by Meto Khazragi
About Brian Cazeneuve
Brian Cazeneuve is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated who never lost his childhood
passion for chocolate. In fact, he and his wife, Caroline, spent their honeymoon on a three-month chocolate-themed tour through Europe.