(This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
With experience in top kitchens and organizations such as Le Cirque, La Fonda Del Sol, Convivio, Alto, Esquared Hospitality and BLT restaurants, coupled with achievements such as the 2012 Zagat 30 under 30 award and 2020 Class of New York Rising Stars – not to mention countless media appearances or mentions – it’s evident Julie Elkind is operating in her zone of genius. As the executive pastry chef of Bâtard, Elkind is seemingly in a state of flow. A state that’s really only achieved at the intersection of innate talent and pure passion. And such observations are apparent in our interview when she shared things like, “Over-thinking is your worst enemy when it comes to dessert construction. Let creativity and nature take its course and your end result will speak for itself,” or “Dessert conception is one of the best parts of the job. It allows your mind to roam free and create something completely new.” Not only is her passion for the profession apparent, but it’s downright infectious. In our interview, Elkind shares her wonderful journey, thought-provoking insights, technical tips and more.
Was there a moment you realized that pastry was going to be a critical component of your professional life?
For some, there is one defining moment when they know exactly what they are meant to do. For me, it is many moments. When I was little my family was bonded together by food and the experience of preparing a meal to enjoy together. It was in the moments when I would bake a cake with my grandmother and I got to crack the eggs and lick the bowl. When my mom would spend time after school as a child and bake into the night just for fun. What I really came to realize was when all the baking was done, and I would bring them to share with other people. It was the looks on their faces of surprise and complete escape to a place of even momentary happiness when they took that first bite. In those moments I realized that what I thought was just a simple gesture of giving a pastry to someone I love could be much more in bringing joy to many. I could share my infatuation with pastries on a much larger stage and make even a small difference in the world by making peoples lives a little sweeter. As the saying goes, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Although I work very hard to achieve my goals I love what I do every day.
When you look back over your career thus far, what was a major factor or catalyst for becoming the pastry professional you are today?
In retrospect of my career as a pastry chef in terms of the things that have shaped me into the professional I am today I would give the credit to the people that pushed me and took the time to teach me the importance of each step of the process. From the savory chefs introducing me and inspiring me with fruits and vegetables I had never seen or used before. The cerebral moments of understanding the intention behind the food I want to create. It’s very important to have allies and people to look up to in this business that support you and respect you with kindness. The times that I doubted myself, a new dish I was putting together, events where I would wonder how I would successfully execute such vast amounts of desserts going out without compromising the soul of the dish. Having other chefs in my life reminded me how capable I was. If I worked smart and focused on the task at hand with a “take no prisoners” attitude I could achieve anything I wanted. I took all the advice I was given as a young chef and treated it as a mantra. Every stepping stone mattered. Every failure mattered. They were opportunities to be better than yesterday and today is an opportunity to be better tomorrow. Lead with kindness and purpose and the doors will open themselves for you.
Dessert conception is one of the best parts of the job. It allows your mind to roam free and create something completely new.
If you could go back to the beginning of your career and give yourself up to three pieces of advice, what would they be and why?
As a professional I try to not focus on “Should’a, Would’a, Could’a.” However, knowing what I know now I would tell myself to slow down. To take the time to learn from the best as long as possible. I got my first job as executive pastry chef at 24. I was leaving the Alta Marea Group as pastry sous chef at Convivio and got an opportunity to do a tasting for the executive pastry chef position of Esquared Hospitality Group. I knew I was capable and could do it. I got the job and I remember the feeling of ‘teaching myself as I go’ because I had not spent tons of time working with the great pastry chefs before that. I had to create my own network early on because I was young and very new to the title. I had to earn my name and my place within the industry because I didn’t really have many people vouching for me. My inner network became mostly savory chefs which certainly shaped my whole view of design and flavor combinations. I grew into myself through endless trial and error. I didn’t have an arsenal of recipes from chefs I had worked for before and spent years developing my own. I do that to this very day, but I am grateful how it ended up because I have such a clear understanding of the science and chemistry of pastry.
You are known for your artistic dessert platings and your innovative combinations of flavors and textures. Could you take us through your process for introducing a new menu item, from concept to its debut on the menu?
Dessert conception is one of the best parts of the job. It allows your mind to roam free and create something completely new. I always start with seasonality. What’s in season now? What do I want to use and put on the menu that I have not used yet? And a very important question I always ask myself is “What is missing from the menu that deserves a place to make it better?” I was an art major in college and have a wild, colorful and creative way of thinking. I am sometimes even drawn in by just a color and start there. If it’s fall, what color invokes the feeling of the season changing? What does that color taste like, smell like, look like? Once I have decided on that main component of the dish I decide how it’s going to take shape. Take Sea Buckthorn for example. It’s bright, tart, floral and can be used in such universal ways. Since we’re working with fall…it’s now chilly out so I want a warm element to it. Something that when you bite into it feels like throwing on a warm oversized sweater straight out of the dryer. I choose to make a warm buckwheat cake soaked in a sticky butter rum sauce. Being that a butter rum sauce is sweet I need my sea buckthorn acid to break through like a ray of sunshine brightening the whole dish. I make it into an ice cream. Now I have something cold to balance the temperature of the elements on the plate as well as an acid to compliment and sedate the sweetness of the cake. Visuals are everything to me. “Accessorizing” the dessert is the whimsical part. Again since we’re going with fall here, I make a dehydrated chip of sea buckthorn and sweet potato starch to add a tissue paper thin crunch to top the dish that almost resembles the fallen leaves you walk through on an autumn day. Crunch, soft, warm, cold, sweet, acidic and dressed in style for the season.
How do you navigate the delicate dance of combining classic and contemporary flavor combinations and concepts in your desserts?
Balance is everything. I like to be ambitious and use ingredients that are new, uncommon and exciting but I also don’t like to stray too far away from what is familiar and nostalgic. If I am going to use a more “odd” ingredient I work to balance it with flavors that are also familiar to the diner so that they are more inclined to order it more than once. A good example of that was when I made a camembert apple tart. I wanted the pungent gooey richness of the cheese in the dessert but for some that can be unappealing. So I took the flavors of a classic, delicious warm apple pie that complemented and washed out some of the intensity of the cheese by making a warm spiced apple compote. I put all of those in a flakey tart shell and topped it with a streusel to add a familiar and welcoming crunch. I try to design my desserts with the diner in mind. What would you come back for? What would you tell your friends about? What can I do for you to walk away from your meal with something to remember that we probably have some differing nostalgic memory of we can share.
I like to be ambitious and use ingredients that are new, uncommon and exciting but I also don’t like to stray too far away from what is familiar and nostalgic.
Do you tap into your food memories and associations when you create your desserts? If so, can you give us an example?
Food memories are the foundation of my cooking. I want to have an emotional response to what I eat. I want to remember the smells and taste of happy times past. I used to spend some summers at my Grandparents house in Quechee Vermont picking blueberries, baking pies and making jams with my gram. She has since passed, and these are some of my fondest memories. Every summer I put a blueberry dessert on my menu in some form that brings me back to my summers as a kid. I can’t tell you how many people have shared their similar stories after hearing my blueberry dessert saga and how it brought them a similar happiness to eat it. Everyone’s got a story, I just prefer to bake and eat mine.
One of your signature desserts is the Bâtard candy bar. What inspired it and why do you think it’s so popular?
I always like the idea of a signature dessert. A reliable tried and true number people can always come back for. I created the Bâtard candy bar to be just that. Chocolate, caramel, hazelnut and wafer crunch are bites I think almost anyone can agree on. I love candy of all sorts. Candy bars never go out of style so I wanted to create a composed dish that resembled the same concept. What I was most happy about was the response to it. I was glad that the message I was trying to get across translated well with my guests and it was really them that made it the signature. I was just there to give the people what they want.
What are some of your current flavor favorites and how are you working with them – whether in testing or final forms.
I have a playlist of favorite flavor profiles I use often. I always love passionfruit and it will always find its way into my greatest hits. Tropical flavor slap for me. I tend to pair tropical with tropical using mango, coconut and passionfruit as a perfect pairing. There are endless ways to make them feel fresh and new each time. Citrus fruit is another love affair of mine. It’s hard to pick just one and that’s what I love about it. I love to use kishu mandarins, finger limes, blood orange, Meyer lemon and buddha’s hand (which makes an intoxicating symphony of floral notes for any dish). It’s hard to say I have a favorite when there are so many options out there. I’ll call it my flavor of the week and they are all important.
When it comes to running a fast and efficient kitchen, you have to work smart. That’s my goal every day. How can I make something look complicated without requiring it to be complicated.
Is there a technique (either classic or modern) that you use in your desserts in an unusual or distinctive way?
When it comes to the uniqueness of my dishes I always try to set myself apart from the rest of the pack to stand out. That is a very hard thing to achieve these days with so much talent out there. I like to take something familiar and wrap it in a bow of something new. My visuals are something that I try to use to pull off as “uniqueness.” Being that I have always been involved with art I try to build my canvas with multiple layers. The garnish or tuiles are examples of what I use to set myself apart. Using dehydrators is an endless sea of amazing options for finishing touches. Using flavor profiles and combinations that tell my story can be the altering difference between me and the next guy. My “technique” is more than not consistent and concise execution of a fine-tuned idea. A technique is just a technique without someone unusual and distinctive to implement its final result.
Lead with kindness and purpose and the doors will open themselves for you.
Can you share a kitchen/production hack/tip? Such as a technique or process that speeds up production or improves the outcome of a pastry/dessert.
When it comes to running a fast and efficient kitchen, you have to work smart. That’s my goal every day. How can I make something look complicated without requiring it to be complicated. I tend to veer in the realm of using all natural ingredients as much as possible and it tends to cut out ten steps or fillers that are unnecessary. If I need to make a fruit chip crunch I will use a natural starch, dehydrate it and flash fry it. When you have a good product it speaks for itself and it’s my job just to make it more beautiful. If you have a perfectly ripe peach or berry I don’t go out of my way to compromise what nature intended, I just compliment what was already given to me. Over-thinking is your worst enemy when it comes to dessert construction. Let creativity and nature take its course and your end result will speak for itself.
A technique is just a technique without someone unusual and distinctive to implement its final result.
Finally, what is on the horizon for you at the moment?
That’s always the big kicker question…what next? What I can share is that I have recently created a whole new kind of sweet in my life. I just had my first baby boy Cooper, late this past July. He has been the most needy (and adorable) boss I have had to date. I recently have taken some time off to be with him and left my truly beloved position as Executive Pastry Chef at Bâtard. In the near future I am looking forward to heading back to the kitchen and joining a new project (yet to be determined or decided) and eventually in the not too distant future open a space of my own for everyone to come and enjoy the sweetness of pastry and life on my own terms. Whatever is next that the future holds I can say that nothing will give me more pleasure than to return to my true love of cooking and spreading my love of dessert with those who will share it with me.
Over-thinking is your worst enemy when it comes to dessert construction. Let creativity and nature take its course and your end result will speak for itself.
Photos courtesy of Julie Elkind
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