(This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
This pastry wizard, whom the late, great chef Joel Robuchon called “one of the best,” is not just breaking molds – he’s also making them, as he surprises and delights diners with his unconventional take on dessert.
Surely what Sal Martone needs is a catchy subhead, an all-encompassing banner that encapsulates his work into a neatly-explained package: Pastry Sorcerer, Maniacal Mechanist, one of those rubrics. Except that for every instant that such a bumper fits the confection mastermind of the Joel Robuchon Empire and Invest Hospitality Group, Martone’s next offering dodges away from neatly-wrapped predictability and leaves you with a fresh craving, a contrasting texture and a healthy glop of mental white-out. “I thought I had him figured out,” you insist. “Maybe just one more sample.”
Martone’s desserts are a journey, even more transporting than the one that took the Italian from pizza maker to ice-cream enchanter. Your eyes tell you one thing; your nose might suggest another and then your taste buds, well, they’re positively befuddled, but happy.
Today at Le Jardinier restaurant in New York, Martone is in a kitchen making a dessert inspired by the monarch butterfly. He places a feuille de brick, a sort-of half-crepe, half-tortilla, into a laser cutter that looks and sounds better suited to produce a dozen Xeroxes or a clean pair of socks. In three minutes, the interior workings yield a critter than has formed from a chef’s bag of inspiration as it would from a caterpillar’s chrysalis. Yet Martone spots imperfections. “If the product is too fresh, it doesn’t curl,” he says. “Now I need to do a little bit of surgery.” He removes the emerging butterfly, flips on his glasses, sculpts the shape, then dabs and splashes with yellow, orange and black cocoa butter. There it is: too pretty to eat, but, resting against a quenelle of ice cream, some butter cake and forrest-inspired garnishes, it is also too tempting to ignore.
Growing up in Naples – the one in Italy, not the one in Florida – Martone foretold little of the artistry that lay ahead. He took no formal art classes, but his eagle-eye for chocolate was another matter. “My mother had to hide the Nutella,” he recalls, “but I usually found it anyway.” He studied at the Hotelery School in Naples, then at the Instituto Superiore Arti Culinaire in Venice – the one in Italy, not the one in Florida. He made pizza and bread, and later moved to the U.S. to study pastry in Chicago. His culinary aspirations gradually made use of the school lessons from science and computer studies that might otherwise have faded into the background. “It’s funny what stays with you,” he says. “The chemical composition of ingredients in food; that formula I remembered. It was fascinating to me how the molecules acted and how things changed when you put them together. Like that, you had something brand new.”
Martone developed a curiosity about how to reimagine shapes and manipulate textures, all while staying true to both his maturing palate and the nose that playfully hunted his mother’s Nutella jars. While attending classes at a pastry school in Las Vegas, he later met Robuchon, the culinary legend who hoarded Michelin Stars the way corduroys collect lint. Martone became the star protégé and worked for Robuchon in Vegas, Florida and New York, climbing from master cook to sous chef to executive sous and ultimately the Corporate Executive Pastry Chef at Robuchon’s restaurants across the U.S., including New York’s Le Jardinier and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a sister restaurant to the eponymous family of gastronomic luxury in Paris, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and Shanghai. Today, Martone oversees the sweet sectors of a dozen properties, including an ice cream concept in Miami – yes, the one in Florida – called Frohzen. Martone has won and been nominated for numerous awards, collecting the top prize in StarChefs International Pastry Competition in 2012. Yet his most cherished accolade came on the day several years ago when Robuchon casually told him he was among “the best in the world.”
Robuchon died of cancer in 2018 at age 73, with a legacy of guiding the measure of food past its keystone of nouvelle cuisine into a more modern era – polished, but unafraid to break convention. Though Robuchon was a culinary sophisticate, Martone appreciates that his mentor gave him the freedom to strike different notes, fit for culinary sophisticates who quietly harbored fond links to childhood.
Martone became known both for the Hermes chocolate cake bag that made you want to dine at the Plaza and for the blown sugar sculptures you wanted to whack like a piñata at a pajama party. At L’Ateiler, you could order black truffle ice cream with Arabica coffee and walnut oil or you could choose the chocolate dessert with Oreo cookie crumble. You might like Le Mojito with rum gelée, mint sorbet and lime foam or you might fancy the dessert with Snickerdoodles. At Frohzen, you might order a scoop of tres leches coconut atop the guava maria cookie with Fruity Pebbles. What’s your mood? Who’s to judge? So what if one lustrous dessert evokes Macallen Scotch and the next makes you want to play hopscotch. Maybe Rembrandt wouldn’t dare make something so fun with three crayons and an Etch-a-sketch, but the chef doesn’t do boundaries.
Martone arrives at his creations not with linear drive, but rather like a swerving Italian sports car, zipping past one idea and careening off to the next, with a fragmented purpose that a genius recognizes as the creative process. He is at his best when he juggles several simultaneous balls, in the shape of unfinished desserts, in the air, suspends them in abeyance, and returns to them when they bonk him on the head, saying, Don’t forget me. “Inspiration, creativity; I can’t do it on demand,” he says. “If I get stuck on one idea, I go to another. I like having five or six at the same time. I need the knowledge to rest. When I go back, the information is deep inside, but I can look at it differently. Some people say ‘think outside the box.’ I think in a red balloon. You pop the balloon to take out what is inside. I mean, if people think you’re the chocolate guy, for example, you have to act accordingly. I don’t know what I want to do tomorrow.”
On his way from Miami late last year, he spotted some round patterns on the airport floor. It was a Rorschach test. Martone didn’t see circles; he saw a dessert design. He snapped photos before bemused onlookers, then once back in New York, he gave the pattern to gadgetry. He played with the results in Photoshop, changed the contrast to make it black and white, imported the image to Illustrator, which could trace it for him, copied the outline, laser cut it and incorporated the design into a tasty treat. “If I look around a market in New York,” he says, “by the time I leave, I have another idea. Everything I see, I ask, ‘can it be a dessert?’”
These days, Martone has a rhythm to transforming conceptions into confections. But six years ago, he needed to find ways to fabricate impressions into pliable and usable formats that would fit within his budget. Injection molds could run into thousands of dollars, so Martone became fluent in mold usage. That took some trial and considerable error. He recalls the day his wife screamed at him when runaway acetate started smelling up their Las Vegas garage. A colleague even prevailed upon him to try using a rice cooker to shape his figures. He finally learned to use a 3D printer and began testing methods from online classes and videos he found on YouTube or through Udemy. “If buy a mold, we already watch the same Instagram, and we all attempt to make the same thing,” he says, “so I’m trying to make my own and do something different than what I see on market. When I get a block, because I cannot make the mold I want, I need to take a step back and learn a new approach. Honestly, you are always learning. The better you become, the more open you are to learning something you don’t know.” The process of making a round cutter, from SDL file to printer and USB and finished product, usually lasts overnight and can take up to 30 hours depending on the specifications. “If you want to be creative in pastry, you need to have three superpowers,” he says. “You need to master molds, cutters and stencils.”
With Martone’s bag of toys, another dessert transports you to a transparent terrarium bowl. Inside sits a base of green grass with a chocolate treat and its sprouted leaves, a spotted rock, a branch and a purple lace butterfly. You can almost see Klimt or Monet overseeing the finished product. At other times, Martone might fancy clouds, cars and critters. To hungry eyes, the desserts are so realistic, you want to water them, drive them, pet them, tell them to fetch, talk to them, or don your glasses and read them. If you taste first with your eyes, you will certainly pause to admire them, strain for varied vantage points that hint at the path to creation and perhaps rue the moment they have been lost to joyful consumption.
The chef is a thorough study. When visiting photographers are snapping images of his pastries, Martone is conducting his own interviews about aperture and lighting and quietly snapping shots of the photo equipment. Surveillance cuts both ways, much like the slicers he uses to turn dough into butterflies. The crisp images on his Instagram account are his own.
Martone keeps to one unbreakable rule: “I mean, most important, of course, it has to taste good,” he says. “People get too intellectual. Think with your tongue. If you focus on the process, the results will follow. If you make a movie in order to get an Oscar, it will be a bad movie. I don’t want to make a publicity stunt. I hate wasabi ice cream, so I don’t make it for you just because I can.”
Then his eyes get big. “Oh, but I have this ice cream you have to try,” he says. “Simple, really simple.” He spoons a smooth matcha scoop into a cup and tickles it with a pour of Chambord. This is not a dispassionate pour. Martone’s eyes light up, waiting for the ‘wow’ that will follow. These are two flavors that don’t mind flirting with each other. “See how simple that was?” Simple? No. Sublime, maybe, but hardly simple. And don’t get us started on his yuzu ice cream or the lychee pomegranate bubble sugar.
So maybe Martone doesn’t have a box or a folder, because each of his ideas needs its own folder, another file on the pull-down menu of his computer next to the butterflies and snow globes. It’s up to us to give Salvatore Martone a title that went missing from an Emily Dickinson poem. But what we’d actually prefer from him is . . . another dessert.
Photos courtesy of Sal Martone