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The Chocolate Lab

The sensory directives begin two hallways ahead of time. Follow your nose to the gravitational aroma that guides you through the labyrinth of kitchens and classrooms at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, the wonderful petri dish of ideas, knowledge and flavors for foodies-in-waiting. Follow the aroma, the nibs and ball mill refiner that pulsates like a heart monitor, and you’ll find the room called the Chocolate Lab. It sounds like a faithful hunting companion. And if the intended targets are flavor and sensory stimulation, well, perhaps it is. This is where students and other visitors can create, discuss and formulate chocolate from its foundations: it is bean to bar. It is alluring whiff to post-indulgence tummy ache.

The chief Chocolatier Meister is Michael Laiskonis, the Institute of Culinary Education’s Creative Director, who is part artist, part alchemist, part analyst, part archivist, a sort of choco-savant who seemingly sprung from a Willy Wonka film with a room flush with toys and a mind awash in ideas. Together they house a giant think tank that chases impossible questions: How do you quantify an aesthetic? How can you put numbers and measures to aroma and flavor? Laiskonis does. At the simplest task, he teaches chocolate making and tasting from its roots. For neophytes, he can patiently break down Chocolate 101 to its essentials. But the full immersion on the backend is ceaseless, open-ended and open-minded. “It’s chocolate for everyone,” he says.

ICE’s chocolate-themed offerings include Science of Ganache; the Art of Plating; Sugar Science, Functions and Applications in Modern Pastry; Plated Desserts, Techniques in Chocolate; A Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Experience; and Artisanal Chocolate Workshop. It is a course load fit for a chronic chocoholic.

But, at the more advanced levels, he envisions the Lab as a place for what he calls “chocolate play-dates.” If a pastry chef or chocolatier needs a venue to push the boundaries of texture, temperature and ultimately flavor profile, Laiskonis would like the Lab to be a resource for open discussion and experimentation among the cacao cognoscenti – Quetzalcoatl’s living lair, as it were. For one recent enterprise, Laiskonis wrote six formulations for a slightly less sweet white chocolate to incorporate into a savory white asparagus dish for an enterprising chef who ultimately tested and chose his favorite. When another wanted to know if it was possible to refine almonds into white chocolate, he came to Laiskonis’ Lab for confirmation.

The folders and files in Laiskonis’ computer read like a NASA debriefing session. Under “Chocolate Projects” there are hundreds of research topics, including one that reads: “Differences in detection time of fat librom — Formation on pralines.” (But you’ve already read tomes and volumes about that before.) “We’re trying to take chocolate making and throw science at it,” he says. “We’re trying to create an environment where you can taste deliciousness.” He jumps at flavor equations and manipulations the way authors often scribble sudden inspirations onto napkins, and he finds himself typing formulae into a phone at a moment’s gust of inspiration). The rumor that he carries a digital micrometer in his socks is likely untrue.

The fascination for Laiskonis started innocently. “I started reading the Time/Life cookbooks in the library and my world just exploded,” he recalls. His career as a young chef took him through several kitchens before he joined palates with Eric Ripert the magician of New York’s seafood-centric Le Bernardin, a regular in San Pellegrino’s list of the world’s top 50 restaurants. Ripert hired Laiskonis as Executive Pastry Chef in 2004, where he remained for eight years. He was known for a signature dessert that was simply called “The egg,” an eggshell filled with chocolate, caramel and salt, befitting the minimalist mantra of Ripert’s restaurant.

Six years ago, Rick Smilow, ICE’s president, created a position for Laiskonis at the school based on their conversations. “Let’s look for the underlying science,” Laiskonis said. “Let’s roll back the layers and see how things work.” The Lab was born when an expanded school moved from 23rd street in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood down to Battery Park. “Since I’ve gotten out of the restaurant business,” he says, “I’ve finally been able to think one thought through to the end, but I find my Christmas list just keeps getting longer.”

When not roasting and winnowing at The Chocolate Lab, Laiskonis channels his inner Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of chocolate’s rich lineage, from Columbus to Cortes. He scours old ads, cookbooks, commercial and genealogy records to unearth nuggets of history close to home. His research unearthed what he believes to be first known chocolate stores in New York, not far from ICE’s previous location on 23rd street. Laiskonis also discovered that the powerful Roosevelt family produced chocolate long before producing two presidents. “At least twice a day I hear a Willy Wonka reference,” he says.

In a blog entitled Keeping Your Cool in the Kitchen, he writes: “I’m all for keeping the rules, the standards and the intensity that animate professional kitchens, but I’m less impressed with the bravado and barking that often comes with it.” There is joy, not cool indifference, that scientific approach can imply and he insists his life with chocolate has not jaded him. “I don’t smell it anymore,” he says. “My relationship to it has certainly changed, but I wouldn’t say I’m sick of it. I’m less critical of bad chocolate than I used to be. I know what goes into making it. I’ve learned that the most important step is actually every step. A shortcut will ultimately reveal itself in the end product.”

In our two-day class, we followed the chocolate process from beans to bars, learning enough to make our minds explode, while keeping our pressurized presscakes – 120,000 pounds of pressure, Laiskonis told us — intact. Yet it seemed we barely unpeeled the top wrapper of possibility. We had so many questions: “What is your favorite chocolate?” “Who is a parent’s favorite child?” he answered, before caving slightly. “It changes,” he explained. “What excites me at the moment? Maybe lately beans from Vietnam. Something different. Tomorrow?” He trailed off, as if to let his thoughts follow his nose, unaware of where it would lead him. The journey from uncertainty to discovery is surely at home in The Chocolate Lab.

Brian Cazeneuve
Brian Cazeneuve
Brian Cazeneuve is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated, and freelance writer with works appearing in numerous national publications, including Time, People, the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC Sports, and others. He lives in New York City.