Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis is an industry icon—a leader, innovator, and mentor who has inspired generations of cooks both in the kitchen, as well as through his thoughtful prose and active participation in the world’s culinary dialogue. After eight years in Le Bernardin’s three Michelin starred kitchen, Laiskonis has stepped down from his prominent platform and the pastry community is left wondering what this luminary will tackle next. In what I can only imagine is one of the final lectures he gave while holding his former position, Chef Laiskonis details the philosophy behind his approach to pastry and the techniques he uses to keep his staff constantly motivated and forward-thinking.
The theme of this year’s Starchefs ICC was the 6th Sense; Chef Laiskonis described this as inspiration, or, how chefs stay creative on a daily basis. Brainstorming is the preeminent tool he utilizes to access his staff’s combined imagination. Chef described how while working twelve years ago at Tribute restaurant in Farmington Hills, Michigan, the cooks would use their downtime to play a game—one person would choose an ingredient, and together they would suggest as many ideas as possible about what could be done with it. Additionally, after staff meal on Saturday nights at Noma, René Redzepi’s groundbreaking restaurant in Copenhagen, the cooks are asked to create a new dish (after an entire night of service). With this, we were tasked with our own brainstorming challenge. After breaking into groups, we were asked to list associations with the words apple, crunchy, and water: pie, fall, cinnamon; potato chips, carrots, cereal; sous vide, fish, ice. The exercise unfolded as one idea begat another, demonstrating the power of collaborative thinking. The question then becomes how to sort through these ideas and flush out which will work on a plate. Chef Laiskonis addresses the concept of food as nostalgia; “It’s more exciting to me to think about what makes something familiar rather than what makes it new and different.” As an example, he cited that the taste of pineapple with star anise connotes a pineapple dum dum—the flavors of haute cuisine through the lens of a childhood memory. Chef Laiskonis likes to look to the past and the classics for inspiration. When one of his cooks approached him and said that he’d like to create a dessert based on Tres Leches, Laiskonis instructed him to begin by making a version of the original. Through much trial and error, they eventually made a deconstructed “Tres Leches” of Sponge Cake soaked in Tres Leches paired with Yogurt microwave sponge, roasted White Chocolate, and Coconut puree. Chefs are often criticized for deconstructing plates or using modern techniques (such as the microwave sponge cake, originally devised by Pastry Chef Albert Adria at El Bulli). This reproach usually comes when those who do not have solid classical technique experiment with more elaborate preparations –putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. One reason why Laiskonis’ desserts have received such acclaim is because he is able to successfully translate the integrity of the original dish, using perfect technique, to offer diners a familiar, yet novel experience.
Editing (often referred to as restraint) is another crucial step in the process of creating a new dish. It can be a cook’s natural inclination to include an extra ingredient, garnish, etc. Chef Laiskonis believes in working by subtraction rather than addition, simplifying a dish as much as possible without compromising the final product. Finally, Chef Laiskonis discussed the symbiotic relationship between savory and pastry. “As pastry, you’re part of a greater vision,” he explained. A collaborative understanding in the kitchen is essential in any restaurant wishing to create the optimal dining experience for guests. Chef Laiskonis has become somewhat infamous for his motto “Cuisine or Death,” aka suck it up, you’re a chef! This refers to an incident involving a cook requesting to leave due to a headache, and the unspoken rule in a kitchen that short of losing a limb, you stay to finish service. Slice off a chunk of your finger chopping an onion? Sear the wound on the flat top, throw a piece of duct tape on it, and get back on the line. Many outside of the industry would find this disconcerting—to a chef, it’s a matter of pride. A credence that separates “us” from “them.” This brings to mind a quote from renowned chef Charlie Trotter, who Laiskonis himself referenced in an article he wrote for Salon.com: “You have to be so earnestly devoted that if you were any more devoted it would be perverse, and any less, it would not be enough.” While this could theoretically apply to any profession, it holds uniquely true in the culinary world. The fact that Chef Laiskonis spends his minimal down time constantly brainstorming new ideas, writing articles, and participating in lectures demonstrates the type of obsession needed to achieve his level of accomplishment. The irony is not lost on me that only this past weekend, Charlie Trotter announced he would close his namesake restaurant later this year to, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, study philosophy and political theory while he still has the chance. I can’t imagine Laiskonis has similar aspirations, but we’ll surely wait with bated breath for their next moves.
In the age of the celebrity chef and the starry eyed CIA grad looking for the quick rise to the top, Laiskonis is a cook’s cook. Put your head down, work hard, pay your dues, constantly challenge yourself, spend everyday learning, appreciate the input of your peers, read, write, share, discuss, give back, and maybe, just maybe you’ll be able to achieve the respect that he commands. I say respect, not success because in this industry, respect is truly the ultimate measure of achievement. Despite his high-profile departure, the one certainty is that Chef Laiskonis will continue to be looked upon as a leader in the field and to inspire future cooks—after all, it’s not “cuisine or Le Bernardin”…
Photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D.