Interview: Michael Laiskonis, Executive Pastry Chef at Le Bernardin (Part 2)

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Chocolate garnishes setting up on acetate. [Photograph: Michael Laiskonis]

Here's the thrilling second part of my interview with the incredibly talented pastry chef Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin.

How do you use (or not use, for that matter) chocolate in your work? As sales of the chocolate offerings on our menu always seem to outnumber all others combined, it's a reliable workhorse! We use it both as a focal point in desserts, but also as an accent. Or vehicle for other ingredients as well. Chocolate can act as a kind of bridge between two other flavors or textures, and that's exciting to explore.

I don't afford myself the time as much as I used to, but when I am able to steal away for an hour or two, doing chocolate work like garnishes or bonbons tends to have a calming, Zen-like effect on me.

How do you come up with your ideas? What inspires you as a chef and a food lover? I don't really employ any methodical or deliberate creative process; what ends up on the plate is usually a distillation of things from several sources, all mashed up together and, hopefully, pushed through my own personal filter. Of course, I try to keep up with what my peers are doing, but I also look to the past for inspiration, or even outside the world of food, like architecture or graphic design.

It's hard to describe, and difficult to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but I view everything through a culinary lens. I guess that happens to a lot of folks in the business, when cooking ceases to be just a job and more a way of life.

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A "chocolate shot." [Photograph: Michael Laiskonis]

Any favorite chocolate treats?I appreciate chocolate most on three different levels: straight-up in bar form, pure and intense; highly refined, in the form of an elegant bonbon; or the purely nostalgic candy bars form my youth.

Favorite part of your job? That I'm able to make things with my own hands, and that those things have the capacity to make people happy, not to mention the practically instantaneous feedback! I also enjoy the fact that a cook is a student for life—there's always so much more to learn and discover. I also find it deeply gratifying to share everything that I have learned with younger cooks, who in turn, will hopefully push the envelope themselves.

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Are there any new projects you're working on that you're particularly excited about? If there's one constant to my days at Le Bernardin, it's that no two days are ever exactly alike. While I do spend several hours working the "line" for both lunch and dinner services, at any given time I'm also engaged in research and development, press inquiries, consulting projects, charity events, and so on. It sometimes feels like I'm juggling a couple of full-time jobs... I certainly can't remember the last time I felt bored. Currently, I'm still working on various writing projects: magazine work, anthology pieces, my blogs. Eventually the goal is to condense a lot of that work into a book.

Autumn is slowly creeping up on us, so I'm excited to start changing menus in all of our secondary projects—those restaurants in Grand Cayman, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. I'm also very interested to see the new Top Chef spin-off, Just Desserts—not just because I was a guest judge, but because I'm also hoping it will help give us pastry chefs a little more exposure to the outside world.

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