Jeffrey Wurtz landed the Executive Pastry Chef job at New York's iconic Le Cirque in September 2012. Over the past ten months, he's put his mark on both their "classic" and "signature" dessert menus. The desserts on the classic menu feature time-tested plates like the soufflé, Napoleon, and stove cake (which was created by Jacques Torres during his tenure as Le Cirque pastry chef). On the signature menu, the chef really has license to be creative and try new things. What goes into revamping these two menus for summer? Wurtz sat down and spoke with us about his creative process.
Wurtz's philosophy is that the desserts should "taste good first and foremost and then if they are appealing to the eye or interesting in other ways, even better." He is unapologetic about working with flavor profiles and ingredients that he is familiar with, even if they aren't new. For example, the classic combination of cherries and pistachios. Because he knows the intricacies of these two ingredients so well, he can derive all the textures and flavors he's looking for in a dish. And more often than not, for Wurtz, that also means making desserts using classic French techniques.
He will only use a modern plating technique if it "makes sense" and is an easy fit, but doesn't like to force things. When I noted that the arlette was probably the most visually stunning of his desserts he said, "The raspberry arlette is straight-up old school French! I like that it looks so clean and simple, but it takes time [to plate]. There are chefs out there that are so intelligent, creative and imaginative. I am much more deliberate in my process. I like apricots and I like almonds. If I make an apricot soufflé, I think almond ice cream would pair well with it. So I try it and work on it until it tastes and looks good."
About his freedom to create new desserts at Le Cirque, Wurtz explains that "The Maccioni brothers are very supportive [rather than full-time critics] of what we do in the pastry department." He noted that's not always the case in the restaurant world.
For example, when he was working for Alain Ducasse at Essex House, the tastings for new additions to the menu were very serious affairs. "Mr. Ducasse would stand in complete silence [waiting for his desserts] and stare straight ahead and provide no immediate feedback." He and Sandro Micheli, Wurtz's executive pastry chef at the time and currently Executive Pastry Chef at Daniel, would spend the entire session trying to read whether Ducasse was enjoying their creations. "Nothing was more intense than those tastings!".
He contrasted that with his interview and tasting at Le Cirque, where there was arguably more at stake—the Executive Pastry Chef position at a New York institution. He says it was still formal but the Maccioni brothers sat for the entire process and provided constant feedback and were generally very warm. "Their personalities are just naturally friendly and gregarious so the whole process was much less stressful." Wurtz says both experiences were valuable and allowed him to grow as a pastry chef.
After describing the process of creating the desserts on his new summer menu, Wurtz was anxious for me to actually try them, including a bold new flavor of a classic souffle. And though these menu items are referred to as "classics", there's nothing boring or staid about them. Wurtz's apricot souffle with apricot liqueur-soaked lady fingers and roasted apricots is decidedly non-tradtional. View the slideshow to learn more about that dish and the other latest desserts at Le Cirque.
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