"We're a very serious restaurant in what we do, but when you're at dinner we want you to have a good time."
Pastry chef Angela Pinkerton has been at Eleven Madison Park since before it even had a formal pastry team. She worked under Executive Chef Daniel Humm executing an extremely high-end menu for big spenders who could choose buzzwords like "horseradish", "duck", or "mulberries" for each of four courses, and then be astounded at what was brought forth to them. A few years later, Humm passed the pastry position over to Pinkerton, and she now heads up a team of twelve pastry cooks who work together making dishes that represent "New York" for the restaurant's new city focused menu. In other words, she's responsible for the crowning end to a meal that includes table-side vegetable tartar and carts ready for making egg creams on the spot.
And while there are plenty of high-tech tricks to be found in the EMP kitchen, Pinkerton keeps a clear head when figuring out what to put on her menu, making sure flecks of nostalgia compliment really strong flavors and fun presentation. The whole dining experience at EMP is one of magic and mystery—don't expect to find menus online or get detailed descriptions of anything before it's set before you. So, with the majestic space cleared out in preparation for a party thrown by Harry Winston diamonds (because who else can buy out two services at EMP), we got a little glimpse behind the curtain to see just how Pinkerton makes sure that elegant desserts are still very much relevant in New York.
How has your work with Daniel Humm changed since you first started working with him—when he was leading the pastry as well as savory teams—to where you're running the department? I look to Daniel as a mentor—chef came here with a vision, and we all came here to be a part of his vision. The ultimate goal is to surprise the guest, so they don't have premeditated ideas of what they're going to get, and to have fun, in essence. I soaked up every bit of knowledge I could from him, and now it's like we share the vision, and through that we've gotten a lot more creative. It's not just one head trying to think of surprising ideas; it's a collaboration between everyone in the restaurant. We sit down with the menu and think about what ingredients we want to use, and where we are going to put them. Now I feel like our minds are on the same path.
Can you define how the restaurant has evolved? When I first started it was about letting everybody know that this was the best restaurant and that we used the best ingredients—proving ourselves, in that sense. Now we say, you know what? We know we use the best ingredients. We know we're skilled and are doing the best techniques that we've perfected. The food had a lot of components, showing what we could do; now it's about giving people an enjoyable experience. And it's not just about what's on the plate; it's about the environment, the space in New York, the city itself, the Flatiron district here—it's the story we're telling. And I think you taste that when you're eating the food now. We have more of an identity with that.
Tell us about the process behind the grid system you used to use. What was the planning process for it, and what did it serve for you? (Ed. note: The menu at EMP used to be a simple grid listing just 16 words. You ordered by choosing words from the grid.) The grid gave a lot of choice to the diner; I don't miss the grid, but it was fun for the kitchen, too. There were four dessert spots, but I would have five or six available for aversions or allergies, and then with "chocolate" you could choose whether you wanted milk or dark chocolate... it got to be a lot. Instead of focusing on perfecting a couple of things, we had a lot going on. We're seasonal all the time, but with the grid we could do something with sour cherry for two weeks while they were in season, and then switch. So it was very flexible in that sense, but at the same time we had six or seven desserts and so finding the time... the thing I like about the menu now is that we have two or three dessert that are available, and we can really put everything into them.
Now you work within parameters that your dishes are rooted in "New York". What does that mean? Let's take the Baked Alaska; it uses things that aren't New York ingredients, but it happened right down the street at Delmonico's where they coined the term "Baked Alaska.", so it encompasses a time and history in New York we're known for. If we want to do a chocolate dessert we'd use Mast Brothers, since it's a product that's manufactured here. We had a sassafras dessert with a banana bread crumble on the menu, because sassafras grows in the woods in New York in the summertime. So you either have a history concept, or a product that's made or grown in New York.
We see a lot of contemporary plates that are all presentation and technique, with little by ways flavor. How do you bring those worlds together so that they're present and make sense within your concept? We have a very strong palate here—that's something that chef has had and has kind of gifted us all with. So staying with the sassafras and banana, I need the dessert to scream the main ingredient, so we were trying to recreate the flavor of root beer and were like, how do I get that strangely green, throat-mouth feel, that's like a flavor but not really a flavor? It's also in bananas, so there; we bake a banana cake and then grind it and mix it with sugar, then spread it out and put it back in the oven so that it makes a crisp. People love banana bread, and it's super familiar, so they're looking at this green sassafras ice cream going, "This isn't root beer!" But when you eat it all together, it tastes like root beer.
Our resident dessert nerdling Niko pointed out that you've had some chefs come through your kitchen and go out to accomplish wonderful things on their own. How are you able to maintain the level of quality in your kitchen when you're training cooks to chefs who move on? We have a lot of bodies in the kitchen, and in every service there are five stations, so there are at least five cooks. And we start them simply; black and white cookies is the first station you enter into, so it's a little bit tedious but gets them thinking more so about detail. So there's pressure to make it perfect, but not a huge amount of pressure to be super-fast. So the fact that we have a large team makes it easier for us to train. We also have a large management team because we're fortunate to be in a restaurant that focuses on teaching, so we're able to have a large staff. I just dipped black and white cookies last week, and I'm the pastry chef, and so the cooks know that you will do anything to support them. Everybody has that passion. I'm super proud anytime someone moves on.
Being a part of this bigger system, what is truly an expression of you and what you have to offer the menu? I think the flavor combinations and surprising ingredients that you wouldn't expect to make the dish is one of my strong suits. I think there's a level of playfulness at the end of the meal; we're a very serious restaurant in what we do, but when you're at dinner we want you to have a good time. A lot of people have emotional attachments to desserts—my grandma has an orchard and used to make apple pie—so I put a lot of personality into dessert and a lot of comfort, but at the same time a lot of surprises, which makes it fun.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read full versions of past interviews and more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.