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Michael Laiskonis is consistently rated as one of the top pastry chefs in the country for his work at the three-Michelin-star-rated Le Bernardin. He also happens to be an incredibly nice guy, and generously took some time out of his insane schedule to answer some of my questions. His other musings on food and life can be found on his blog.
You eschewed formal training in favor of learning on the job; what was the thought process there? I'm not sure there was much of a thought process, it's just the way it all ended up playing out! When I first started cooking, or rather, once I realized that it was a career that I wanted to pursue, I wasn't in a position to drop everything in order to enroll in a program like that at the CIA.
Thus, my culinary path became a sort of "earn while you learn" apprenticeship, under a handful of chefs that I still consider early mentors. Indeed, for a long time, I felt as if I was missing out on something, not having pursued formal training, but I eventually got over it! In a way, I make up for it by doing as much as I can to work with and support culinary schools and their students among other projects, I'm currently on the advisory board for the Institute of Culinary Education here in New York City.
Any other professionals/mentors you go to for advice? The great thing about the professional pastry community—not only here in the city where there's a considerable concentration of talent, but across the country—is that it's truly a "small" world, in the sense that we share a lot of mutual respect and ideas.
Are we competitive? Sure, but it's of a friendly nature: if I'm having a problem with a technique, or if I need some emergency ingredient, I know I can call on any number of colleagues for support. I probably field at least two or three calls a week. Other established chefs or younger cooks looking for advice on say, ice cream, or macarons, or simply peers that are looking to hire staff. I feel there's an inherent generosity to being a chef, and that certainly extends to our relationships with each other!
On a more personal level, after six years here at Le Bernardin, I still continue to learn and find inspiration. I've been lucky to have forged a great relationship with my boss, Eric Ripert. He's been a great role model and made me realize that being a great chef is so much more than just being a good cook.
What does chocolate evoke for you? It's such a complex ingredient. I would have to say that chocolate, first and foremost, requires respect. It's one of those things that you don't cook with, but rather you cook for it!
Where do you think chocolate gets its mystique? Why does it stay popular through other food trends? Chocolate's main appeal, in my opinion, is the fact that it's a bit of a shape-shifter. It can be hot, cold, solid, or liquid, and anywhere in between. That cocoa butter naturally melts—our own body temperature is what makes it so pleasurable, and dare I say sensual, to eat.
In the grand scheme of things, chocolate—as least in the form we know it—is a fairly recent invention, but it is indeed here to stay. Because it takes so many forms and pairs well with so many other flavors, the possibilities are almost limitless. I also feel that as consumers and chefs continue to educate themselves on things like cocoa percentage, origin, and bean-to-bar processing, we better appreciate all the subtle nuances there are to explore.
You recently visited a cacao plantation in the Dominican Republic—did that change the way you think about chocolate at all? Visiting the plantations, especially with a group of other pastry chefs, was very enlightening. While I certainly had already learned a lot about the growing, harvesting, fermenting, drying, and processing of cacao into chocolate from any number of books, there is simply no substitute to actually seeing it up close and in person. Not only did my respect for the product itself grow, but so too did my respect and admiration for the people behind the process. When you're able to connect those dots between raw material, finished product, and the faces that make it happen, that product immediately feels even more special.
Tune in on Wednesday for the second part of this interview!
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