In his most recent New York Magazine piece “Why This is the Dark Age of Dessert,” the critic who most recently gained attention for stepping out of the shadows of anonymity finds himself in the dark age of dessert.
Gone, says Adam Platt, are the old lions that used to dominate pastry. Dessert carts and 15-minute soufflés have been replaced “by a bland procession of overpriced chocolate sundaes and stale, prefabricated layer cakes. The îles flottantes and well-made éclairs of yesteryear have been edged out by a grim reality for lovers of the old-fashioned, sit-down restaurant dessert, a “Dark Age” of “pre-made puddings (or panna cottas, watery rice puddings, and the ever-durable chocolate pot du crème) and scoop after scoop of of [sic] antically flavored ice cream (olive oil, sea salt, etc.).”
It was enough to send chefs and writers atwitter (New York Times critic Pete Wells closed ranks) and to prompt Buzzfeed food editor Emily Fleischaker to call to action the food press to respond to an essay, one she didn’t have the energy to answer:
who's going to do the list of nyc desserts that prove this isn't the dark age because i actually refuse to do it
— Emily Fleischaker (@emofly) March 13, 2014
Okay, Emily. We'll dig in a little. Here’s the argument and a rebuttal in a nutsh… er tucked into a choux à la crème. First off, where the heck has Platt been eating lately? And why isn’t he giving these restaurants fewer stars?
The Old Lions are Gone and the Craft Isn’t Valued: “Johnny Iuzzini abandoned his post in 2011.... Jacques Torres…. is busy expanding his chocolate empire. Michael Laiskonis left Le Bernardin….. And Alex Stupak, who made his name with cutting-edge dessert work at wd~50 (and, before that, Alinea in Chicago), now focuses his considerable talents in the more bankable realm of high-end tacos.”
These famous and successful pastry chefs have all gone on to innovate, teach, and empire-build. They’re presumably leading the charge for continued innovation in the field and demonstrating a path of success for budding pastry folks. You could argue this is the time for pastry. People looking for the next big thing in culinary have been suggesting for years it will be… you guessed it: pastry. And consider the newest accolades created by Food & Wine in 2012: Best New Pastry Chefs.
Chefs are always talking about how difficult and challenging pastry is, that it requires precision and training. That it’s something they fail at. How many competition shows echo the “pastry is my Achilles heel” refrain? Isn’t it requisite to every Top Chef drinking game? It’s hard enough to train and get ahead on the line, and expensive enough to go to culinary school for classic technique and cuisines. That’s not to say chefs don’t value pastry, just that it’s an expensive endeavor, both in time and money.
On One of the Most Well-Known Pastry Chefs Leaving it All Behind: “You can’t blame Stupak for pulling the rip cord on his pastry career. In today’s post-recessionary dining economy, dessert chefs tend to be viewed by your average restaurateur starting out in Cobble Hill (or even the West Village or midtown) as a luxury.”
Stupak rose to fame as a pastry chef. How did he pull the rip cord? He had it made as a pastry chef if that’s the only thing he ever wanted to do. He could have gotten a job anywhere. You could argue Stupak’s setting out on his own to take a stab at doing innovative Mexican food at Empellon and Empellón Cocina in fact represents a new movement (well, two if you count chefs’ current obsession with Mexican food), one mirrored by another pastry powerhouse, Elizabeth Falker, who began her rise to fame as pastry chef under Traci Des Jardins at Drew Nieporent’s Rubicon before setting out on her own to teach pastry, take on top-tier chefs on Iron Chef America, and open her own restaurant. While many savory chefs are content to sneak by their insecurity, these pastry chefs are showing they’re double-threats – coming out of the cooler pastry kitchen (okay, when there is one) to swing their, um tongs on the line. And these are only recent examples of pastry chefs who are going on to be important culinary innovators out of pastry. Names like Michel Guérard, Michel Richard, and Albert Adrià may sound familiar, just for starters.
Restaurants Being Reviewed Don’t Have Full-Time Dessert Cooks: “More of the restaurants I review don’t even employ full-time dessert cooks, which is why their menus are flooded with pre-made pies, cakes, and puddings that can be put together ahead of time and whisked out to diners as quickly as possible.”
Are we sure this doesn’t say more about the types of restaurants Platt is picking to review, or about the state of the economy, not necessarily a movement away from pastry?"Where the heck has Platt been eating lately? And why isn’t he giving these restaurants fewer stars?"
There Is Good Dessert, But Only at Tasting Rooms: “As in the realm of savory cooking, the most interesting, innovative work tends to be done in small out-of-the-way tasting rooms, where set omakase-style menus conclude with one or two meager dessert ‘tastes’ per sitting.”
So there is innovative stuff, but it’s happening at the tasting menu spots, which you could argue represent today’s version of the old-fashioned, sit-down restaurants that used to serve the desserts he misses. Certainly the old-fashioned, sit-down restaurants weren’t on every block “not so long ago,” were they?
Tastes Change: “The great gourmet-dessert apocalypse has also coincided with the rise of a generation of no-frills cooks (and eaters), who prefer a midnight tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to a well-fashioned éclair any day.”
Who are these cooks and eaters? The same ones clamoring to conquer each new tasting menu? Those calling the Chef’s Table in Brooklyn or clicking refresh maniacally on the Momofuku Ko website? The same ones who obsess over chocolate and use their SLRs and light meters to take semi-professional photos of crack pie by candlelight? Google "food on Instagram" and you’ll pull up a host of lists and links, many of which feature prominently, or focus on… dessert.
One of This Generation’s Most Well-Regarded Chefs Avoided Dessert Completely: “David Chang famously avoided dessert at his restaurants altogether, until Christina Tosi came up with the genius idea of making ice cream out of sugary, leftover cereal milk. Danny Bowien doesn't employ full-time pastry chefs at his celebrated Mission restaurants, and neither did Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi until they turned their modest Italian sandwich deli into a high-priced tasting room, and opened their retro red-sauce palace, Carbone, where the most talked-about item on the dessert list is a decorative $15 slice of, you guessed it, carrot cake.”
Okay, Chang avoided it… until he found someone whose innovation matched his restaurants. Look where that went. So what if Bowien doesn’t have a pastry chef? He just went from focusing on Chinese to Mexican. He’s an innovator. He may go full-pastry next, or find his Christina Tosi. And the Carbone guys did go all out on dessert. Yes with carrot cake, which Platt will have to clarify if it falls into the old-school desserts he fully puts in the like column (he’s only “not averse” to it). So far we only know he misses îles flottante and well-fashioned éclairs.