When it comes to innovation in the restaurant world, few challenges have been as important as the public’s growing interest in nutrition and wellness. Of all the New York City kitchens to respond to this call for healthier cooking, few have gained as much attention as the Michelin-starred Rouge Tomate. As the executive pastry chef for this groundbreaking restaurant, James Distefano spent six years translating the principles of classic pastry into award-winning healthy desserts. Today, as a chef instructor in ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program, James is sharing that passion for innovation with the next generation of game-changing chefs.“As a thirty-something chef in the industry, you start to become aware of the impact of what you eat on your health,” says James. “What’s more—when you’re told to use less butter, white flour and processed sugar, you have to start looking elsewhere, and that’s where creativity starts.” From olive and avocado oils to alternative grains like sorghum and buckwheat, James was charged with adapting stereotypical “hippie food” into Michelin-starred desserts. Over six years at Rouge Tomate, James saw dietary restrictions like gluten-free or vegan transformed from inconveniences into his daily inspiration.
Today, as a chef instructor at ICE, James shares his enthusiasm for discovery and experimentation with a fresh generation of aspiring chefs. “What I love about a culinary school environment—versus training staff on the line in a restaurant— is that the opportunity to learn is so much greater. In a school setting, you can make mistakes, which is the best way to learn. In a restaurant, the goal is always to minimize mistakes, and thus, you eliminate those key teaching moments.”