Avid watchers of reality food TV will say you don't need an award to show pastry’s importance. There are enough clips of savory chefs forced into or dreading difficult pastry challenges to fill the world's largest virtual croquembouche. But Food & Wine's announcement that it had named its Best New Pastry Chefs was, if nothing else, a crystallizing moment, an acknowledgment by a major publication of something savory professionals and the growing class of dessert rock stars have long known: Pastry chefs have arrived.
The winners and their recipes will be featured in May's issue of Food & Wine. Who won? Shawn Gawle of Corton (New York City), Bryce Caron of Blackbird (Chicago), Laura Sawicki of La Condesa (Austin), Stella Parks of Table 310 (Lexington, Ky.), and Devin McDavid of Quince/Cotogna (San Francisco). And there are no better insiders to explain what the awards mean than the people most closely associated with them: Food & Wine's editor-in-chief Dana Cowin, deputy food editor Kate Heddings, and Chris Ford of Wit & Wisdom (Baltimore), winner of the first People’s Best New Pastry Chef award.
So what does it mean for pastry chefs to be recognized, officially?
"Dessert is not an afterthought," said Cowin. "It’s not a ball of ice cream. When you look at a menu and there's chocolate pudding, vanilla ice cream, panna cotta, and a cookie plate, you might say, 'I don't need to have that,' and pass. But what's so exciting is to see things on a menu and to feel compelled to say, 'I actually have to have dessert because it’s so seamless with the meal, and such a part of the vision that the chef is expressing.' So I feel that is something to encourage."
Nominations were submitted from trusted sources across America, and only chefs who have run a restaurant pastry kitchen for five years or less were eligible. A team of editors tasted 300 to 400 desserts to determine the finalists. "When we go 'pasting,' when we taste pastries, we'll taste six to seven things in one sitting." And that's just at one restaurant. Editors can end up doing that in three to four restaurants in each city. "We actually had an editor have to do a cleanse," Cowin confided.
Nominees were, of course, encouraged by the attention and the increased authority associated with the award. It supports the idea that restaurants should devote resources to in-house pastry, but for the winners, awards can help shape careers. "Maybe some will open their own shops or be chefs at larger restaurants," Cowin suggested. "And maybe it will help some to develop restaurants where they take the lead, and develop the concept and then bring in a chef to match with their food."
Certainly, but with some 400 nomination-deserved desserts, did any particularly stand out? Isn't there sugar fatigue? If not, which left the greatest impressions? And what trends did editors notice? Which ingredients, plating techniques, and concepts rose and crested?