Le Méridien and Johnny Iuzzini Team Up for the LM Éclair Program
For Le Méridien Hotels and Resorts, the éclair has become the recipe for immersing guests in a subject all travelers can relate to: food. Since its launch in April 2014, the chain’s LM Éclair Dairies Program has been giving the oblong-shaped French treat a global re-flavoring with ingredients from wherever the properties can be found.
This epicurean journey is directly in the hands of pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. His mission is to travel to Le Méridien locations and put his kitchen skills and sense of discovery to task. A 2006 James Beard Award-winner and a judge on Top Chef and The Great American Baking Show, Iuzzini goes to local markets and merchants to discover commonplace foods to select for a signature éclair.
“What’s special for me as a chef is that I’m always curious; I always want to learn,” Iuzzini says during a recent presentation on the LM Éclair Program. “A chef never stops learning, and the way we learn is through eating.”
Formulating a Local Éclair
Through the program, Iuzzini is developing six custom éclairs (this year’s plans for the program are currently under development). So far, his assignments have taken him to properties in the United States, Europe, and India.
In Barcelona, he created a carob, praline, and Augustus vinegar éclair. For Louisiana, his éclair featured coffee and chicory; in San Francisco, he came up a caramelized corn and blueberry version. In Nice, France, he was inspired to use lemon verbena and herbes de Provence; and in New Delhi, he perfected a Darjeeling-jaggery éclair.
Iuzzini starts off each éclair expedition by talking to those who know the destination best — local employees. “Every time I arrive in a new destination, the first thing I do is get a list of all the local spots to eat from the concierge and, actually, anyone that works there,” he explained. These venues often involve markets, where anything from fresh fruit to dry goods or spices can spike his attention.
His food inquisition also extends to finding out how these foods are used in cooking and how they pair for a sweet or savory application. “My goal is to be true to the flavors of the region but also surprise the guest, and even the locals, with how I may layer the flavors and to think about contrasting textures to heighten the experience,” he says.
Once his culinary calculations are set, Iuzzini starts to dig into his “flavor memory bank” for foods that would work together nicely, but also reimagines how these flavors can be presented to hotel guests.
However, guests shouldn’t expect something very sweet. “Sugar isn’t a flavor,” Iuzzini adds. Instead, his approach is for the éclairs to be multi-textural, “a harmonious mix of flavors with hints of saltiness and spice.”
“Once I find that specific components work perfectly with certain flavors, then I lock them in and move onto the next component. The éclair is only as good as the sum of its parts — being the shell, filling, glaze, and garnishes.”
The pastry arts have been his passion since his youth. As a teenager, his first culinary job was at The River Café in Brooklyn, but not with dough at first. Originally working in savory, Iuzzini gradually began assisting the café’s pastry chef, Eric Gouteyron, at the end of his kitchen shift. Iuzzini graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and then worked in the pastry department of the original Daniel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Then Iuzzini took his skills to Europe, working in France’s patisseries, including Ladurée in Paris. He returned to the States in fall of 1998, working first for Café Boulud and then at Daniel, where he became the executive pastry chef in 2001. After working for Jean Georges Vongerichten at his namesake restaurant Jean-Georges and its café, Nougatine, Iuzzini formed his own consulting company, Sugar Fueled.
Market Shopping in Mexico City
Recently, Iuzzini headed to Mexico City to develop a locally inspired éclair for the chain’s Le Méridien Mexico City property. To start his research, he went on a group outing to Central de Abasto, Mexico City’s major wholesale market. Joining him were Jared Reardon and Sonia Arias, a husband-and-wife culinary duo who run the local Jaso Restaurant. The couple led Iuzzini around to different vendor stalls, providing details on foods displayed and negotiating with various merchants.
While listening to his friends’ recommendations, Iuzzini wasted no time in examining what he saw and wanted to taste. He tried fruits unique in look and flavor: the citrusy granada china, the papaya-looking mamey sapote, and the dark but sweet zapote negro. He took a whiff of vanilla beans and browsed through containers of moles from different regions. With every stop, Iuzzini pulled out his notebook, jotting down notes and first impressions. And, of course, he made some purchases, like piloncillo, a brown cane sugar molded and sold in a cone shape.
After a four-hour market visit and then a day of kitchen R&D, Iuzzini unveiled the Mexico City éclair at a media presentation. His end result: a mole éclair with a mamey-vanilla cream, tamarind-lime glaze, crispy peanuts, caramelized bananas, and crystallized huitlacoche.
At the event, Iuzzini explained that part of his development process involved coating the huitlacoche (a mushroom found on corn) in sugar in order to create a sweet, crunchy topping. Then came the peanuts and an extra touch of mole (in addition to having a mole-based pate a choux) to put “a spicy peanut brittle on top” of the éclair.
Iuzzini summed up his Mexico City éclair creation by saying: “It’s all flavors you understand, but it’s the combination that makes it different.”
The Mexico City éclair will be available to guests at Le Méridien Mexico City in mid-January 2017. Other current éclairs are served at the respective properties.