POSTED Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Post Pastry: Michael Laiskonis on Life After Le Bernardin
Over the weekend while attending the stellar Charleston Wine & Food Festival, we sat down with Michael Laiskonis, one of the country's greatest pastry minds.
He recently departed the four-star New York institution Le Bernardin after an eight-year tenure. And in a case of kismet, his new gig dovetails with our month of culinary learning: Laiskonis just took a position as the Creative Director for Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Read on for his thoughts on curriculum, his future book projects and the dish that made him fall in love with Le Bernardin.
Tasting Table: So Michael, it's been three months since you left Le Bernardin. What have you been working on?
Michael Laiskonis: This is really the first time I've had a break since I was in junior high. But it's not really even a break; I've been working on a book and doing some events, some consulting.
TT: Tell us about the book.
ML: It's still in the very early stages. I know that it won't be a traditional cookbook. It'll follow the evolution of a pastry chef. There might not even be recipes. It'll be more about the ideas, the concepts.
TT: You also just took a job with I.C.E.
ML: Yes, as the creative director. I'll be spending plenty of time in the classroom, and also working on curriculum development. It's a role I'm creating with them from scratch, so we'll see how it develops. I never went to culinary school, so this will be an education for me as well.
TT: As far as the curriculum, what are you hoping to incorporate?
ML: There's a lot of opinion about science in cooking--molecular gastronomy or whatever you want to call it. For me, science is a way to better appreciate and understand the things we've always had. It's particularly useful in pastry, which is about predicting the future. You can't tinker with it along the way, so ratios and math and an understanding of how ingredients act and react is crucial.
Part of that involves stripping away our gut associations, looking at food for its parts. For instance, milk is an emulsion and a suspension of solids. You think of foams as something that Ferran Adrià would put on a plate but bread is a foam and popcorn is a foam. Knowing basic ingredients by their scientific states can open some really interesting doors in cooking. That type of understanding is something I'd like to develop at I.C.E.
TT: Your background is mostly fine dining. What do you think about the trend toward more casual restaurants?
ML: I like the idea of democratization of quality food. I think it's great that you don't need all of the pomp and circumstance of fine dining to eat well. That said, fine dining is what inspired me to do what I do. Very early in my career, I was reading an article in Arte Culinaire--it was on Le Bernardin, actually--and the piece opened my eyes to that level of refinement and precision in food. That became my aspiration. So I hope that the fine dining experience doesn't die out altogether. I don't think it will: People still want a place to celebrate, to have something out of the ordinary.
TT: So was working at Le Bernardin always the goal for you?
ML: Yes, I think I always had it in my mind to end up there. My first real restaurant job was at this place in Detroit, very locally minded. We came to New York to do a James Beard dinner and stopped at Le Bernardin for lunch--it was when François Payard was there doing pastry. I can still remember every single dish from that meal. There was one in particular, a skate wing that was sautéed in goose fat, that completely blew me away. And the desserts: I must have ripped off every component of Payard's menu when we got back to Detroit.
TT: Do you miss working at Le Bernardin?
ML: Yes and no. I don't regret my decision to move on. But the other night I was meeting the sous-chef for drinks after his shift. I was waiting for him outside the restaurant, but the maître ‘d spotted me and pulled me in to wait at the bar. It was the first time I had seen the restaurant from a guest's perspective since before I started the job.
TT: Wait, you never ate at Le Bernardin as a guest during your eight years on staff?
ML: No way.
ML: I wouldn't have been able to enjoy it; there are too many details that you notice when you're involved. But that night I was at the bar, I was watching the choreography of the room, the flow of the meals, the elegance of it, and I started to miss it. I'll have to go in for a full meal soon.