Behind The Scenes At wd~50 With Pastry Chef Malcolm Livingston

In the wd~50 kitchen with Malcolm Livingston II before he leaves for Noma

If you read often enough about the restaurant world, professional kitchens can seem like terrifying places, all leaping flames and unchecked machismo. But the kitchen at wd~50, Wylie Dufresne's hugely influential Lower East Side restaurant, two weeks before it closes as the result of a rent hike, is calm, collected and humming with quiet efficiency. And tucked downstairs in a secluded work area, pastry chef Malcolm Livingston II is as a cool as a, well, you know.

"Cucumber is one of my favorite flavors," Livingston says. "I treat it like a melon."

He once made a cucumber sherbet with jasmine cream, Chartreuse foam, compressed honeydew and smoked cashew caramel. That's just how his brain works: "I usually start with a flavor or a color, and then I think about technique," Livingston says. He could be taken with anything from the aforementioned cucumbers, potatoes (he'll cook them with raspberry juice and serve them alongside tamarind-cola ice cream) or tie-dye (the pattern), which he tried unsuccessfully to fashion into a tuile.

Livingston dusting powdered malt crisps on his take on Ovaltine Cake.

Livingston has ideas for new desserts constantly and works closely with Dufresne to make sure they're thematically consistent with the savory menu. And despite the exacting technique involved in making his desserts, he dislikes plates with too many bells and whistles: "It has to be focused," he says. Even torched meringue ice cream s'mores with an edible beer stick are "controlled anarchy," Livingston says.

That balance of curiosity and restraint should serve Livingston well when he decamps next month to René Redzepi's Noma, widely considered the best restaurant in the world. Livingston has barely a week between wd~50's closing and his departure, first to Copenhagen and then in short order to Japan, where Noma is temporarily relocating this winter. (It, along with Livingston, will return to Denmark in February.)

Malcolm Livingston II | Ovaltine Cake

One of the great things about wd~50 has always been its irreverent approach toward fusing high technique with the occasional lowbrow flavor: American cheese ice cream, or perhaps a ravioli filled with mashed potatoes (and topped with caviar). It's never gimmicky, though, and Livingston is just as likely to work with ras el hanout as he is with marshmallow fluff.

He recently created a dish called Ovaltine Cake, which melds the powdery processed chocolate with cold-smoked Marcona almonds, cardamom-flavored ice cream and sheep's-milk yogurt, among other things. That combination in and of itself is indicative of Livingston's knack for balancing flavors.

But it was, in this case, a technique—the failed tie-dye experiment—that inspired the most eye-catching component of the dessert: A black-and-beige striped tubular tuile made from alternating layers of cocoa and malt gels. The process involves spreading a layer of cocoa gel on a clear acetate sheet with an oversize plastic comb, drying it, then spreading another layer of malt gel on top of the same sheet to fill in the blank spaces, creating stripes. Once the tube is dried, it will be filled with cardamom ice cream and placed atop torn Ovaltine cake and sheep's-milk yogurt, then dotted with fresh grapefruit and almonds and dusted with powdered malt crisps.

Livingston works at lightning-speed while he plates, though he speaks softly and carefully. "I was really nervous about replacing [former wd~50 pastry chef] Alex [Stupak]," he says, and makes reference to the distinguished list of pastry alumni that came before him at wd~50 (Stupak, Sam Mason, Christina Tosi). "It feels a little like, if I can make it here..."

He doesn't think his creative process will change radically at Noma, but his materials will: "I'm really looking forward to working with new ingredients," Livingston says. "Sea buckthorn. Kyoho grapes. The flavors will be totally new, and that's the most exciting part."

wd~50 closes on November 30. For information about the restaurant's final dinners, click here.