Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Michael Laiskonis

Michael Laiskonis Main Course Interview headshot pastry chefFall 2015

Click here to read this interview in the Fall 2015 Main Course.

Chef Michael Laiskonis began his career as a savory chef at bakeries and restaurants in Detroit, and was named pastry chef of Tribute in 1999, helping the restaurant earn a James Beard Award by 2003. In 2004, he began what would be an eight-year tenure as the executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin in New York City, where he helped the legendary restaurant earn four stars from the “New York Times,” as well as three Michelin stars.

He was twice named one of America's Top Ten Pastry Chefs by Pastry Art & Design, was Bon Appétit's Pastry Chef of the Year, and won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007. He also received the coveted honor of being IACP's 2014 Culinary Professional of the Year. He has written for Gourmet, Saveur, The Atlantic, and many other publications. In 2012, he became ICE’s first-ever Creative Director.

Below, Chef Laiskonis discusses ICE's bean-to-bar chocolate lab—the first of its kind in a U.S. cooking school—in the school’s new facilities at 225 Liberty Street at Brookfield Place. The chocolate lab includes all of the equipment necessary to process cocoa beans from their dried state into a final chocolate product. Some of the state-of-the-art equipment in the 550-square foot facility includes a roaster, winnower, hammer mill, cocoa butter press, and ball mill refiner, as well as a tempering unit and enrobing line. The chocolate lab will be used by career students, recreational cooks, and professionals alike, to educate the cooking community in the art and science of chocolate production.

When did you first start to conceive of an in-house bean-to-bar chocolate lab
at ICE?

The original idea was simply just to have a closet for a tempering machine, and that was the initial seed. But as the idea was kicked around a little bit more, I really have to credit the senior administration for thinking, well, what if we add this artisanal food production aspect to what we’re doing at the school? It’s very forward-thinking, and the vision to have bean-to-bar capability started to flesh itself out. So it was about a year ago that I actually test-drove all of these machines down in Florida, where they’re made. Ever since, I’ve had my head in every possible chocolate-making resource I can find—visiting factories, bugging people, begging people for small samples of beans to play with and understand them better. Which led us up to last week [early August 2015], when we finally got all this stuff turned on.

The possibilities of this lab are endless. We can obviously cycle our career pastry students through this room and have a lecture on how chocolate is made. They have context. Just having this resource in the building, where people can walk by and taste and see the process, will enhance the career pastry program. I’ve been doing guest lectures for the culinary management classes; this is kind of set up as a model for an artisanal food production business plan. So I can build a lesson around the food cost, the waste aspect, the regulatory aspect, the food-safety issues. All of these things can be applied—and you can make chocolate and eat chocolate at the same time.

For recreational students, I think people are really fascinated to see how these things are made. What’s great about all this equipment is that it’s not so automated that you flip a switch and walk away. You have to feed the winnower every 90 seconds or so, or it runs out of beans. So it’s actually nice from an educational perspective that these machines do require some hands-on interaction.

Perhaps the greatest potential value is actually as continuing education for pastry chefs already in the field, to really better understand the cause and effect of the chocolate-making process. For a lot of pastry chefs, chocolate is just something they use every day. They might have loyalty to a particular brand, which could be just due to marketing; it could be what their mentor used; it could be cost. So just getting pastry chefs to better understand the cause and effect could help them realize whether they are or aren't using the right chocolate for the right application.

And then there’s all the fun stuff. I want to use this as a venue for guest lectures. Because we’re commercially neutral, I can work with anybody. I would work with a smaller artisanal producer, and I can work with the large multinational that sources cocoa all over the world. I think there are insights at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between; anything chocolate- and confectionery-related.

Other pastry chefs, too: Come by and we’ll make a guest-chef-edition chocolate over the course of a couple days. So [James Beard Award-winning pastry chef] Johnny Iuzzini wants to come in and make chocolate with me, we’ll make a Johnny Iuzzini chocolate. He can take a couple pounds, and then the rest, we’ll use—just to foster that sense of community.

Then there's the research and development aspect. For a long time into the future, every time I use one of these machines, I’m going to learn something new. Every time I procure a new batch of beans from a new origin, I’m going to learn something new. Is it something that no one else has ever discovered before? Probably not, but a lot of this stuff is a closely held trade secret. We can take the information that we do glean and simply make better chocolate; and also teach that in a way that the layperson and the pastry chef who’s never going to make their own chocolate can understand and utilize.

With the cocoa butter press, I could press anything. I could make pistachio oil. There’s oil in coffee beans. What’s coffee oil like? I don’t know, but I’ll find out eventually. It’s on the list. I could probably make a pretty amazing version of Nutella in this refiner, but maybe make it with black sesame instead of hazelnut. The sky is really the limit.

Do you see chocolate-making as a subject that could warrant its own diploma program at ICE?
I think it could be a two- or three-week extended course. Because it’s an expensive pursuit, I think the audience is fairly small—but that is certainly an inevitability. This would probably be geared more toward those people who are considering doing it and investing in it.

For the recreational or nonprofessional consumer, how do you think taking a class here, taking a tour, or seeing a demonstration would help?
Already, even just that little grinder going fills the room up with an amazing chocolate smell. So people are just amazed, because they’ve never been exposed to it before. I teach a class called Fundamentals of Chocolate, and it starts off with history and process and a tasting of 20 different chocolates, which is probably way too many.

No such thing.
I think just the rarity of the experience in and of itself, and being able to say, “Oh, yes, I tasted something, and I saw it through every step of the process,” is interesting.

Are there misconceptions around chocolate—how it’s made or how it’s consumed?
It’s not about so much about good and bad, but it’s just different. Yes, sure, there is great chocolate, and there’s chocolate that’s not that great—but I’m really just starting to look at what makes chocolate different from the perspective of all the possible variables that can make it different, from the bean itself to the process.

The cocoa percentage is something that people see as being qualitative, and it’s really not. It doesn’t really tell us as much as we think it does. For example: If I add a little bit of extra cocoa butter to a batch, now we’ll say I have a 72 percent chocolate. If I started with 70 percent liquor and 30 percent sugar, then add a little bit of extra cocoa butter, that cocoa butter counts in that percentage. But I could also have started with 65 percent and added 7 percent to get that 72—and those are going to be two very different chocolates, because of the proportion of the solids that give you flavor and the fat that gives you more texture. What it really tells you is how much sugar is in it.

But there are so many variables in processing. I’ve tasted a 65 percent dark chocolate next to a 70 percent and the 70 percent tasted sweeter. So it’s quantitative to a degree; it’s certainly not qualitative. Just because it’s a higher number does not mean it’s better. So I think a lot of people still don’t understand that; but I think it’s progress that it’s on so many labels.

What chocolates do you recommend?
People often ask, “What’s your favorite brand?” I like a lot of chocolates, so it would be kind of like, I imagine, picking a favorite child. They’re just different, and sometimes you want to use things for certain applications. But I encourage people to try to taste from that analytical perspective. Try to identify flavors that we don’t necessarily associate with chocolate, but are in there.

There’s 400-plus different individual flavor compounds that make up what we consider chocolate flavor, and all of those are influenced by every step of this process. I just encourage people to taste, even if it’s an impulse buy from the supermarket checkout. Those are decent chocolates, some of them. You don’t necessarily have to pay $15 a bar. I compare it to wine tasting or any sort of tasting where you’re just really focusing, and you end up getting a greater appreciation out of it.

How did you come to be ICE's Creative Director, and what does a Creative Director do?
I was a pastry chef at Le Bernardin for eight years. I moved to New York for that job from Michigan, and there was really no good reason for me to leave. I was pretty happy and successful, and it was great being part of, by the time I left, a 25-year legacy of a restaurant. Most 25-year-old restaurants are dinosaurs. They don’t evolve, like Le Bernardin does.

So it was a great place to be a part of, but—and maybe in hindsight I could have changed this—I found I was kind of doing the same thing every day. All of the ideas, all the notebooks I’d been filling for 10 to 15 years, were full of ideas that, at the rate I was going, I wasn’t going to make much of a dent in. In hindsight, what I think I really wanted was to create a situation where no two days were exactly alike, where I would have a little bit more time outside of the two hours between lunch service and dinner service, which I worked five to six days a week.

Not everybody has the honor of having their last day announced by the New York Times, in a good way. I knew that was coming out, and the day before is when I contacted [ICE President] Rick Smilow. I think more than any other school I’ve worked with in the city and elsewhere, I’d always been doing classes here at ICE, teaching CAPS-level stuff and some professional development classes throughout the year.

I’ve been revising the pastry curriculum little by little over the last few years. I also do two guest lectures for every pastry class that goes through the program. I’ve also started to do guest lectures with the management program. Everything I do now comes back to that educational core, which is important to me.

You mean, passing knowledge down to others?
I never worked for some big mentor. I didn’t go to school myself. I’ve never liked the self-taught moniker, but okay, maybe my studies were self-directed. But if it weren’t for the generosity of other chefs putting stuff in books or letting me into their kitchen for a day or two...you have to pay that stuff forward.

Perhaps more than most savory chefs, it seems like you are intensely science- and physics-oriented.
The ironic thing is, in high school, I took minimal math and science, which I’m kind of kicking myself for now. But I think pastry chefs are hardwired to think that way, just because there’s more precision. We scale things out.

In a lot of what we do, we have to predict the future. So if you’re making a soup from start to finish, you can taste it and tweak it and adjust it, and transform it from A to B. When making a cake, I have to put things together in such a way where, sure, it’s edible, but it’s not very edible; and I have to put it in the oven, and I have to know what’s going to happen 30 minutes later when I pull it out. I can’t pull it out halfway and say, “I think I’m going to add another pinch of baking powder to it.” So there already has to be that sort of measured, precise, predictive quality. The catchphrase for that is, “The pastry chef is the mad scientist.” I try not to refer to myself as a scientist, but I try to approach what I do with the curiosity of a scientist.

When you understand the classics, you can make creative leaps. Something as simple as roasted white chocolate, or caramelized white chocolate, was basically somebody understanding: If you overheat white chocolate, and it starts to turn brown, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Intuitively it’s scorched, it’s burnt; you throw it away. But if you do it in a very controlled way, you’re doing the same thing as if you’re making a caramel, or if you’re making dulce de leche. So if you can control that, you can make white chocolate that’s actually good. But you wouldn’t make that leap unless you understood what’s going on.

Was it that understanding, the scientific approach, that attracted you to pastry?
I bounced around, back and forth, between sweet and savory, for several years. My patent answer used to be, “Well, there’s more manipulation in pastry; there’s more creativity; there’s more science.” But also, in hindsight, I think subconsciously I appreciated the autonomy that the pastry chef has. I always had a boss, but I’ve also been sort of the ruler of this domain over here in the corner. I think a lot of pastry chefs are self-starters, self-motivated. So I think that slight bit of autonomy and being a specialist within the kitchen also spoke to me, even though I might not have realized it at the time.

Are there particular ingredients or processes or cuisines that are exciting you right now?
Certainly chocolate is, in a way that it hadn’t before. This is a rabbit hole I never thought I would go down. But ice cream is something I’ve been really passionate about the last few years. I’ve been doing multiple-day classes concerning ice cream, not only here but in other parts of the country.

One project that I’m working on is consulting on a corporate level for the Chef Jose Garces, who’s based in Philadelphia. I devote three or four days a month to that project—but in that three or four days, I basically retool one of their restaurant’s pastry menus. I’ve brushed up alongside some Latin-inspired desserts in my day, but part of the reason why I took this is for that challenge of learning something new. The last one we did for Chef Garces was his Argentinian steakhouse concept. There’s one in Chicago and one in D.C. I learned a lot about Argentinian desserts, and even uncovered something that the corporate chef who went to Argentina to do the research for these restaurants had never even heard of. So it’s that sense of discovery, first and foremost—and then it’s creating something that still hits the notes of the original, but then is also new and accessible to more people. So, yes; Latin flavors. Another thing about Argentina is that when you think South America, you immediately go tropical. But when you’re that far south, you don’t have any of that stuff. The fruits they use are stone fruits and citrus. They don’t have all the bananas, guava, etcetera. So it’s kind of interesting.

I’m sure you’re always learning, like the people who are reading this. What are some areas that you still want to know more about or haven’t even delved into?
It’s interesting, because bread baking is what kind of got me into this in the first place. I am kind of an accidental chef in that I was doing something completely different, pursuing a fine arts degree. I took some time off of school to work in a bakery, and here we are. It was the process of bread that spoke to me, but over the years, I was always in restaurants and never really had to do it. I would love to come back to bread with a, for lack of a better word, scientific perspective, to better understand bread for myself.

Again, it’s one of those things like chocolate. You could apply a lot of science to it, but then you can also apply a lot of philosophical, metaphysical, cycle-of-life, birth-and-death things. There was a great TED Talk by Peter Reinhart, where he basically uses that circle-of-life analogy—the living grain that you kill; then you bring it back to life with yeast; then you kill it again; then it gives us life. It’s just bread, but I kind of like thinking about it in that big picture.

So bread is certainly something I want to come back to. I was just at a place in San Francisco that’s known for pasta, and now I want one of those Arcobaleno pasta extruders. I’ve made pasta before, but not serious pasta. So I'm actually branching a little out of pastry. Cooking is cooking, to me. Some of it has more or less salt or sugar, but it’s all cooking.

For people who are reading this and thinking about entering cooking school or the hospitality industry in general, what should they be thinking about?
Take advantage of all the resources that a place like this offers—all the volunteer opportunities. I think it’s more difficult now, because the food culture is so huge that we’re inundated. There’s a lot of static. When I was coming up, it was books and magazines; maybe the odd rerun of The Galloping Gourmet or Julia Child. But back then, I devoured anything I could get my hands on. At the time, I didn’t think it was sinking in, but years later I remember references to things that I read 20 years ago.

So really immerse yourself in it, and take advantage of all the resources. Constantly remind yourself that there is an opportunity to learn something new every day, taste something new every day, read something new every day. Think of a new idea.