oven range and stove with steaming pots and pans

Interview with Johnny Iuzzini

Johnny Iuzzini, the executive pastry chef of Jean Georges and Nougatine, earned his stellar reputation with desserts that are always creative, superbly executed, and, most importantly, delicious. He joined Jean Georges, which boasts four New York Times stars and three Michelin stars — the highest rating for each — in May 2002, coming from Restaurant Daniel, where he was the first American executive pastry chef.

His résumé also includes working with acclaimed pastry chef François Payard. Iuzzini won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2006, after also having been nominated in 2003. In 2007, Forbes named him one of the ten most influential chefs working in America today, while Pastry Art & Design twice chose him as one of the Top 10 Pastry Chefs in America and New York voted him Best New Pastry Chef in 2002. He can be found online at www.johnnyiuzzini.com, and will release his first cookbook, Dessert 4 Play, in fall 2008. The Main Course met him at Jean Georges in November.

How many desserts do you have on the menu at any given time?

In Jean Georges itself, there's four tastings. Each tasting comprises four different desserts. So a table of four potentially has 16 different desserts on the table at one time. And then Nougatine has a completely separate menu of another seven desserts. Plus room service, which is another menu. And small banquets.

How often do they change?

We change the menu as often as we can. It's very seasonally based. I'll do a cherry tasting, and I can only do it as long as I have cherries at the market, or strawberries, or whatever else. Sometimes it takes me a little bit longer to change, because I don't repeat from year to year.

I refuse to bring back that I've already done. Maybe a component here and there, but I will never bring back a dessert that I've done already. I just feel like it stifles you, you don't grow, you don't evolve. And at my age, I shouldn't have signatures. I don't believe in that.

So when do you think it becomes appropriate to have signatures?

I don't know. When you've established yourself, the day that you're maybe not in the kitchen every day anymore, and you've achieved enough. I feel like I haven't achieved enough in my life yet.

What process do you follow, to create all these new desserts?

First I'll start and pick the theme. So if it's apple, I'll make a list of all the things I can think of. I'll just write down ideas. I just kept going and going. Then I'll start thinking about it: 'Okay, I like this,' or, 'I like this component,' and I'll just start building it from there in my head. I'll come up with eight or ten desserts. Then I'll make them. Then I'll say, 'Okay. Well, I don't like this. I like this.' And I'll break it all down into four.

From the best of all those, I'll create the four desserts for the tasting. That's how I think. I don't go home and I wake up in the middle of the night and write down ideas. I have to really focus. I definitely have a line in my life that I always promise myself when I leave, I leave. But when I'm here I'm focused on the food. I don't have any cookbooks here. I have my archives from when I worked at Daniel or Jean Georges or Payard, all the stuff that I've already worked with. I keep an archive of all the tastings I've done since I've been here.

Those tasting sheets are what your staff works with?

Yes. I'm very organized. Each page has a photo and the recipes. On the back is the complete technique. That's what we use in the kitchen, and this is what [my upcoming] book is based on. It's a book of 15 tastings. Each tasting is four desserts, so it's 60 desserts.

Do you get to eat out a lot?

No, because I'm always here. I can't say I really get inspired by anybody else's food, because I don't have time to see it or do it. So I feel like sometimes I'm in a bubble, and that's horrible. I hate that feeling. I wish I knew a better way to create.

This seems pretty efficient.

It takes me longer, maybe, than it takes other people. But at least I can trace where it came from. I think that's cool that I always keep these.

Do you use savory ingredients in your desserts?

Always, yes. And there is salt in everything we do. In fact, one of my favorite ingredients for sure is salt, for balance, as a flavor enhancer, to help open up the palate. You wouldn't necessarily know or taste the salt. But you would taste it if I gave it to you afterwards without it.

What keeps you challenged?

This place. The fact that there's only three three-Michelin star restaurants in the city. We're one of five four-star restaurants. Where am I to go? What's better than where I already am? I'm motivated because all eyes are on us. Everybody wants to knock us off from where we are. So the challenge is to be better every day. I want people to see that we're continually evolving, we're not resting on our laurels. I want them to know that we still work hard and we still care about where we are and what we do. I feel very fortunate to be able to work here, because Jean Georges gives me the creative freedom that I have. He actually gives me free range.

The only thing that doesn't change is the chocolate cake. Nothing else. A lot of people go somewhere and they can't touch a lot of things. I always love to get as much as I can out of Jean Georges. He's traveled the world. He has so much experience. It's so different from when I came from Daniel to here, because Daniel is much more classically French. Jean Georges has a much bigger palate, as far as ingredients go. I really learned so much just being here and seeing the way they approach making new dishes in the kitchen, and I think I've adapted a lot of that style in my desserts.

Do you collaborate with the savory chefs?

Not so much. I'll give them stuff. Or if I'm working, I'll ask, 'What spice should I use with this?' 'I'm missing this or that.' So definitely there's talk. But there's no roundtable where we all work out our menus together. They do their menus, I do mine. I don't want to use ingredients that they're using. If I know they're using three or four things, I'm going to try to stay away from them, because I don't want the diner to taste the same ingredients over and over again.

Do you use technology in your desserts?

A lot of people are just using technology because they want to be known to be using technology. They want people to think that they're modern or whatever, but without truly understanding the function of that given technology. What benefit does it really have? Is it making your dish better in the end? That's the bottom line. For us here, we use technology, but we don't want to talk about it. We don't publicize anything we do.

The only reason we use it is if it allows us to achieve an effect or a texture or makes the dish better, lighter, whatever it is, but bottom line, better than it could have been without it. If it doesn't make it better, there's no point in using it. That's Jean Georges' credo. That's our credo. There's no point. I have an arsenal of things back there. But you'll never see me in an article about cooking with technology. A, because our clientele won't understand that. But B, because there's no need to. What do they care? If the dish's better, it's better.

How did you first get interested in that?

I was at the demo where Albert [Adria] announced the mango spherification in Las Vegas. He put it in my mouth in Vegas. I called back to New York saying, 'You're not going to believe this.' Before anybody else knew, in Vegas at that big pastry conference, Albert said, 'I'm going to show you something. I'm not going to tell you what it is. I can't tell you about it. First we're going to announce it to our restaurant, then we announce it to our country, and then to the world.' That's exactly how he said it.

Right away I felt like a dishwasher. Completely challenged. I love that. I love when I feel like I'm an underdog. It inspires me to push harder. I love going somewhere and not knowing how it's made. For me, that's inspiring. It makes me wonder, 'How come I don't know about this?' The whole technology thing is like that. We're not a dinner-only restaurant like maybe wd~50 and those guys, so they have a little more time to research than we do. But I learn as much as I can. I don't expect anybody to do it for me. I print it out. I read it. I don't expect to buy a book and then just follow their recipes. I expect to do the research like everybody else has done.

Do you understand everything you read in scientific articles?

Not everything, no. I'm not a science major. I understand what I can. What I don't, I'll call Dave [Arnold] or I'll call Wylie [Dufresne] or I'll call the companies. I'll call [the] Dow Chemical [Company], 'What does this mean? Why does it do this? This is what I did. Why did this happen and not this?' Otherwise I'll never truly understand it.

How did you first find yourself in a kitchen?

I started in a kitchen when I was 15 years old, as a dishwasher. We didn't have money, so it wasn't like I got allowances or anything. But I've always loved girls, and loved going out, and whatever else. My motivation was having money in my pocket to be able to go out on dates. It's sad to say, but all my friends had cool toys, Nintendo, Game Boys and everything, and we didn't have the money for a lot of things. My motivation was partly because I was embarrassed or ashamed, and the other part was that I wanted what I wanted.

I didn't expect anybody to give it to me. I worked for it. So I got a job at a country club. I washed dishes every day after school. The chef liked me, so he let me peel carrots eventually, use the deli slicer, things like that. He left to go to another restaurant, and I rode my bike every day after school there. It was just me and him, so I started to learn how to cook a little bit. At the time, I was enrolled in a voc-tech program in a high school. You'd spend half the day in your regular classes and then you'd spend half the day at a trade school for high school students. I went into the culinary program. I ended up going to competition, and I took second place in New York City. I went to state finals, and I blew that because I was too busy running around and being stupid.

From there, how did you become a pastry chef?

I grew up in the Catskills. I graduated high school at 17, and I was working at this restaurant there. The florist at that restaurant was also the florist at River Café in Brooklyn. At the time, River Café was still a very big deal, in the early '90s. She brought me in to meet the chef, and right after I graduated high school, he hired me. At 17 years old, I was working at River Café. But I have a problem killing things.

My mother was a wildlife rehabilitator, so I grew up with all sorts of wild animals with broken legs, feeding them back to health and then re-releasing them to the wilderness. Every kind of animal you can think of, we had in our backyard. We had six acres and we had all these pens. I grew up with the love of animals. So I have a hard time—I love to eat, but I can't butcher a baby cow. I can't do it. So I was working at River Café and the pastry chef there at the time was Eric Gouteyron. He'd be making the famous chocolate bridges and all this stuff. The only thing I knew about chocolate were Hershey's Kisses and Hershey bars.

I was still so ignorant, from the mountains of New York. I worked for free every night for him after I finished my shift as garde-manger, until finally he said, 'Okay. You come work for me,' and I switched to pastry. I'd already been accepted at the Culinary Institute of America in the culinary program, so right before I started, I switched to pastry, and I went to the pastry program instead. This was pretty early on. It was a pilot program. Half the time they didn't even know where our classrooms were going to be. My graduating class at CIA [in 1994] was three. My 18th birthday was my first day at CIA. I graduated at 19. And that's when I started with Daniel Boulud.

At Daniel?

At the original Daniel. My CIA externship was with Lincoln Carson, who had worked for François [Payard] at Le Bernardin. That was my connection into Daniel, into François. I spent the next four years or so with François. Three at Daniel and then a year opening Payard as sous chef. But then I knew I wanted to go and travel. I hadn't traveled yet. I was only 22 or 23 years old. I was just tired. I was working in the clubs at the same time.

Why's that?

Because I didn't make any money when I was cooking. I was lucky enough to have that to fall back on. That allowed me to pursue my dream of being a pastry chef. I knew a lot of people. I was always out at night. Clubs just started paying me to show up to these parties, paying me to promote, paying me to bring more people in. They would fly me to Vegas. They'd fly me to Miami to host parties. I'd end up making $1,300 in two nights to party. But it got to a point where Daniel was in trouble, so I was helping there, and I was working at Payard, I was working eight hours in each restaurant every day, then going and working the clubs at night. I was fried. I burned out after a year and a half, and I knew I had to get away from everything. I was at a crossroads in my life.

I was the only American in pastry for a while. They were telling me, 'You're stupid. You're American. Blah-blah.' I'm getting my teeth kicked in every day at the restaurant. I'm making no money. I love what it is, but it's such a hard environment to be in, especially being young and American in an all-French environment. So I decided to leave. Daniel found out I was leaving, and he told me, 'Well, I heard you're going around the world. How're you going to pay for it?' I said, 'Credit cards.' He said, 'I'll make you a deal. I'll give you $10,000, no interest. The deal is, you go do your trip. When you want to come back, you help me open up Café Boulud, you help me open up Daniel [in its new location] as sous chef.' So I said, 'Okay,' and I took the $10,000.

Where did you go?

I went from New York to Hong Kong, Australia, Bangkok, Moscow, Prague, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Holland. About seven or eight months around the world, backpacking by myself. It helped with trying to find myself, trying to find out who I really am. Am I this club person? Am I this personality that I've created? Or am I a pastry chef? I just found myself kind of rotating myself back into kitchens, working for free anyplace I could go, eating at every little pastry shop I could find, and really figuring out that's who I am, that's what I love.

Then one thing led to another. I ended up in Nice where François is from. I worked for his father for a while in their pastry shop. I worked at another pastry shop called Pâtisserie Chéreau in Nice, which was amazing. Then I ended up in Paris working for Pierre Hermé. I spent about a month or two working at Ladurée. He let me work every station and really opened up his kitchen to me. It changed my life. I came back to Daniel, opened up Café Boulud as pastry sous chef under Rémy Fünfrock, and then opened up the new Daniel as pastry sous chef under Thomas Haas. When Thomas left, there was a window where they tried to bring someone else in. It didn't work out. Then Daniel gave me the pastry chef position. I was 26 years old, in January 2001.

Was that pretty unusual?

Yes, because I was American. I was his first American pastry chef. And also because I was so young.

You could have worked in other places where you being American would not have been that big of a deal, right?

I wanted to work for the best. I was lucky enough that I spent a lot years with Daniel, but I got to work for three different pastry chefs during that time. So it was like being at three different restaurants because you were exposed to three different styles.

You were pretty young when you came to Jean Georges as executive pastry chef too, right?

Yes. I came here at 27, about to turn 28, I think. Now I'm old, ready to retire.

You've always worked in really challenging environments. What is the advantage of making such a choice?

I always felt I'd rather make less money. This is the thing that I don't think students understand. Students come out, they're looking for a title, they're looking for money. Experience is almost going to come last. It's so wrong. I made every compromise I had to make to work for the best, whether it was making no money or I was working the longest possible hours because it was shift pay. It was crazy.

When I went to Daniel, I didn't even know how much I made until I got my first paycheck. I'm serious. It didn't matter. I knew I would make it happen with whatever they gave me, because it was that important for me to be there. Because I knew I wouldn't learn as much anywhere else. I think what students need to understand is, if you want to become one of the best, you've got to put your head down, keep your mouth shut, and just put yourself in a position where you're just going to absorb and absorb and absorb and absorb. The day you stop learning somewhere is the day you should move onto the next, and not before. My staff gets that. I'm nothing without my team.

You've gotten lots of awards. Is there one you haven't gotten that you would like to?

GQ Man of the Year. I'd like to appear in GQ someday. Daniel was on the cover of GQ one year. I think that's cool, man [laughs]. Growing up, when we would dress up, my mom would say, 'You should be in GQ.' I would like to be in there somehow. That'd be cool. It's very materialistic. I've never been driven by awards.

Like I said, if you put your head down and you focus on doing a good job and focus on quality and focus on pushing yourself to be better every day, they're going to come. I always wanted to win the Beard Award, but I thought that was never going to be something I could attain. I worked for François when he won. To think that someday this is something I could win was the last thing on my mind. When he brought it in and hung it there, I remember just sitting there holding it, like it was a Ferrari.

You never thought it was within your reach?

I never thought I would ever have an opportunity to be in that category. Never. When I got older, things started coming in and actually, I was nominated in '03, and I lost. Then they skipped me for two years. I thought, 'Well, it was anomaly I was even nominated.' Then all of a sudden I was nominated again and I won. I couldn't believe it. It didn't make sense to me. I was thinking, 'There's so many great people out there. Why me?' One of the things that Daniel told me and I tell all my cooks is, no matter what comes your way, just try to be humble. Don't ever let it get to your head.

Don't ever let yourself think that you're better than you are. I never forget that. There's nothing wrong with being confident, but don't be cocky. Confidence shouldn't be confused with being cocky. You have to bring a certain confidence to work every day. You have to command respect of your team and of people around you, but do it in a way that's respectful to other people. Don't put your chest out like a rooster and just expect people to respect you. You earn it through your work.

You've also worked in places where you would get the attention that leads to awards, though.

Yes. But everybody has that opportunity. I'm no different from anybody else. I chose this. I pushed hard. I beat out other people for the jobs I've had. It was never given to me. So you make those decisions. So I sacrificed a lot on my younger side to reap the benefits now.

But there's also something, the skills or the knowledge or the intelligence that you have in what you're doing, that may not be given to everyone, either.

I don't think so. I don't think I was raised in the Catskills with the knowledge to be a pastry chef. I think everything I have is taught. Everybody said, 'He's so talented.' For sure you have a touch in life. You have some kind of finesse. You need to have that. But I don't think there's a whole lot that I would do, in the way I think, that I wasn't taught. Techniques are learned. I tell all my guys, 'Suck the life out of me, because I want you guys to be better than I am. I want to see you in the papers in five years. I want to see you guys doing stuff that makes me scratch my head.'

That's what matters to me. I want my team to catapult past me, because I want to share with them what my chefs shared with me. I feel like I was very fortunate that they opened up themselves to me and their experience and their lives and shared with me and created me. I want to take everything that they've given me and give it to my guys, along with who I've become, and give them the opportunity to be the next generation. I hate that chefs are guarded and they don't share and they don't take their team under their wings. That drives me crazy. Then there's always the people like Daniel, Jean Georges, people that spawn the next generation of great chefs because they share. I want to be one of those chefs. I want to be remembered for sharing. I want to produce great pastry chefs.

Is everyone in your kitchen right now someone who will be the next you?

I think every person in my kitchen has potential to be a great pastry chef. Because they care enough to be here, they care enough to work hard day in and day to show me consistency, to show me they care, to show passion. It's not an easy job. I'm not the easiest person to work for, because I have certain standards as well. I'm not afraid to yell at someone — it's not a little candy-ass environment. This is a serious thing. We have a certain ranking that we have to live up to.

One weak link in that chain breaks the chain, and they all have to understand that. It's definitely not an easy thing to come to every day, knowing there's so much responsibility on your shoulders. I believe in order to come in and face that, they have to have heart. Someone without heart can't live here. We've had people come in and last a couple months, because they realized they're not at the same level, they're not in the same mind frame. I'm not talking about skill level. I could teach you anything. But you have to want to learn.

What motivated you to write a cookbook?

I don't know. I'm getting a lot of attention, a lot of people telling me, 'You should do a cookbook. You should do a cookbook.' And I thought, okay, if I can do a cookbook that's different from a cookbook that's already out there. I had to really soul search to see if I had something to offer. I put it off for a couple years. Then I said, 'You know what? There's no reason I can't do it.' I think it marks a point of my career. If anything, that's pretty cool. I think I have something to show people. Not necessarily a recipe, but the way I approach food, the way I put things together. It's interesting. I didn't want to make a pretentious book. We actually had to break it down and simplify it. I think we found a nice balance. There's so much involved in what we do, but so much of it is just a way of thinking. So luckily that's strong enough that we were able to simplify. There are still some techniques in there that maybe the home cook can't do right away, but there are sources to find everything you need. I wanted to create something that interested people and that they could use in their home, but also I wanted to teach. I think a book should be educational. I think there should be something in a book that you don't know about. That's the point.

What about your website? What prompted you to launch one?

At the time, [Jean Georges'] website really didn't give any detail about who was here, what was going on. I've always been a self-motivator, a self-promoter. At Jean Georges, we don't have a PR person. Anything you see of me in the news, it's me getting it, me going after it. I do demos. I do TV. Everything I do is me going out to get it. It's not that I want to be a celebrity chef – I don't. But I want to have options in my future. The more people who know my name and know the quality of my work, the better off I'll be in whatever endeavor I want to do. It's just logical. It's not about seeing my name in lights. It's about the day I want to do something, people thinking, 'All right. Well, I know who that is. I know what that stands for. That means master quality.' That'll be my brand. I want my brand to stand for quality.

Do you consider yourself a celebrity chef?

No. I think that Rocco [DiSpirito] and Marcus [Samuelsson] and those guys have that, and Jean Georges. It's nice to be known. It's nice to be respected. But do I need to be called a celebrity chef? I'd rather be infamous than famous.

Pastry chefs have become such stars. Why is that, do you think?

I don't know. I think the world goes through cycles of what's cool. Hopefully it's something that matters now. It took years and years for celebrity chefs to happen, right? So it's just a matter of time until they realize that a restaurant doesn't function on one side of the kitchen. It takes two sides of the kitchen. It's only the generation above me that really became known, like François and Jacques Torres. Even in that, some of them got some TV time and press time, but a lot of them were already past that. I think definitely there is a life expectancy for a pastry chef versus a chef.

How so? Think about who are, quote-unquote, the 'top pastry chefs' in New York now. Restaurant pastry chefs, what's the average age?

We're all between 30 and 35. I don't think there's a pastry chef on the top of that list that's over 35 years old. They decided to do a business. They go into ownership or whatever. I think our age, between 30 and 35, is the point where you figure out your next step as a pastry chef. Because the last thing I want to do is grow old in someone's basement. You max out as far as salary. I won't make more money than I already make here anywhere else. Any other move for me to a restaurant is a lateral or a step down. So what do I do?

What do you do?

Open a bar. It's eventually going to happen. There's no timeline on right now. That's my goal, and Jean Georges knows about it. My next goal is to develop a high-end bar concept with the world's greatest bar snacks with my partner Dave Arnold. That's for sure. Dave's been a huge asset for me as a pastry chef, just as far as I can say, 'Dave, help me with this.' Dave is great at doing research. Dave is great at building things. We have syringes here that we have a thing on that I'm able to do fluids on top of each other, because Dave built a machine for me. To have an asset like that is great. We're both very creative, very hyper people, and I think it's going to be a great, great thing. The idea is to roll it out, to do a bunch around the country. It's exciting to me, because I'll get to work my way up again, to re-earn the respect of people again.

Isn't that scary?

Yes. Right now I'm in the best of the best. For me to someday leave here, it's scary. It's not like I'm leaving any time soon.

What other projects are you working on?

I'm doing more and more TV, and I think that's going to be a great outlet. I'm working on a couple different ideas for pilots and actually getting ready to do a pilot or two. One of them on my own and one of them actually would incorporate Dave and I together. I think I'm lucky enough to have an outgoing personality, where I don't take myself too seriously, and I think that translates well. So I think TV's going to be a fun outlet for me, even if it's just temporary.

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