Dominique Ansel, New York
The Next Generation Patissier
He took the world over by storm with the Cronut and to most, the chef-owner of the four-year-old Dominique Ansel Bakery in Soho, New York, is still synonymous with the croissant and doughnut hybrid. But Ansel has moved on. In June, he was in Japan to launch Dominique Ansel Bakery Tokyo, his only outpost outside of the US. In mid July, he was back in West Village, New York to unveil U.P. by Dominique Ansel (short for “unlimited possibilities”), an afterhours dessert-only tasting table located at the second-floor space of Dominique Ansel Kitchen, a new bakery concept, which opened in April.
Ansel, who worked as an executive pastry chef at restaurant Daniel by Chef Daniel Boulud in NYC prior to this, subscribes to the notion of “the next generation of pastry”. Formal pastry cases and rooms decorated with gold statues and ornate patterns are eschewed in favour of a place that’s fresh, coupled with an open-minded culture. “A lot of people go to bakeries to buy their regular daily croissants. I wanted them to come to ours to break that habit of always ordering the same thing and instead try something new,” explains the chef.
Ansel believes that people took the hybrid trend and ran with it for a while after the Cronut debuted. “But I think the next trend in pastries and desserts will actually be a focus on time. In Dominique Ansel Kitchen, we focus on time as an ingredient. The idea is simple: items that are made fresher just taste better. A fresh baked croissant will always taste better than an old one, no matter the recipe or the chef. I hope people will pay more attention to time.”
And what goes through the mind of a pastry genius when he dreams up a new dessert?
“The key is not to let anything limit your idea. Don’t think about how you’re going to make it work, or how much it’ll cost. Just take the time to create,” he says. This creation process translates into unique flavours that balance well.One of his latest inventions is a burrata soft serve ice cream with balsamic caramel. In his Tokyo outlet, a soft serve counter churns out flavours like sourdough bread with butter roasted panko and apricot marmalade. For his Japan-exclusive items, he has woven in flavours like yuzu and hojicha.
When asked if he has plans to open up outlets in other parts of Asia, Ansel replies: “Never say never! However, it’s important to develop every shop mindfully and thoughtfully. There is nothing worse than expansion without passion and real thoughtfulness for your guests. It has to be genuine.” The unassuming Ansel also believes that it’s dilligence that takes you far in this industry. “Your talent only lasts so far. It’s hard work that pays off in the end.”
Christophe Michalak, Paris
Christophe Michalak’s motto is to never do what has already been done before.
“I never live on my achievements; I wish to continually evolve and I never stop asking questions,” he says.
His own career has been a whirlwind through some of the most prestigious places: he honed his craft in luxury hotels in London, Brussels, Tokyo and New York, as well as Parisian institutions like Fauchon and Laduree, before settling down at the prestigious Hotel Plaza Athenee in 2000. Aside from his present role at Plaza Athenee, Michalak also runs his own pastry school, Michalak Masterclass (link French only), located in Paris’ 10th arrondissement. At this school for both professionals and amateurs, the chef tries to instil the concept that French pastry can be simple, fun and accessible.
Michalak feels that the pastry chef’s image has changed over the years because “we have communicated our know-how, and moreover, pastry has became more and more creative.” However, he would use a new technique only if it allows him to create good desserts.
“Each creation is an adventure, but my priority is still to create emotion when people savour my pastries,” he says. The chef ceaselessly experiments with imaginative desserts sans additives and superfluous decorations. Of late, one of the more unusual items that Michalak conceived for Plaza Athenee is a chocolate cream, salt, and olive oil ice cream.
However, the French man says that he always stays true to classical tastes. “In fact the secret is to make cakes that I love to eat!” He adds: “My favourite French pastry is the Paris-Brest, and I am in heaven whenever I taste praline. Baked custard (flan) is something that I could eat every day.”
Desserts that he will be focusing on in the near future will be “less sweet, less gelatinised, and contain less fat”. Recently, Michalak reduced sugar and fat by about 20 to 25 per cent in all his recipes. A “light” dessert is now offered in the menus of Plaza Athenee’s Le Relais Plaza, La Galerie, and La Terrasse Montaigne. This includes La Cour Jardin restaurant’s “red fruit elixir”, which contains a green-white cheese lemon sorbet with zero sugar and fat.
Regarding the future of desserts, Michalak thinks that customers will get more demanding, and that mediocrity will be quickly overshadowed, as “only the best will remain”. He believes in people, and says that his greatest pride is all the chefs he has trained. His advice to younger chefs is “to work with your heart, take your time, and most importantly, throw yourself into your job”.
Adriano Zumbo, Sydney
The Pastry Wizard from Down Under
You’ve might have seen him on Masterchef Australia, petrifying trembling contestants with his challenging croquembouche creation, but Adriano Zumbo, one of Australia’s most celebrated pastry chefs, is better-known for charming fans with his progressive desserts. For him, the traits of a successful pastry chef are passion, an open-mind, an eagle eye and thick skin. You must also be humble, optimistic, creative, and a dreamer.
“Don’t take anything personally. Turn negatives into positives. Be able to lead people and be flexible on styles,” says the country boy who began his apprenticeship at the age of 15. He went on to train at distinguished French pastry institutions such as l’Ecole Lenotre, Bellouet, Pierre Herme and Damiani.
Today, he runs seven stores in New South Wales and Victoria. Zumbo is best known for his incredibly wacky creations. “Some of the more unusual flavours I’ve incorporated would have to be pig’s blood, burnt toast, vegemite, baby powder, and toothpaste.”
Aside from sugary items, one of Zumbo’s hybrid savoury creations is the pie burger. “It is essentially a meat pie, with a burger top instead of your traditional pie top; the filling is based on the good ol’ Aussie hamburger – beef, egg, cheese, beetroot, tomato, onion, ketchup, and barbecue sauce, topped with a soft burger bun,” he shares.
Asked what hybrid desserts he will be doing next, he reveals: “I’m still thinking and on the search; I’ve yet to settle on the next thing.” Every dessert he creates is a constant challenge, whether it’s down to “balance, taste, texture, architecture, aesthetics, cost, production, work flow or customer-product connection”.
Zumbo still enjoys classic Aussie desserts such as a good old piece of pavlova or warm chocolate lamington. His favourite food memory? “Supermarket custard in a carton,” quips the 34-year-old, whose parents owned supermarkets in Coonamble, New South Wales.
This Australian ambassador for premium chocolate brand Cacao Barry says that desserts that are still trending in Australia include doughnuts, choux pastry and soft serve. “However, moving forward there’s a big push on panning (chocolate coated nuts and products) happening here.” He adds: “I think pancakes are making a comeback, but high-end patisserie is getting very expensive to run in Australia, so a more relaxed product is where I see it headed.”
And how does he reinvent himself?
“Never stop dreaming! Chase those dreams and never let anyone tell you that you can’t catch them until it happens.”
Chen Li Che, Taiwan
Asia’s Pastry Architect
Taiwan’s pastry scene made headlines last year when 36-year-old chef Chen Li Che won the 2014 Global Chefs Challenge, organised by the World Association of Chefs in Stavanger, Norway. Chen competed with chefs from the US, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Finland, Cyprus and New Zealand, and duly astounded the judges with his striking creation.
“It was a very challenging theme as it involved three elements: water, transportation and communication. I needed to fuse the three elements seamlessly to create a story,” says Chen of his work, dubbed The 3-D Reflection Of Deep Blue Ocean. Chen created a frame made of sugar and chocolate, and in the middle of the frame, a humpback whale emerges from a wave. Made also with Taiwan-grown bananas as well as Taiwan 17 – ice cream flavoured with Tainung No.17 pineapple, Taiwan’s iconic fruit – the masterpiece symbolises animals trying to break free as humans ruin the environment.
For the competition, Chen trained an average of 15 hours per day for a period of one year. “I was very touched by all the support from the company, my team, family and friends,” shares the head chef of research and development of 85°C, Taiwan’s largest bakery chain. To invent such masterpieces, Chen draws his inspiration from the “intricate details in daily life, which we often take for granted”. He observes street signboards, trees in the park, and how plants grow.
After competing with counterparts from all corners of the earth, where does Chen think Asia’s pastry standards stand in the world of pastry-making?
“In the past, Europe used to take the lead. This has changed, as there are many Asian chefs who are visible in the marketplace. This brings about a good chance for collaboration between Europe and Asia, to raise pastry standards even further,” he notes. Chen is still very Taiwanese at heart. One of his favourite desserts is the “Taiwanese macaron”, which has a rich taste of egg, and a melt-in-the mouth texture. “It’s a childhood favourite,” he says.
He also works with Taiwanese ingredients, such as a native mountain spice Makao pepper (马告), which is spicy with a hint of citrus. Chen used it to flavour an ice cream cake created for 2011’s Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie, in France. Currently Chen is researching a product that is representative of Taiwan, just like how tiramisu is an iconic dessert in Italy, and the macaron is a typical sweet treat in France. He shares: “I’ve recently launched a new product for 85°C. It’s called “The Sacred Tree Roll” as the shape of the dessert is like the symbolic Sacred Tree of Taiwan. The dessert has four different layers in it: the first layer is choux pastry, and underneath are creme chantilly, cheese and milk cheese cake.”
In terms of pastry trends in Taiwan, Chen says: “French and Japanese desserts are still very popular. But I foresee the next pastry trend to be the reinvention of classic Japanese and French recipes, to provide healthy and affordable options for consumers.”