By Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director
As I transitioned away from life as a full-time restaurant pastry chef three years ago, my goal was to create, in part, a day-to-day routine that was, well, different each day. My role as creative director at ICE certainly provides a wide range of pastry projects and endless possibilities for research, but that role was also conceived with a flexibility that encourages special side projects. These very diverse projects not only fulfill me and expand my own knowledge base, but they also enhance what I can offer ICE students from an educational perspective.
Technically, my initial experience with consulting began while I was still the pastry chef at Le Bernardin, as I designed dessert menus and trained the pastry staff at various satellite restaurant projects Executive Chef Eric Ripert managed and partnered with. The primary lesson I took away from these projects was the importance of not only a restaurant concept, but of its location as well. The products and the layout of a menu in Miami differ wildly from that of a restaurant with a similar clientele in Washington D.C. or Philadelphia. I also learned how to create more efficient systems (and desserts) that work across a spectrum of kitchens, not to mention the essential skill of troubleshooting problems from afar (in between sporadic seasonal visits).
Now that I’ve traded the restaurant kitchen for the test kitchen, I still like to keep one foot in the realm of restaurant pastry. In fact, after working in restaurants for 20 years, I find I still need the occasional stint in a hectic kitchen to keep the creative juices flowing. Most recently, I’ve taken on the challenge of revising the pastry menus for Chef Jose Garces’ many restaurants in Philadelphia and beyond. This project has already offered several challenges: not only am I new to working within a largely Latin-inspired restaurant group, but I am also heavily involved in product consistency and costing—a perfect balance of business and creativity. Yet no two restaurant consulting positions are the same. Where some projects have built-in logistical limitations, others, like my work at L2O in Chicago, have offered unbridled freedom to test ideas that may not be possible or practical anywhere else.
I have also been lucky to consult on several product development projects outside of fine dining restaurants, with both established brands and enthusiastic startups alike. Large food companies often enlist panels of outside chefs to participate in product brainstorming sessions. Two of the most interesting development tasks I recently encountered were for sugar-free caramel and for mochi ice cream products. With the former, I was forced to adapt my conventional confectionery know-how, while working with sweeteners like xylitol and erythritol, to produce candies that offered comparable taste and texture to those made with sugar and corn syrup. As for the mochi project, though my love of ice cream science is no secret, it was a new challenge to engineer an ice cream product that requires very specific characteristics for processing and pairing with a rice dough wrapper. Yet these challenges are precisely what excites me about consulting work, as each learning curve offers an opportunity to expand on the knowledge and experience I bring to the table.
As for my clients, they are often primarily interested in the body of work that I’ve curated over many years and seek solutions to their specific needs within my existing repertoire. What drives me, however, is creating something new, or looking at classic ideas through a contemporary lens. Among my various clients, I’ve found that working directly with ingredient or equipment manufacturers–from PreGel to Boiron to Bravo–consistently provides prime access to some of the best products and the creative opportunity to take a first crack at utilizing them in new ways. This kind of content creation has a huge educational component at ICE and beyond, as I am able to reach chefs directly at demonstrations around the country, as well as through social and print media. I particularly enjoy knowing that sharing information is at the core of such projects, with a common goal of inspiring diners, cooks, chefs and business owners by tailoring my years of experience to suit a particular product or venue.
In short, consulting has been a way for me to tackle the ever-important goal of personal growth. The reason I consistently accept so many diverse opportunities is my ongoing desire to learn something new every day. It’s sure that without my significant restaurant experience, this type of consulting work would have been out of reach. Yet I hope that for current restaurant chefs and ICE students who are just beginning to consider their long-term career goals, my experience will demonstrate that there are truly endless opportunities in food. From day one in this industry, I’ve enjoyed knowing that this is one career where I’ll never be bored!