By Michael Laiskonis, ICE Creative Director and Pastry and Baking Arts Chef Instructor

When I was a full-time chef, there were brief moments of the day in which a profound sense of inner happiness would sweep over me. It’s often these fleeting, seemingly random instants that are most meaningful; they remind those of us in the culinary world why we do what we do.

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As a restaurant chef, one of my favorite moments was watching the arrival of the kitchen staff in the morning before their shift. These cooks look like they rolled right out of bed and onto the train (because, well, that’s what you do). The early arrivers are those who treasure those few minutes of silence, the only time you actually notice the hum of the lowboy coolers or the whine of the exhaust hoods as they’re turned on. They like to have the first pick of their mise en place—everything they need for the day—grabbed in one efficient pass and crammed into a hotel pan to take back to their station. Their timeliness earns them the right to flat sheet pans, a fresh stack of towels, that favorite whisk or ladle. While I only got to witness this daily ritual once or twice a month (when I happened to find myself at work by 6:00 am), I always got quite a kick out of being first in the kitchen to watch it unfold.

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Unlike those who make it to work just in time, whose days begin—and often continue perpetually—under the gun and “in the weeds”, the early cooks appreciate ritual. They make that first pot of kitchen coffee. They take a few precious minutes to sharpen their knives. And they seem to know more—for example, the number of covers for lunch, the fact that the produce company shorted the restaurant a case of oranges (again!) or that so-and-so called in sick. You might say that these are the most responsible cooks, the most paranoid or merely the ones that know they need extra time to get everything done. But most likely, these are the chefs that just live for the job. Despite the long hours and lack of sleep, these guys know that the kitchen is where they belong.

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A treasured time for me was always the repose between lunch and dinner, the block of time after prep and set-up are complete, but before the printer starts to chatter, telling us service has started once again. Some days it might last an hour or two, other days it comes and goes in a few fleeting moments. It may start as soon as the last lunch order is out or as late as 6 pm. Typically, I tried to call the time around 4:30 to 5:30 pm my own. This was usually the only substantial break I allowed myself. If it was a marathon shift, it might merely mark the half-way point of the day.

One of the benefits of working in pastry (besides the relative autonomy) is that you’re afforded a sense of calm before the storm. The cooks on the “other” side of the kitchen seem to have a much tighter deadline. Their show starts the moment the front door opens at 5:15. We pastry chefs, on the other hand, put in most of the work prior to the dinner hour. As such, we are left with a few precious moments (once the first diners of the night are seated) to sit back, relax and refocus before service begins in earnest. This brief pause is our chance to perform the culinary equivalent of tuning up, like the din from the orchestra pit just before the abrupt silence that signals the first note of a concert. This momentary respite allows us to offer to the very first dessert plate—and all those that follow—our fullest attention.

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It was during this lull that I could check my e-mail, return calls, or even do a bit of research and recipe testing. I’d start to assemble my orders for the next day or review schedules and prep lists. Staff meal was squeezed in at some point, and although the rest of the kitchen management retired to the dining room to sit and eat in a more civilized manner, I usually hung out with my own team, often standing, eating and working simultaneously. If it was really busy, I sometimes passed on eating altogether, opting to cook dinner for myself when I got home that night around midnight.

Though there was always something to be done—whether in the office or the kitchen—it was nice to sometimes escape the building altogether, to enjoy a few moments of daylight if the weather was good. When the midtown Manhattan streets were swelling with 9-to-5ers and early bird theater-goers, I was just catching my second wind. But I was never envious of these passersby, their workdays finished. Instead, I knew that dusk—the “magic hour”—signaled something very different for me. For them, it marked the end of their daily routine; for me, it signaled the beginning.

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The end of the night in a pastry kitchen is always a bit unpredictable. Sometimes, service finishes abruptly. Other nights, it’s a slow crawl while waiting for a few lingering tables. Toward the end of my restaurant days, I no longer stayed until the very end, but I never got used to it. I had been the last in the kitchen for so many years—plating and sending out the very last order—that it always felt strange to leave before the entire station was cleared and scrubbed clean.

Leaving early had its perks though. More often then not, it had been a busy day at the restaurant, leaving me little time to eat (save for a couple pieces of bread and some small tastes of the daily dessert’s mise en place). So by this point in the evening, I was hungry, generally for something salty and filling. As soon as I hit 6th Avenue and 52nd Street, the smell of the heady spices from a halal cart would wash over me. But I wouldn’t stop. To me, dinner has always been sacred, regardless of the lateness of the hour. So, almost every night after leaving the restaurant, I quelled my hunger long enough to return home and cook myself a proper dinner.

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I was also faced with the nightly decision: walk home, take the subway, or hail a cab? My mood generally dictated my choice. If something about the night’s events was slightly off, I would take the long quiet walk to cool off and collect my thoughts. If I felt totally exhausted, I would hop into a cab and be home in five or ten minutes, albeit ten bucks lighter. If I was neither hyped nor exhausted (and felt able to handle the inevitable wait for the train), I’d walk down 51st Street to the 6 train. Its a poorly kept secret in New York City that Midtown Manhattan is actually loudest at night. This is the time when garbage trucks roar down the crosstown streets and work crews dig up the avenues, ripping out or extending sections of New York City’s circulatory system. Despite the noise, I always felt a certain sense of solidarity with my fellow train passengers at this hour. More often than not, I would spy the “hat head” of another cook amongst the crowd. Such moments reminded me that this hour wasn’t mine alone—I shared it with thousands of other chefs making the trek home after a long day in the kitchen.

A kind of deep, unspoken social bond exists within a restaurant that often carries over into the outside world. There’s a shared colloquial language that would mystify those who don’t spend their days in the kitchen. That, coupled with the unconventional hours, creates a kind of subculture, one that identifies with going to bed in the wee hours of the morning and rising around noon, a group that hears the word “weekend” and thinks of a solitary Sunday or Monday. As a result, those in the industry tend to socialize with other chefs. If you were to introduce two cooks who’ve never met, chances are they would have something to talk about in thirty seconds. It is during these conversations that instantaneous legends spring from events that happened a mere three or four hours prior: tales of heroism or defeat on the line, the culinary prowess of chef so-and-so, the ingredient or piece of equipment that rescued a dish in distress.

While all of these moments in a chef’s day are precious—from those first few minutes in the kitchen to that last hour swapping stories with coworkers at the end of the night—the best moment comes when your head hits the pillow. When you close your eyes, pull the covers over you, and smile, delighting in the fact that it starts all over again tomorrow. That’s when you know you’re really a chef.

To learn how you can launch a creative, fulfilling career in food, click here.

 

By Carly DeFilippo

 

When Michael Laiskonis got hired for his first job, scooping ice cream in Detroit, he probably never imagined that he would one day be teaching ICE Pastry & Baking students about the complex chemistry of frozen dairy products. In fact, Michael never intended to enter the food industry. Rather, he fell into it by accident, after deciding to abandon formal studies in fine arts and photography for what he describes as an “earn while you learn” approach. And so he entered the business, working the overnight shift at his roommate’s brother’s bakery.

Michael, teaching a petit four class at ICE's School of Professional Development.

Michael, teaching a petit four class at ICE’s School of Professional Development.

Soon enough, Michael discovered he had a certain talent for pastry and wanted to find a more structured environment to further his skills. He found it in Emily’s, a small kitchen with only four chefs. Starting out as a savory cook, Michael gradually absorbed more and more pastry duties, proving his merit until his boss agreed to make him the full-time pastry chef—the first time he would see his name on a restaurant menu.

 

In 1996, Michael moved to Tribute, starting as a line cook and moving up the ranks until he was again named pastry chef in 1999. The restaurant was at the epicenter of Detroit’s culinary scene, named one of the nation’s best by the New York Times in 2002. In 2003, it became one of only two Detroit restaurants to have garnered a coveted James Beard Award. But by 2004, Michael was looking to test his hand in one of the nation’s culinary capitals, and was referred by a friend to Chef Eric Ripert. After a single 90 minute meeting, Ripert offered Chef Michael the chance to come on as Executive Chef of renowned New York institution, Le Bernadin.

Parsnip brulee and sponge, hazelnut cream, browned milk solids. 2013 "Pastry Pop Chef" at the Star Chefs International Chefs Congress.

Parsnip brulee and sponge, hazelnut cream, browned milk solids. 2013 “Pastry Pop Chef” at the Star Chefs International Chefs Congress.

Making a move to Le Bernadin was no small feat. Michael’s predecessors included one of his idols, François Payard, as well as acclaimed chefs Florian Bellanger, Herve Poussot and Oscar Palacios. But over the next eight years, Michael more than proved his talent, helping the restaurant earn three Michelin stars and four stars from the New York Times. Celebrated for his use of modern techniques to reinvent classic desserts, Michael was also awarded the coveted James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007.

 

In 2012, Michael joined the Institute of Culinary Education as our first ever Creative Director. “After a successful 20 years in some amazing kitchens,” Michael explains, “I’d earned a lot of opportunities—and I chose to join the team at ICE. I have always admired ICE, and education is the perfect opportunity for me to give back, to inspire the next generation of chefs to enjoy and excel in a career in culinary or pastry arts.” He has already instrumented significant progress in our kitchens, providing pastry students with a more in-depth look at the science of their craft, and teaching a number of both public seminars and advanced pastry classes in our School of Professional Development.

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Looking back on his career, Michael notes that his path was most unusual in that he stayed in nearly every position for more than five years. He recommends that young chefs only move on to a new position if they feel that they have taken everything they possibly could from that position (including what not to do moving forward). In large part, he credits Chef Takashi from Tribute for establishing his belief in never making a lateral or inferior move, in only moving on if it’s a step up. As for how to judge when it’s time to move on, Michael says, “The day you go into work without a pit in your stomach is the day you start looking for a new job.”

 

It’s this sense of curiosity and constant pursuit of furthering his own education that has kept Michael at the forefront of his industry. Outside of the rigorous constraints of a restaurant schedule, teaching has provided Michael with the ability to work on innovative research projects and to pursue his lifelong interest in the arts, film, reading and writing. (To date, he has contributed to publications including GourmetSaveur, The Atlantic and a range of professional pastry journals.) Whether in his public demonstrations, writing or other creative endeavors, it’s clear that Michael has developed a newfound appreciation for teaching. After learning so much from others, he insists, “You don’t keep secrets. You have to share.”

Like all fine arts, the presentation of food is based on theory and best practices. From texture to shape, composition to balance, join ICE Creative Director Michael Laiskonis on an exploration of the philosophy of plating.

Featuring contemporary plate styles from the Front of the House dinnerware portfolio, Chef Michael’s tutorial unveils the many ways chefs can express their creativity.

For more instruction on the art of plating, visit ICE.edu/FOH.

 

By Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

When approached by young cooks and students seeking advice on what to read, which chefs to follow on social media or which techniques they should study, I always underscore the importance of traveling and going out to eat. When you’re forming your style and sense of what is “good,” it’s essential to taste as much as possible—be it at your local bakery or a gastronomic temple overseas. I didn’t make much money as a young chef, but by scrimping and saving what little I did earn, I invested in my edible education as often as I could afford.

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In turn, my formative years as a cook are defined as much by the meals I experienced as a guest as by the professional kitchens in which I toiled. In the Internet age, international culinary inspiration may be instantly accessible, but it’s a pale substitute for experiencing it firsthand. Turning the tables and participating as a guest not only places a dish in its proper context but also provides young cooks valuable exposure to the front-of-house experience.

Today, we have the ability to document each dish, feeding our virtual timelines with instant images, yet I’ve always preferred more tangible souvenirs. Early on in my experiences of “important” meals, I developed the habit of collecting menus, resulting in an archive that now spans almost twenty years. Once I moved to a storage-conscious, New York City apartment, I stopped saving menus for a time, but I’ve recently taken up the practice again. Holding a physical remnant from a meal serves as a time capsule, transporting you back to a precise moment and place, sharpening blurred memories in a way that a camera phone snapshot cannot. A full menu also displays the context of a chef’s perspective beyond a singular dish, and can mark a particular era in a chef’s evolution over time.

My menus typically get filed onto a shelf or eventually tucked away into a box. Every time I uncover a stack that I haven’t looked at in years, it evokes many vibrant, multisensory memories. Each menu has some personal significance—many from restaurants long-shuttered or listing dishes that would later achieve icon status—and a select few bear historical importance worth sharing with others. Below, I’ve curated a sample of menus from meals that inspired and educated my development as a young cook.

Menu Pierre Gagnaire

 

Pierre Gagnaire
Paris
1998-2002

Pierre Gagnaire was a hero of mine from the mid-90s onward. During my first visits to Paris, a solo lunch at his eponymous Michelin three-star restaurant was a compulsory ritual – four meals in total. His wildly inventive flavor combinations still read as fresh and relevant to this day. These meals also cemented my ambition to work at the very highest level of fine dining.

Alain Passard Arpege Menu

Arpege
Paris
1998-2002

I often dined at Gagnaire one day and at Arpege the next. Each represented two very different styles of cooking, both were equally inspiring. The period of my repeat visits coincided with Alain Passard’s much-publicized transition toward a vegetable-centric approach. A highlight of one of these lunches was being invited to sit and chat with Chef Passard as he ate his own lunch.

Thomas Keller French Laundry Menu

French Laundry
Yountville, California
2003

Anticipation is an often overlooked aspect of a meal. Spontaneity and the element of surprise are important, but there are also those dinners that are planned well in advance. A great many of us plan whole trips around a visit to one grand temple of cuisine or another. Such a pilgrimage is usually weighed with unreasonably high expectations, but exceeding those expectations is what such restaurants do best. This meal totaled forty-six dishes over seventeen courses; it’s rather difficult to single out this dish or that. This menu represents an immersive experience taken as a whole, relinquishing all control to a chef, if only for a few hours. Pictured, that evening’s tasting menu, and my notes documenting all of the extra, off-the-menu courses.

Trio Grant Achatz Menu

Trio
Evanston, Illinois
2002, 2004

Before the groundbreaking Alinea, there was Trio, where Grant Achatz began gaining attention and defining his brand of modern cooking. These early “Tour de Force” menus contain several now-iconic dishes or concepts. After each dinner, my head was spinning, and I couldn’t wait to get back into the kitchen, inspired to work on new ideas of my own.

 

wd50 restaurant menu

wd~50
New York City
2003, 2009

After a ten-year run, and many meals at Wylie Dufresne’s Lower East Side landmark, I was saddened to hear of wd~50’s closing. Wylie’s cooking is one of the most inspiring examples of chefs merging science, creativity and nostalgia. Few chefs actually invent new techniques, but Wylie surely has, and his influence has shaped many chefs’ mindsets, both in New York and abroad. Pictured, a menu from the restaurant’s early days in 2003 and later in 2009, respectively; one can also see the influence of pastry chefs Sam Mason and Alex Stupak.

Charlie Trotters Menu

Charlie Trotter’s
Chicago
1999, 2012

It’s hard to overstate the watershed moment that was 1994, with the arrival of the first cookbook by Charlie Trotter. I was just starting my first restaurant job and in the wake of that book, my whole viewpoint of our tiny kitchen suddenly shifted. I finally made my pilgrimage to Charlie Trotter’s in 1999—and promptly realized that books were no substitute for sitting in that chair and taking in the eight-course tasting menu. It was, in a deeply personal way, a life-affirming experience, justifying my decision to become a chef. I found myself back at the restaurant, just one month before it closed in 2012, for a bittersweet last meal. I’m lucky to have cooked with Charlie a few times as I progressed through my career. It was his vision of refinement that pushed me twenty years ago, and it’s something I continue to chase to this day.

Le Bernardin Menu Signed

Le Bernardin
New York City
2004, 2012

Two special menus bookend my eight-year run as pastry chef at Le Bernardin. I still have a copy of the menu from my first day of work—before I made any mark of my own. The menu above, from my last day, bears inscriptions from the dozens of cooks and waiters as a sendoff. In between, I would see countless dishes come and go. I never sat in the dining room during my tenure, but since leaving four years ago, I return every chance I get!

Interested in learning more about the restaurant industry? Click here to learn more about ICE’s career training programs.

 

Under the leadership of Creative Director Michael Laiskonis, every day in ICE’s Chocolate Lab is an opportunity for research and experimentation. Step inside the lab as we unwrap the chocolate-making process—from bean to bar—and discover just what it takes to create this beloved treat.

To discover the craft of bean-to-bar chocolate for yourself, request free information about ICE’s professional Pastry & Baking Arts program and continuing education courses for current pastry chefs.

 

Even as the editor in chief of a major food magazine, Dana Cowin never had the chance to try her hand at artisanal chocolate making. Luckily, no trip to ICE would be complete without a lesson in our new bean-to-bar chocolate lab.

For the ultimate chocolate masterclass, we paired Dana with ICE Creative Director Michael Laiskonis, who shared his tips for at-home tempering. From there, we asked Chef Michael to reimagine an interpretation of Dana’s favorite candy bar: the100 Grand.

Click here to learn more about chocolate studies at ICE.


By Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

After learning the fundamentals of cooking and acquiring a firm grasp of technique, it is our instinct as chefs—and often, a professional requirement—to develop variations on the most iconic dishes in the culinary canon. In truth, even the dishes we create “from scratch” seldom evolve in a vacuum; it is often the reinvention of a well-established dish that provides the best template for personal expression. Even when our interpretations of codified dishes evolve into something truly unique, the greatest reward of recreating the classics is often rediscovering what made them great in the first place.laiskonisdemoAmong the many staples of fine pastry, I’ve been obsessed with pâté à choux off and on for several years. Even after years of experimentation, I feel there is much more to harness from this understated preparation and more to refine. When done well, there are few better pastry-based vehicles. But therein lies the problem: often viewed as “just a vehicle” for whatever is inside of it, choux pastry rarely gets the attention it deserves.

No matter the variation, the basic ratio of ingredients in pâté à choux doesn’t vary all that much—and, in fact, hasn’t strayed from the technique developed by Carême (1784-1833), who is regarded as the author of the modern recipe we use today. Given that the standard formula of liquid, fat, flour and eggs is fairly constant, I get the impression that few chefs ever adapt beyond the first version of the recipe they acquire as a student or young cook. That’s a shame, because there is quite a bit that can be discovered and understood by making subtle tweaks to fine-tune the recipe and raise the bar for choux.

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Applying a crunchy exterior to traditional choux pastry

Small adjustments in milk fat and nonfat solids can alter the texture, flavor and color of choux dough. Sugars—and sometimes salt—can be omitted outright. And varying the choice of flour, from cake to bread, provides small adjustments in the overall protein content that can significantly affect the final structure and exterior appearance of choux pastries. Last but not least, the time and temperature of the preparation matters at each step: how long to cook the roux, at what temperature should the eggs be added and so forth. For me, a huge revelation came with developing a technique for applying a crunchy exterior to the finished piece. This textured surface is a sablée of sorts, but closer in proportions to a streusel—roughly equal parts of fat, sugar and flour—that is tender enough to expand with the choux, where a conventional dough would set too quickly and restrict the pastry’s puff. Curiously and counterintuitively, I found that the sablée-draped choux rises up to twice as much as an uncovered one; in short, the sablée slows the drying and setting of the choux surface, allowing it to expand that much more.

Beyond playing with the technical elements, it’s interesting to explore the emotional connection we have with classic desserts—especially how feelings of nostalgia can inspire personal revision. Case in point: the tres leches–inspired dessert that I developed several years ago for Le Bernardin’s dessert menu. This dish was born in conversation with Jesus, one our youngest cooks in the pastry kitchen at the time. On the surface, it was an exercise and a challenge that I had posed to the team: how do we refine and transform a rather pedestrian dessert into something worthy of a four-star restaurant? What new techniques can we apply to the original concept? Once manipulated, how do we maintain that reference back to the classic, with—or, preferably, without—an overblown sense of irony? So before we did anything new, our team dedicated ourselves to making the best version of the original dessert, without any bells or whistles.

As we tucked into the wet, spongy tres leches, I asked Jesus how it made him feel. Born and raised in the Bronx, he made frequent visits to his grandmother in Mexico as a child. It took a lot of coaxing, but Jesus shyly began to describe many memories connected to the tres leches his grandmother would buy from the bakery in her small town. He remembered her plates and sitting at her kitchen table. Visiting the shop itself was part of the ritual, and he began to recall the sweet smells and even the color of the shop’s walls. “That,” I said, “is what we’re trying to do!” No matter how much we add our clever contemporary spin, through technique or ingredients, that nostalgia is what we, as chefs, should be trying to access when creating any dessert. No matter the age of our guests, whether six years old or sixty, the potential in tapping those memories can be incredibly powerful.

michael laiskonis latvian desserts Rupjmaizes-Kārtojums

A modern interpretation of rupjmaizes kārtojums

This philosophy, however, begs the question, “How do we approach classic desserts that we did not grow up with?” For example, I recently applied the same thought process to rupjmaizes kārtojums, a Latvian dessert that I neither grew up with nor had any professional reference point for. Traditionally a kind of rye bread trifle composed of cream and berries, I reworked the basic flavors and textures of this rustic dish to create a highbrow nudge toward inventiveness and presentation, while still nodding to its homespun origins. Conceptually, the dessert came full circle for me: through its interplay of new and old I realized that one person’s nostalgia can be an opportunity for discovery of another. Most importantly, I was committed to not varying the dish so dramatically from the classic idea as to render it unrecognizable. In fact, I even prepared my version for a group of chefs in Latvia to positive reviews!

Caramel Without Maillard Recation Michael Laiskonis

White peach caramels from the ICE Chocolate Lab

Creative reinvention isn’t limited to highly refined plated desserts; I just as frequently seek inspiration from the candy aisle. I’ve been spending a lot of time reworking caramels of late, adjusting recipes and cooking methods to find just the right textures and flavors. Here, technology has propelled the possibilities for creation. With the small batch vacuum cooker installed in the ICE Chocolate Lab, I have been experimenting with caramels that have no caramel flavor at all. Cooking under a vacuum, we achieve the hallmark textures of a soft caramel at temperatures far below the Maillard reactions, which result in that characteristic caramel flavor. Instead, I have created a neutral “white” caramel base upon which I can build other flavors that might otherwise be obscured. To this blank canvas I’ve been adding bright fruit flavors like raspberry, peach and apricot—impossible without the aid of technology and a grasp of the underlying confectionery science.

Improving on the classics can be a tricky business; it’s easy to stray and lose sight of what makes them great in the first place. Ultimately, the true value of the creative urge to deconstruct is in finding a path towards thoughtful reconstruction.

Click here to learn more about ICE’s professional pastry program.
Visit our Advanced Pastry Studies page to learn about continuing education classes with Chef Michael. 


By Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

To understand the operations side of a professional kitchen is to visualize a complex culinary systems theory, to speculate how one good or bad decision can affect all of the other moving parts. The century-old kitchen structure codified by Auguste Escoffier—still practiced today—evokes the blueprints for a battle scenario. This brigade consists of a chef (always referred to as “Chef”—rarely by his or her name) as the general at the helm with captains (sous chefs), various specialists (fish or meat cooks) and foot soldiers (line cooks) branching out beneath him. Even the physical setup of cooking “on the line” resembles operations in a heavily fortified trench.

professional kitchen chef brigade

The parallels to the military continue from there. Chefs’ uniforms are an indicator of rank. Strategies for success are mapped out in advance; though, in the heat of service, tactics may become more fluid by necessity. Orders are called out and followed in confidence, fear and eagerness to please. There is a strict operational code and teamwork is essential, with little room for niceties when under fire. In the inevitable rush of battle—where the seemingly disparate notions of speed and accuracy count equally—the weak links are exposed, creating a culture of nightly survival. Interestingly, in a theater dependent on so many small victories and potential defeats, each day begins anew; previous blunders become opportunities to learn, but are never dwelled upon.

Moreover, the kitchen is a noisy place. It takes a fair amount of experience and prolonged immersion in such an environment to truly hear what’s happening, to parse the static of conversation, the hum of equipment, the clanging of pots and the punctuated yells. A degree of sensory overload can overcome you. I find the less I add to the cacophony, the better I am at processing all that information. Being quiet allows one to feel the underlying rhythm of the kitchen. And, of course, the less energy the cook projects outward, the more he or she can harness that energy and focus it inward. Rather than release it into the air, we ultimately try to put that energy onto the plate. In the process, we become more connected to the work at hand. For seasoned veterans, the act of cooking becomes hardwired into our being, a second nature that links the mental and the physical, manifesting itself as a form of meditation, perhaps even a shift into right brain mode, where time and space become fluid.

professional kitchen rush

While this all may sound poetic, the kitchen can also be an incredibly stressful place to work and requires a certain personality for survival. One of my favorite aphorisms from Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie says a cook should “never dirty his apron outside of the kitchen.” I’ve always interpreted this as, “Be cool, don’t talk smack and remember that your reputation precedes you both in the kitchen and outside of it.” The way we carry ourselves at work—how we deal with the stress, long hours and other people—reflects upon our character and ultimately dictates that reputation.

Of course, this process doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As cooks—and, in particular, as sous or executive chefs—we are constantly forced to process problems, mistakes and the many special requests that inevitably occur. I’m all for keeping the rules, the standards and the intensity that animate professional kitchens, but I’m less impressed with the bravado and barking that often comes along with it. Over the years, the futility of such a display has become all the more evident to me. If anything, I simply find it a huge waste of energy, interfering with the sense of economy I like to apply in the kitchen. Fear, humiliation and guilt are not the best motivational tools for young cooks.

Typically, aggressive reactions in the kitchen (as anywhere) tend to arise out of frustration, when there is a complete lack of control: a difficult guest in the dining room, a burnt tray of cookies, a stack of broken plates. But if the damage is already done, what good do anger and yelling do? Does it work toward solving the problem or effectively prevent it from happening again? Probably not.

professional kitchen brigade jade island

If we don’t consciously work at interrupting this process, natural human impulses tend to take over in stressful situations, as an extension of fight or flight. Ranting and raving are really just artifice and ornament, unattractive and, in the end, counterproductive. Far from earning respect, it often harbors resentment. On my end, I’ve always been fairly mellow. I’ve been intense, as well. In my past, I’ve been too intense in my most ugly moments. I’ve yelled and stamped my feet when things were not absolutely perfect—far more often than I would like to admit.

Inevitably, mistakes do happen. I have tried to handle the worst situations with a stoic acceptance, knowing that it’s not going to matter in five seconds. While the incident that sparked it will quickly be forgotten, a volley of foul language will be remembered. At best, I spin it into sarcasm or humor. At worst, I try a constructive form of tough love. And though I may see a dozen things each day that set me on edge, real change comes not by complaining, but by more thoughtful means. I also find that if I don’t whip myself into a frenzy during the day, I sleep better at night.

The turning point in maturity for many chefs is the moment they realize that they are students for life. Though ego plays a role in any skilled profession, great chefs know that their craft is bigger than the place they occupy within it. In those who can withstand the daily pressures, the passion for cooking deepens, becoming not so much a job as a lifestyle. There’s no way to quantify it, but I find that happy cooks—those who have reached this state of self-enlightenment in addition to mastering the fundamental skills—actually make better-tasting food.

stack of plates professional kitchen

Returning to our war metaphor, food doesn’t measure up to far more dangerous occupations, where a good day is one that you’re still alive to appreciate. But when you’re under the gun for twelve hours at a stretch, it’s easy to feel like the situation is life or death. But the restaurant world is also called the service industry for a reason.

As a leader in the kitchen, I’ve found insight in the words of business expert Seth Godin who writes, “Customers and team members make irrational requests all the time. That doesn’t make them unreasonable. If satisfying their request moves things forward, it’s not always worth the effort to teach someone a lesson. Sometimes, it’s more effective to just embrace their irrationality. Being right doesn’t always have to be the goal.” There are many reasons in life to stick to your principles—war, poverty, injustice of all kinds—but the truth is that most everything that upsets us falls short of that. In the end, it’s just a piece of cake.

Wish you could study with Chef Michael? Click here to get more information about pastry and continuing education programs at ICE.


By Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

“If you cook, you are going to get hurt.” The crowd that gathered for a panel discussion on modernist cooking erupted into laughter, but Wylie Dufresne’s observation was gravely accurate. Extreme heat (and cold—working with liquid nitrogen was the object of Wylie’s remark), sharp knives and heavy equipment are some of the perils cooks must navigate in their daily workplace environment. Add to the mix a dash of occasional chaos and the pressure to produce at breakneck speed, and it’s a wonder more chefs don’t bear hideous deformities.

Chef Sharpening Knives

Young cooks are instantly identified by the rows of scars running up their forearms: the reminders of brief skin-singing encounters with blazing hot oven racks and pan handles. A cook’s relative experience is easily judged by his or her fingertip’s tolerance to heat (a seemingly heat-proof layer of skin inevitably forms with time). Another telltale sign of a chef is the tough, raised callous at the base of the index finger: the contact point of skin and the carbon steel blade of a chef’s knife. This callous never fully returns to soft, supple flesh, even after years of retirement from daily slicing and chopping. It’s a calling card of sorts, a silent testament to one’s lifelong métier.

While kitchen scars may fade with time, they rarely disappear completely. My first ghastly kitchen injury dates back to my days as a baker. The shop where I worked focused primarily on bread and cakes, but we also did some light takeout fare and off-site catering. During the mid-December holiday season, we were catering one or two small parties every night. One of those afternoons, the chef/owner executed one event while I simultaneously staged a second party at another location. I could easily handle the responsibility of the arrangement, but I was probably still too green of a cook to entrust with the logistical feats these parties presented.

Hot Kitchen Boiling Over Flames

I was wrapping up my prep list with that menu’s protein: a Cajun-spiced, blackened chicken affair (this was the early 90s). Proper blackening technique—as I knew it, anyway—would dictate exposing the oiled, spice-rubbed meat to a fierce high heat and only a little added cooking fat. In my haste to get everything finished, I ignored the gradual buildup of oil in my smoking cast iron pan. Worse yet, I violated the cardinal rule of adding food to any pan: always place the item so that it falls away from you. This precaution ensures that, in the event any hot cooking oil splashes, it does so away from you.

As I tossed the last chicken breast onto the fire, my face and eyes were stung with a spray of hot and spicy oil. I dropped back from the stove and somehow managed to feel my way to the three-compartment sink for some temporary relief. I splashed my face with cold water, wiped myself off and glanced at the clock. I was running late and I didn’t have time to assess the situation properly.

I managed to arrive at the catering gig fully prepped and on time, but as I worked my chafing dishes I was filled with self-conscious dread. I thought I’d scarred myself for life, that I’d need a shroud to hide my culinary deformity like some modern-day elephant man—all because of one impatiently flung piece of chicken. As it turns out, the burn on my face was minor and fully healed within a couple of weeks. But it could have been far worse. The lesson learned? Always respect the fire. That scar may have faded, but others have been permanent.

Chopping Onions

Another early mishap of mine persists in the form of a long-term, conspicuous reminder. A year or so after the blackened chicken incident, I was working my way through a very large pile of onions. It was a straightforward task: hack away the polar ends off of each one, score through the skin, peel that off, then halve the onion lengthwise and perform a simple, uniform julienne. At ICE, our fledgling cooks are taught to tuck the thumb back and under, using the broad surface of the resulting fist to both secure the food and guide the knife while chopping. Of course I knew that then, too. But in my urgency to finish all those onions in time, I either looked up or the heavy chef’s knife slipped…and into the mountain of sliced onions went the tip of my left thumb.

My reaction was swift. I didn’t want to look closely at the damage, nor did I have much time to fret over it. I rinsed my hand in the nearby sink, slapped on two or three Band-Aids, wrapped it with a length of gauze and secured it all with what must have been a foot or two of electrical tape. And then I went on with my prep.

I certainly didn’t forget about it over the course of the night’s work. I was in a sense of denial. I was uninsured and living check-to-check on my cook’s wage. I didn’t want to bother with any workers’ comp benefit I may have been entitled to, so there was no professional medical attention given to the mangled digit. After a day or so, when I realized I might have made an error in judgment, I still didn’t seek help. I feared getting yelled at by some nurse or intern for not going directly to the emergency room. Instead, I kept it clean and wrapped, and it eventually healed. The contour of my left thumb is no longer rounded, but now sloped off at a sharp angle.

Butchery Fish Butchering

I’ve heard many stories over the years—likely mythical legends by the time they got to me. The fish bone that went in one side of someone’s finger and emerged months later on the other side. The arm broken in multiple places by an industrial mixer. The fingers severed on deli slicers. I’ve had close calls throughout my twenty years battling in the kitchen, but in comparison to many colleagues, I’ve survived mostly unscathed. My worst injuries were the result of total rookie moves.

A young cook might boast over a particularly gnarly burn or gash, eager to display it as a badge of honor. It’s part of the bravado, the mandated sense of fearlessness that pervades the kitchen. As I grow older, I’m not proud of my mistakes. With time, one increasingly feels stupid over the tiniest nicks and scratches, embarrassed for even a split second’s lack of control. So a word of advice to those starting out in the industry: the second you sense you’re playing too close to the edge, slow down. You won’t work faster with a half of a finger, a burnt face or a broken arm.

Want to study with Chef Michael? Click here to see a list of his upcoming courses at ICE.


By
Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

What’s the latest news from Brookfield Place? The Chocolate Lab at ICE’s new facility is fully operational, and chocolate making on our bean-to-bar Cacao Cucina equipment has begun in earnest. Batches both large and small are ready for tasting, featuring beans from a wide range of origins, including the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Trinidad and the Ivory Coast. And after many a dark chocolate batch, our first milk chocolate just rolled off the assembly line – with a heady 50% cocoa solids.

As we gear up for increased production and the first of our bean-to-bar classes this fall, I’ve compiled some surprising facts about the different stages of the chocolate making process. These observations may be old hat to professional chocolate makers, but they are rarely—if ever—considered by chefs and consumers.

Raw Chocolate Sorting Beans Chocolate Lab Bean to Bar

Raw Beans
Straight out of the bag, fermented and dried beans present a serious microbiological risk, including E. coli and salmonella. Outbreaks linked to chocolate are rare, but the risk necessitates proper handling and storage. Simply put, I treat raw beans as if they were raw meat. Also, raw beans must be carefully sorted and cleaned of the various debris found in each bag (flat and moldy beans, stones, leaves, sticks, etc.). If that’s not enough, it isn’t uncommon for tropical moth eggs to hitch a ride on the surface of a cocoa bean! All of the beans that arrive at ICE’s lab are immediately bagged, sealed and chilled until roasting—before any of those tiny wings get an opportunity to hatch.

Roasting
In addition to providing the only bacteria and moth “kill step” that renders the beans safe to consume, roasting allows for critical flavor development of the cocoa bean, further developing the precursors created during fermentation. Roasting also reduces the moisture content of the dried bean (chocolatiers always seek to minimize the amount of water in finished chocolate), which upon delivery is around 6-8%. Roasting parameters vary by bean type, origin, quantity and the desired flavor profiles—but typically roasters aim for 30-60 minutes or more at temperatures in the range of 300-350°F. Determining “doneness” is mostly subjective and instinctive. Chocolatiers primarily go by smell and taste, but also closely monitor the temperature of the bean mass throughout the process.

Winnowing
After roasting, the beans must be cracked and winnowed, separating the nibs from the shell. The shell alone can account for almost 15% of the roasted bean by weight and adversely affects the flavor and texture of finished chocolate. What’s more, the shell contains elevated levels of toxic heavy metals. Unsurprisingly, the acceptable industry standard for shell content in processed nibs is less than 1%.

Roasting Winnowing Chocolate Production Bean to Bar

Roasting beans and winnowed cocoa nibs

Grinding
In most cocoa processing systems a “pre-grinding” of the nibs is necessary, to reduce both overall processing time and the eventual wear on refining machines. After grinding, the nibs are reduced to a thick paste referred to as “chocolate liquor,” with a mean particle size around 100 microns. (And yes, the term “liquor” is confusing to many, as there is no actual alcohol involved!)

Pressing Cocoa Butter
A portion of the liquor can be pressed to produce cocoa butter, which makes up roughly 50% of the beans’ weight. In the lab, this process takes one to two hours and nearly 65 tons of force. The remaining byproduct—known as “press cake”—can be further processed into cocoa powder.

Unlike the deodorized cocoa butter most chefs are familiar with, freshly pressed butter reflects the flavor compounds from the original beans. As most fine chocolate has a total fat content of 35-40% by weight, this additional cocoa butter can be added to boost the final percentage. For some single origin enthusiasts, this added butter makes or breaks a product’s bean-to-bar status, depending on whether or not the extra butter and original liquor are extracted from the same batch of beans.

Refining
Refining reduces the particle size of the liquor to an average of 20 microns. The human tongue can begin to detect grittiness at particle sizes larger than 35 microns, but reducing particle size below 20 microns increases the surface area of the cocoa butter, resulting in an unpleasantly thick consistency.

Refining is also the point in the bean-to-bar process at which other ingredients are introduced—sugar, additional cocoa butter, whole milk powder, etc. This process is achieved by an array of different machines, from stone melangeurs to roller refiners. Some systems, like our ball mill, work as a “universal,” allowing for “conching” to occur simultaneously with refining, due to the addition of temperature and airflow control.

Cocoa Butter Sifting Chocolate Refining Bean to Bar

Freshly pressed cocoa butter and sifting chocolate liquor

Conching
Conching—which involves heat, airflow and agitation—is critical for flavor development (removing unwanted volatile compounds), texture (coating the solid particles with cocoa butter) and further moisture reduction. This process can last for hours or days, depending on the desired results. However, conching time alone is not necessarily a measure of quality.

Formulation
The final “recipe” for a batch of chocolate is determined by the addition of other ingredients, and will vary depending on such factors as bean type, desired flavor profile and application. The percentage you see on the label of finished chocolate refers to the total amount of cocoa solids by weight—meaning the nibs or liquor plus any added cocoa butter. This number alone is quantitative, not qualitative—a 70% chocolate may be 70% nibs or any equivalent combination of nibs and cocoa butter. Therefore, these percentages may not offer much insight into flavor, but they can tell us how much sugar was added. The percentage of sugar simply equals 100 minus the cocoa percentage (accounting for less than 1% additional vanilla or stabilizers like lecithin, etc.).

Sifting
Before tempering, it is beneficial to sift or strain the finished chocolate through vibrating screens to remove any large particles that are difficult to refine—notably the “radicle” (or germ stem) that is a part of each bean. This hard stem is very bitter and can produce a gritty texture if left in the chocolate. Integrating a pass by powerful magnets into the sifting process can also eliminate the worry of any remaining hard metals in the chocolate.

Finished Chocolate Bean to Bar Aging

Aging
While the aging process is not well understood or widely researched, both large manufacturers and small-batch artisans agree that several weeks of aging finished chocolate allows for better, rounder flavor. Large companies inherently allow for this process in their distribution network, while artisan producers will hold chocolate batches in reserve for two months or more before tempering, molding and packaging. None of our batches is more than three or four weeks old at this point, but I’m eager to experience the aging process for myself. I’m reserving most of each batch to evaluate the effects of aging, but with so many of our students and staff eager for a taste, I’m also already molding small quantities for the instant gratification of our efforts!

Can’t wait to check out ICE’s Chocolate Lab? Sign up for bean-to-bar classes with Chef Michael.

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