By Michael Laiskonis—ICE Creative Director

Early last year, as the ICE staff was preparing to move from the school’s longtime home in the Flatiron District of Manhattan to its newly constructed downtown facility, I was immersed in organizing the details for our unique bean-to-bar Chocolate Lab. Considering our new digs in the oldest part of the city, it hit me that perhaps we were bringing chocolate back to the neighborhood—old New Amsterdam. I began to ponder the ghosts of chocolate makers past. Surely there must have been numerous traders, processors and merchants dealing in the popular product at various points in the city’s nearly 400-year history. Little did I realize how difficult the search for answers would prove, yet what I have uncovered thus far has only reinvigorated my quest.

Late 18th Century Map of Manhattan

Late 18th Century Map of Manhattan

I’m a bit of a history buff—with interests in our culinary past, of course, but also the rich history of the vibrant city I’ve called home for over 12 years. I’ve also spent countless hours tracing my family histories back to Eastern Europe, as well as my maternal lines back to England and Holland. My ancestors arrived in the first waves of settlers in the American colonies dating back to the mid-1600s. My meandering research came quite close to home at one point—a Dutch extended cousin turned out to be a prominent businessman in 1650s New Amsterdam, operating a brewery on Beaver Street, the site occupied today by a towering office building in Manhattan’s Financial District. This personal discovery fueled my broader search for chocolate in this colonial outpost—if I could find a distant relative in the neighborhood, surely I would eventually find traces of cocoa as well. But first, I had to step back a bit further to consider the greater story of chocolate’s travels.

The story goes that Columbus encountered cacao in the course of his later voyages at the turn of the 16th century, but was unimpressed or simply unaware of its attraction. At best, he may have traveled back to Europe with a token handful of the beans, which only grow in the tropics. Most historians agree that it was through Hernando Cortes, who conquered the Aztecs in the 1520s, that chocolate would make inroads into European aristocracy, eventually gaining popularity on par with coffee and tea. Throughout much of its history, chocolate was consumed as a beverage in coffeehouses or sold in small coarse-textured blocks (and only upon its arrival in Europe was sugar added). During its first century in Europe, accessibility to chocolate soon spread beyond the noble classes and was enjoyed by a wider audience. The drink thrived in those countries whose empires extended to tropical zones where cacao could be cultivated for the masses back home.

By the time the American Revolution was underway, chocolate had firmly established itself in the colonies. Numerous references and connections to the drink have been attributed to patriot luminaries like Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The first colonial chocolate manufacturer was Baker’s, established by 1765 in Dorchester, Massachusetts (the famous brand still exists today). While this may be true in large-scale production, there were many small local producers and bean grinders predating Baker’s throughout the larger cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. These craft producers, around 70 total, are the objects of my interest. Unsurprisingly, they have been difficult to trace in great detail. Perhaps because chocolate at this point was still minimally refined, there were likely few who devoted themselves to chocolate full time. Individual grocers and local mills may have handled very small quantities. The dearth of pre-revolution information about chocolate culture in Lower Manhattan didn’t discourage me, but it did lead my search into a different direction.

We assume that chocolate first arrived in America as a European import, but when and where are still unclear. The earliest written accounts of chocolate in the northeastern colonies do not appear until the 1660s, with sporadic references to trade shipments continuing into the 1670-80s. By the time England assumed control of the renamed New York in the 1660s, its cocoa trade was taking shape. Their early colonies in the Caribbean had begun planting cocoa and adding sugar to it. As trade from the Caribbean increased—and by extension, from South and Central America—the colonial port cities became vital links in the supply chain. The port of New York City quickly became an important hub in this network of the cocoa trade—a pivotal discovery in my research. By the early 1700s, shipping documents reflect a significant flow of cocoa beans from the West Indies into New York; while much of the precious cargo was ultimately destined for Europe, local consumption was on the rise, too. Great quantities of cocoa were arriving from the Venezuelan port of Curaçao via a network of Jewish merchants of Spanish descent. This network grew to include dozens of businesses, some of which would eventually branch out into local wholesale and retail chocolate trade. I had finally caught a glimpse of the history I had been hoping to find—the emergence of the cocoa trade in lower Manhattan. What’s more, the city has more contemporary ties to the cocoa trade as well. The New York Cocoa Exchange occupied the narrow flatiron-shaped building at the intersection of Wall, Pearl and Beaver Streets from 1939 to 1979 (the building still bears that name, though its tenants now include a sushi restaurant and condominiums). At present, the offices of Atlantic Cocoa, a major player in the international chocolate trade, are located just a short walk from ICE, adjacent to Battery Park.

Present-Day John and Water Streets

Among the names of early merchants, several clues began to emerge, and with them more details into the chocolate world in colonial New York. While the extent of their processing and manufacturing is not yet clear, I finally began to pin chocolate-related locations to the map. Spanish-born Jacob Louzada was one such early merchant, active through the 1720s; his son Aaron is reported to have processed chocolate as well. I came across the Gomez family, with three generations involved in chocolate—first with trade and later with manufacturing. Moses Gomez was active in trade and chocolate making as early as 1700. By the 1750s, Daniel Gomez advertised the sale of drinking chocolate near “Burling’s Slip”—today, near the foot of John Street and South Street at the East River. More promising is a surviving advertisement from 1780 describing the shop and “chocolate manufactory” of Rebecca Gomez, which carried all manner of imported food goods, including her own superfine “manufactured chocolate, warranted free from any sediments and pure. Great allowance made to those who buy to sell again.” Rebecca’s shop stood at the corner of Nassau Street and Ann Street—a busy intersection of its day and a stone’s throw from the ICE Chocolate Lab. Rebecca’s son-in-law, Abraham Wagg, was a grocer who also dabbled in chocolate. Other 18th century names and locations have surfaced as well, such as Peter Low, who had made chocolate in Manhattan before moving the business across the river to New Jersey, as well as Peter Swigart and his chocolate-making shop on Bayard Street, in what is now the heart of Chinatown.

While it remains difficult to find traces of chocolate in the very earliest days of the Dutch colony, we see that it became a common item on the docks and in the shops of New York in the 1700s. After unearthing the stories of these early entrepreneurs, I am excited to discover what I might find as chocolate making in this neighborhood has evolved, coming into the 19th century and, ultimately, full circle back to our little lab on the third floor of Brookfield Place at ICE!

Further reading for chocolate aficionados:
  • On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao, by Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz
  • Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, by Louis E. Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro

Want to study Pastry Arts with Chef Michael? Click here for more information on ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts career program. 


By Michael Laiskonis—ICE Creative Director

The final steps in processing our bean-to-bar chocolate make up the longest phase of the manufacturing process—a waiting game where the true essence of the bean, its complex flavor and its silky texture are unlocked. At this point, we focus on physically breaking the bean’s coarse texture, revealing subtleties beneath its bitter astringency and liberating its cocoa butter. Though we add ingredients at this stage, there is also an aspect of elimination—the refining stage is followed by conching, which peels away unwanted volatile flavors.

Sifting the Finished Chocolate

My last post dealt with handling the roasted bean—crushing it into nibs, separating its shell, grinding it into fluid cocoa liquor and extracting pure cocoa butter. During this final stage, the chocolate maker faces the challenge of tasting a bean’s full potential and identifying the subtle nuances within. While the goal of the “craft” chocolate maker working primarily in single origin batches is often to enable the expression of that bean’s inner essence, an industrial manufacturer’s typical aim is to create consistency from batch to batch, from year to year. Neither approach is qualitatively better or more difficult—just two possible approaches employed in the final stage of chocolate making.

Refining

Different kinds of machines can carry out the task of refining (stone melangeurs, roller refiners, scraped-surface refiners, etc.). In the lab, our coarse chocolate liquor enters a 10-kilogram capacity ball mill—a temperature-controlled tank that contains roughly 60 pounds of hardened steel-grinding media (ball bearings, essentially, in two sizes). With agitation, the steel balls begin breaking down the fairly large particles in the liquor, refining them down to a target of around 20 microns—in terms of scale, one micron (µm) is one-millionth of a meter (or one-thousandth of a millimeter). More accurately, true particle size in chocolate will lie along a curve, or a distribution, some smaller and some larger than our target. Looking closely at the structure of chocolate, it is simply very small solid particles (cocoa solids, sugar and sometimes milk solids) dispersed in fat—cocoa butter. Because the threshold of perception of a particle on our palate is in the neighborhood of about 35µm, a smooth, creamy mouthfeel depends upon breaking down the solids below that mark. Particles that are too small (below 15µm), however, will create too much surface area for the available cocoa butter, thus adversely affecting the flow properties of the chocolate with increased viscosity.

Most often, we add our ground liquor to the ball mill to refine for some time before adding any other ingredients. As the liquor continues to break down, more of its cocoa butter is released, providing sufficient fluidity to begin processing additional dry ingredients, namely sugar and, in the case of milk chocolate, whole milk powder. Virtually all of our chocolate receives an additional boost of cocoa butter as well. Vanilla, a common but not compulsory addition, can enter into the mix in various forms. I typically chop up whole vanilla beans and add them early in the refining process. Though the majority of the dozens of batches created in the lab have been of single origin, I have begun working on blending beans, and even introducing additional flavors—whole coffee beans, spices and nuts—to thoroughly integrate into the finished product. For our first attempt at a vegan milk chocolate, I replaced conventional milk powder with freeze-dried coconut milk. Refining time can vary, depending upon the batch size, particle size of the liquor and by agitation speed.

Measuring Particle Size on a Grind Gauge

measuring particle size on a grind gauge

Conching

Ball Mill

the ball mill

In addition to speed control, our ball mill also offers temperature control and heated airflow. Lacking a stand-alone conching machine, this heat and airflow help us replicate some of the effects of traditional conching. In basic terms, the conching phase is best described as heated agitation. Three key aspects of conching are moisture reduction, texture and flow enhancement and development of flavor. Residual moisture in chocolate can affect its flow properties, even though a great deal of the raw bean’s water was removed during the roast, trace amounts remain through the grinding and refining process. Prolonged mixing also helps ensure that all of the tiny solid particles are evenly dispersed in and coated by the cocoa butter, which improves mouthfeel and workability. And finally, the heat and forced air aid in driving off some of the remaining volatile acids – unwanted flavors that are a byproduct of fermentation back at the bean’s origin. Conching is an important part of the process, but each chocolate will require varying amounts. Long a marketing myth in the chocolate industry, a longer conching time does not necessarily equal higher quality. Some argue that excess conching may even destroy desirable flavors.

Once the chocolate is deemed ‘finished,’ it is extracted from the ball mill (we also employ two small stone grinders for smaller experimental test batches) and passed through a vibrating sifter—imagine a super-fine mesh strainer—which catches any particles not sufficiently refined. The radicle, the hard and bitter germ stem in every cocoa bean, may stubbornly evade grinding, along with the occasional bit of vanilla bean that sticks to the agitator. After sifting, it’s time for tempering and molding, right? Well, not so fast. Aging chocolate for a period of time, though unpredictable and not fully understood, is common practice. Some chocolate makers prefer to temper, mold and package chocolate immediately, others will age chocolate from two weeks to one month. Though there may be little one can do to change the finished product at that point, most believe that the true character of the chocolate will not reveal itself until it has had a minimum three-week mellowing period. One of the ongoing projects here in the lab is to hold back portions of each batch to sample at regular intervals to track some of these still-inexplicable changes over time.

As with other stages of the chocolate making process, success during refining relies on equal parts science, experience, taste, patience and arguably, some degree of intuition. The key is understanding that each part of the process presents a new set of variables. The next dispatch in this series will address formulation— the recipe development phase for each batch of chocolate.

Aging Chocolate

aging chocolate

Want to dive into the chocolate lab with Chef Michael? Click here for a list of his upcoming workshops 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-singeing 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 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, 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.

Bonus Formal Portraits-022

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.

IMG_8545

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.

DSCF1091

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.

IMG_8488

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.

IMG_8499

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.

IMG_8462

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.

michael blow torch

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.

264833_10150235982214827_3789857_n

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.

crunchy choux dessert

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. 

Subscribe to the ICE Blog