By Michael Laiskonis — Creative Director

Last month, the ICE Chocolate Lab launched Roots of Cacao, its first day-long symposium dedicated to all things chocolate. Through a series of talks, demonstrations, tastings and panel discussions, the program gathered more than a dozen chocolate makers, pastry chefs, industry insiders and historians to share their expertise with a packed room of nearly 100 attendees. Weeks later, I feel I am still soaking in all of the knowledge and insight shared in each intensive session, but a few thoughts still remain top of mind — ideas that I hope to address further at our next symposium.

Leading the technical side of the day’s conversation with his talk, “How Chocolate Gets Its Taste,” Clay Gordon, publisher of, broadly laid out the basic processing steps of chocolate from raw bean to finished bar, with a special focus on the complex building blocks of its flavor. Gordon proposed that over 750 individual chemical compounds contribute to chocolate’s typical flavor, reinforcing the notion that no single compound is responsible for chocolate’s complexity. It is thus the sum of many parts that gives each chocolate its character. Citing a study where researchers attempted to identify these individual components and theoretically reconstruct chocolate flavor, some surprising discoveries were made — the same compounds responsible for the aroma of peaches, cooked cabbage, cucumbers and even human sweat are all part of the mysterious stew that is chocolate. While the chocolate maker certainly brings much to the table, the development of these notes begins before the beans ever reach the factory. Genetics and post-harvest processes contribute significantly, and Gordon suggested that the microbiology responsible for fermentation may be the key driver of the terroir, or sense of place, that makes each growing origin unique. As a chocolate maker and educator, I’m inspired to better understand fermentation and its direct impact on flavor.

Our panel on sourcing and sustainability featured a wide range of perspectives, from manufacturing and supply chain to policy. Expertly moderated by Harvard lecturer Carla D. Martin, the discussion focused on the ethical, economic and environmental questions facing the industry. To put those issues in context, it is important to remember that the vast majority of cacao beans are produced by small farms typically only a few acres in size, and these farmers at the bottom of the supply chain see the smallest share in the price of a finished chocolate bar. One solution to this problem being pursued by panelist Tim McCollum, founder of Madécasse, is to significantly shorten that supply chain by working directly with farmers and building manufacturing facilities at the origin — Madagascar. Paying premiums for higher quality beans and creating a finished product of higher value at the source benefits not only the farmer but the greater local economy as well. From Mexico, the “cradle” of ancient cacao cultivation, ICE alum Jose Lopez Ganem shared his experience working on projects that seek to promote Mexican cacao by isolating the precise genetics and flavor profiles these heirloom beans offer; preserving and promoting these aspects of quality may reinvigorate farming in the region while also providing makers with unique high-quality beans. It proved extremely insightful to have World Cocoa Foundation president Rick Scobey join our discussion, as someone who navigates the world of so-called “big chocolate,” which relies heavily on cacao supplied by West Africa. Though craft chocolate makers typically ignore the “bulk” or “commodity” beans being grown, the sustainability issues on the table affect hundreds of thousands of farmers in countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana, who collectively produce nearly 75% of the world’s supply. The voice of the actual farmer is often missing from these discussions, and I’m already thinking of ways to include that perspective in next year’s symposium.

In between the demonstrations and panel discussions, guests were treated to several tastes from our chocolate maker presenters: Raaka, Dalloway, Cacao Prieto and Madécasse. Special guest Christopher Curtin, from Éclat near Philadelphia, shared his refined work, as did Marc Aumont from Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate in NYC. Most surprising was a special juice tasting from Repurposed Pod — made from fresh cacao pulp pressed in Ecuador, the juice had a bright flavor redolent of lychee, passion fruit and banana. Later, the juice was also featured in a bourbon-based cocktail. Given our lack of a regular supply of fresh pods, I’m particularly excited about the potential of this juice as a teaching tool.

ICE's Chocolate Lab

A common thread that emerged throughout many of the presentations was the unsung role of women in chocolate. Historian and author Maricel Presilla highlighted the evolution of chocolate drinks through regional variations and innovations driven by women producers across Latin America — an idea echoed by Roger Rodriguez’s story of a sartorial hot chocolate lesson in the Dominican Republic that inspired his chocolate-making approach at Cacao Prieto. The reliance on women’s labor on smallholder farms in many parts of Madagascar and other cocoa growing regions was underscored by Tim McCollum, and our sustainability panel also addressed the rise of woman-run farmer cooperatives. I was excited to include up-and-coming Brooklyn chocolate makers Sara and Kelechi from Dalloway on our “craft” chocolate panel, who shared insights on their business and process. The subject of gender-driven marketing methods in chocolate advertising that tend to target women was raised during one of many open question-and-answer sessions. For our next symposium, we’re considering how we might grow the dialog on gender and other cultural issues — from producers to makers to consumers — in the world of chocolate.

The title, Roots of Cacao, evokes not only the rich cultural history of chocolate, but the entire chain of creation: the growers and origins responsible for supplying their precious harvests, as well as the makers and their processes. As much as chocolate reflects tradition, its evolution is also dependent upon innovation. While we ponder the complex path that chocolate has taken, we must also address the opportunities and obligations to foster a sustainable future. It has always been my goal to expand the reach of the chocolate making program in ICE’s Chocolate Lab beyond its four walls to include all of these conversations and the industry’s many facets. I’m grateful to all of our expert presenters and the diverse group of attendees for making the day a success — and I can’t wait to start organizing our next session!

Ready to study the pastry arts with Chef Michael? Click here for information on ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

By Michael Laiskonis — Creative Director

Long before we turned on the lights — and all of the machines — in the ICE Chocolate Lab, I began formulating a mission statement of sorts. In addition to exploring the fundamentals of chocolate-making and sharing that knowledge with our students, I also wanted to create a space that fostered a sense of community beyond our four walls. Over the years, we’ve opened up the lab to chocolate and pastry professionals of all stripes, not to mention scores of guests who just love tasting our efforts. As we’ve learned to make better chocolate, we’ve also added our own voice to conversations within the industry. This February, we’re taking advantage of our unique venue to promote the exchange of ideas with our inaugural chocolate symposium, Roots of Cacao.

Test Roasting Cocoa Bean Samples

Roasting Cocoa Bean Samples

I’m excited to announce that the ICE Chocolate Lab will host a one-day series of demonstrations, tastings and panel discussions on Sunday, February 4th. The title, Roots of Cacao, evokes not only the rich cultural history of chocolate, but also the growers and origins responsible for supplying their precious harvest. We can also trace the journey from cacao bean to finished chocolate bar by exploring the many flavors hidden within and the processes that unleash them. As much as chocolate reflects tradition, its evolution is also dependent upon innovation. While we ponder the complex path that chocolate has taken, we must also address the opportunities and obligations to foster a sustainable future.

To help us navigate these varied topics, we’ve enlisted a roster of expert presenters to share their knowledge — from industry insiders and academics, to pastry chefs and passionate connoisseurs. Featured presenters include Bill Yosses, founder of Perfect Pie Company and former White House pastry chef; Maricel Presilla, restaurateur and author of “The New Taste of Chocolate;” Clay Gordon, author of “Discover Chocolate;” and Roger Rodriguez, pastry chef and partner of Cacao Prieto (also an ICE alum!). Together, we’ll discuss how post-harvest processes at the origin lay the groundwork for the flavors in a finished chocolate bar, and how a pastry chef might harness those flavors in a finished dessert. We’ll explore the emerging culture of “craft” chocolate and how the industry is addressing sustainability on a larger scale. Attendees will taste the spectrum of chocolate’s expressions, from artful modern confections to the alluring drink our ancestors enjoyed. I, for one, am looking forward to all of the information and inspiration on tap. In the coming weeks I’ll share more about the presenters with further details on their sessions.


Chef Laiskonis’ Hazelnut Chocolates

Roots of Cacao symposium is open to the general public and the sessions have been designed to be accessible to all, no matter one’s knowledge of or experience with chocolate. I would recommend it to anyone who’s curious to learn more about the roots of our favorite confection. Plus, the more we understand where chocolate comes from and how it’s made, the more we appreciate those efforts. But a word of warning: as someone who has taken the deep dive myself, I often say that the more we learn about chocolate, the more we realize what we don’t know! Hope to see you there.

Space is limited — register today for Roots of Cacao.

 Want to take a deep dive into Pastry Arts? Learn more about ICE’s career training programs.

By Michael Laiskonis — Creative Director

If I were to ask you to describe the physical characteristics of chocolate, chances are you might think of a dark, shiny and brittle bar that slowly melts in the mouth. Perhaps you might immediately associate its rich flavor baked into a brownie or concealed within a creamy bonbon. You wouldn’t be wrong, of course, as chocolate has found its way into countless applications — a sweet shape shifter that pairs perfectly with our favorite flavors. That hasn’t always been the case. For much of its history, chocolate wasn’t something we would eat out of hand or find in a dessert recipe.

Hot Chocolate

Aztec woman pouring chocolate

An Aztec Woman Pouring Chocolate

The modern chocolate bar didn’t emerge until the mid-1800s, when technology and inventiveness converged. When Casparus van Houten developed the cocoa butter press in the 1820s, he was originally after the pressed solids — the cocoa butter (the fat that makes up over 50 percent of a cocoa bean) was merely a by-product. It would be many years before a chocolate maker (most likely the Fry family in England) would come up with the idea to add some of that extra cocoa butter back into ground cocoa beans and sugar. At this point, chocolate began to resemble what we think of today, and its texture and flavor would evolve further as the industrial revolution continued in the decades to follow. Before that breakthrough? When one mentioned chocolate, they were really referring to a beverage.

We can trace the history of chocolate back thousands of years to the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures of present-day Mexico and Central America. These early chocolate makers cultivated the cacao tree, ultimately rendering the seeds of its fruit (the bean) into a drink. What these cultures enjoyed, however, bore little resemblance to a package of Swiss Miss. For starters, it wasn’t served hot, and most likely unsweetened, rather made with water and flavored with spices and flowers, then made frothy by repeatedly pouring from one vessel into another. The beans themselves were of great value and a significant staple crop, though most historians suggest that it was only enjoyed by a few, and not necessarily a part of the average person’s diet, rather used primarily for medicinal and ceremonial uses. Most culinary applications — even savory mole — appeared much later.

After the Spanish conquered the birthplace of chocolate in the 1500s, it would undergo further changes as it made its way to European drinkers. The first to adapt the Aztec beverage were likely the missionaries tasked with “converting” the indigenous people. By the time chocolate took hold back in Spain, it would evolve into something recognizable today — served warm, sweetened and whipped to a froth using a wooden molinillo. It remained, however, a treat for nobility, as it slowly spread throughout Europe. This growing taste for chocolate, which would become a beverage on par with tea or coffee, also led to its cultivation in European colonies in tropical zones throughout the world. For two centuries, its popularity surged but remained something not to eat, but to drink.

Huylers Bean-to-Cup Chocolate Trade Card

Huylers Bean-to-Cup Chocolate Trade Card

When van Houten sought to remove cocoa butter from the preparation, his goal was to make a lighter beverage, with much of its fat removed — what many at the time referred to as digestible cocoa. Soon after, digestible cocoa became increasingly accessible to a wider audience, taken in the morning or in the afternoon as a pick-me-up. Chocolate would also be touted for various health benefits and considered a gentler alternative to its cousin, coffee. As chocolate culture progressed, it did of course find its way into bar form (and then confections and baked goods) in the mid-1800s. By the turn of the 20th century, cocoa and chocolate were firmly embedded into our daily regimen. My own research into chocolate history has led to some interesting discoveries: colorful Victorian-era cocoa tins decorated with imagery of cacao pods, and even references to “bean-to-cup,” foreshadowing the “bean-to-bar” term we now use more than a hundred years later.

All of this research of chocolate’s history has renewed my own interest in its drinkable form. I’ve been studying both ancient recipes and its more familiar adaptations. As the weather turns, I can’t think of a better way to warm up than with a frothy cup of hot chocolate, while quietly considering the complex journey this magical bean has made over the centuries. Below, my favorite modern recipe, inspired by Mexican-style chocolate prepared today, is deep in chocolate flavor with subtle accents of unrefined sugar, warm spices and a touch of heat from dried smoked chile.


Hot Chocolate
Yield: 8 servings


1 quart (950 grams) whole milk
¼ cup (60 grams) heavy cream
1 cup (200 grams) grated panela, piloncillo, or light brown sugar
½ teaspoon (2 grams) salt
2 sticks whole cinnamon
2 pieces whole star anise
½ teaspoon (2 grams) powdered chipotle morita (or to taste)
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
7 ounces (200 grams) dark chocolate, roughly chopped


  • Combine the milk, cream, sugar, salt, spices, and the vanilla bean in a medium sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and hold at a bare simmer, stirring occasionally, for five minutes.
  • Whisk in the chopped chocolate and continue to simmer an additional five minutes. Remove the vanilla bean and the whole spices. Blend well with an immersion blender to create a froth and serve immediately.

Want to get in the chocolate lab with Chef Michael? Learn more about ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

In ICE’s Chocolate Lab, students get to take part in the bean-to-bar chocolate process, giving them a firsthand education on the importance of ingredient sourcing, refining and selection. Below, 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.

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.

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

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 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 — 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.

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.).

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

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.

Can’t wait to check out ICE’s Chocolate Lab? Learn more about ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program. 

You’ve probably heard of the “Maillard reaction.” Even if you haven’t heard of it, your food has definitely been affected by it. It’s the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that gives browned foods their characteristic color and flavor — think of the toasty, golden-brown crust of a crunchy baguette. While the Maillard reaction generally delivers a desired, flavor-enhancing effect, in certain instances, chefs want to avoid it — in order to preserve the purest flavor of their ingredients.

In a new video, ICE Creative Director Michael Laiskonis explains how he uses vacuum cookers to prevent the Maillard reaction when making creative confections like bright, full-flavored raspberry caramels in ICE’s Chocolate Lab.

Sweet tooth piqued? Ready to study the pastry arts with Chef Michael? Click here for information on ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

By Michael Laiskonis — Creative Director

While it’s back-to-school season for most, class is always in session at ICE. More to the point, cooks are perpetual students for whom the learning never ends, no matter our level of skill or experience. Ideas and inspiration that fill our social media feeds are at our fingertips 24 hours a day, but I still rely on — and often prefer — books and magazines. The autumn publishing season also means a shelf-load of new releases. Below are a few of those just-published books I am looking forward to, as well as one or two that I’m finally catching up on.

Image courtesy of Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream

Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream: The Art and Science of the Scoop
By Dane Cree

Summer may be over, but that doesn’t mean ice cream season is. Dana Cree’s book is a revelation on two fronts — in addition to creative frozen dessert recipes, it was one of the first books of its kind to make accessible the technical approach to ice cream that professionals employ. A well-traveled pastry chef, Dana presents the material much in the same way she approaches high-end plated desserts: serious, but with a playful ease.


BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts
By Stella Parks

When I first started reading Stella’s BraveTart blog several years ago, I knew it would lead to a book. She approaches sweet traditions and preparations not just through the eyes of a cook, but rather an investigative journalist, always digging deeper to tell a story or to better understand the complex chemistry of the pastry kitchen. If baking perfection is built simply on the sum of many well-executed steps, the attention to detail in Stella’s book gives cooks of all skill levels essential building blocks for classic American desserts and beyond. Be sure to check out her work as contributor to Serious Eats.

Megan Giller

Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution: The Origins, the Makers, and the Mind-Blowing Flavors
By Megan Giller

As a cook, I often think about how the discovery of a new ingredient or technique is able to radically redirect one’s career path. Certainly, I never set out to make chocolate, but since we created the Chocolate Lab two years ago, I think about chocolate for most of my waking moments. For Megan Giller, a sartorial moment with a fruity, complex bar made from Madagascar cocoa beans created an obsession that led to a blog, and then this book. While covering the basics of chocolate from origin to processing to tasting, she also takes on the task of documenting the dynamic “craft” chocolate scene in real time. I liked the idea so much, that when asked, I wrote the foreword. I will also join Megan for a discussion and tasting here in NYC next month. Also of interest is a new release from our friends at Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco, Making Chocolate: From Bean to Bar to S’more.

Bread Wine Chocolate

Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love
By Simran Sethi

Just as important as acquiring recipes and technique, a deeper understanding of the complex culture of our foodways is also valuable to cooks. Released last year, Simran’s book explores our relationship with nature through the lens of products we might take for granted. Her perspective on chocolate has also led to my favorite podcast of the year, the Slow Melt, which tackles issues big and small, in addition to insightful interviews with the most influential of today’s “craft” chocolate-makers.

Fou de Patisserie

Fou de Patisserie

This time last summer, I had just returned, inspired and energized, from a quick three-day tour of the Paris haute patisserie scene. Few resources capture the trends of the moment better than the French magazine, Fou de Patisserie. Each issue (virtually ad-free) is jam-packed with recipes and ideas from pastry legends and rising stars alike, including Philippe Conticini, Christophe Felder, Cedric Grolet and Cyril Lignac. In addition to publishing, the magazine also runs a shop in Paris — part pop-up, part fancy pastry exhibit — featuring the work of a rotating line-up of pastry chefs. On the topic of pastry magazines, one can’t forget what may be the most exciting resource, So Good, the hefty haute patisserie magazine of international scope.

Modernist Bread

Modernist Bread: The Art and Science
By Nathan Myhrvold, Francisco Migoya

After the release of the mammoth multi-volume set of Modernist Cuisine several years ago, the question on everyone’s mind was: “What will Nathan Myhrvold do next?” To the surprise of many, The Cooking Lab, which is home to Modernist Cuisine, immediately took on the subject of bread – its traditions and pathways toward innovation. Talented pastry chef Francisco Migoya led the effort, which resulted in a new set of books that actually rivals the first in size (and weight). Ahead of its October release, Francisco visited ICE last month to offer a sneak preview of the book, over three years in the making. From what I’ve seen thus far, all I can say is that the project will become a defining resource for bread bakers for years to come.

What are you reading this fall? Let us know in the comments! 

Take your pastry practice to the next level — learn more about ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since we launched ICE’s bean-to-bar Chocolate Lab (the first education-focused one of its kind!). We decided to check in with ICE’s Creative Director Michael Laiskonis to find out what he’s been up to. As it turns out: a lot.

Having produced over 120 batches of chocolate with beans sourced from more than 20 countries, the Chocolate Lab has given Chef Michael the chance to tinker with each step of the chocolate-making process and bring out the best qualities in each bean. What’s more, Chef Michael has been meticulously tracking these changes and differences in process and flavor, which he then shares with interested students and colleagues in a number of hands-on classes at ICE.

Our Pastry & Baking Arts students have also had the opportunity to swap textbooks for hands-on experience with Chef Michael inside the Chocolate Lab, benefitting from a full understanding of the bean-to-bar process.. Watch below our two-year check in with Chef Michael.

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

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 that 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 for more information on ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

By Michael Laiskonis—ICE Creative Director

In the past, I’ve written about the parallels between architecture and pastry. I recently judged a competition where architects were asked to express their favorite iconic buildings in the form of cake. Once again, the topic of architecture and pastry arts came to mind.

I think a lot about architecture and design. It’s a closet interest of mine, though I must admit that my passion is limited to: I don’t know much about architecture, but I know what I like. One of the benefits of urban living is being surrounded by so much of it. I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of various styles, shapes and sizes — sometimes even more than the individual structures themselves. While the streets of Manhattan may be more chaotic than, say, the carefully planned vistas of Paris, a glance down any street or avenue can be just as awe-inspiring. Without overreaching, there are some great analogies to be made between cooking and architecture. Both are seen as lofty arts and technical crafts. Both provide a vehicle for fashionable trends and practical function. Both reflect their immediate environment and in turn, give that place a sense of unique identity. Occasionally, both incite controversy. As two of the three necessities of life, food and shelter hold the kind of sociological importance that can even spawn whole philosophies.

Flatiron Building

You may think you know where I’m headed with this: Toward a discussion of architectural foods such as the towering desserts of years past — but this is just the surface. Of course, presentation is an important factor in fine dining and these trends come and go. In fact, in recent times our food has slowly retreated to the surface of the plate, often appearing as if randomly scattered, sometimes even ignoring the conventional boundary of the rim. The true “architecture” of a dish, however, is less about looks or visual construction and more about the “architecture of taste”— how blending elements creates a visually appealing framework for flavor and texture.

Contemporary cooks take many factors into consideration – materials, technology, aesthetics and matters of perception. Modern cooking seems to be an intersection of engineering and philosophy. Years ago, I read about the construction of a project in Switzerland that perfectly reflected this discussion: The Blur Building, the goal of which was to create an indeterminate “structure” of water vapor. On the same metaphysical level, a chef friend once pondered how to make food float in mid-air. It’s interesting and important for both disciplines to question themselves. Is a building without walls still a building? Was that dish I ate just dinner or something more?

milk chocolate praline pastry

That said, at the end of the day, food is just food. Though I pay way too much rent, I need a solid room in which to rest. As a sentient being, I ultimately seek comfort and pleasure from both. But as a chef, what concerns me is how the various elements of a dish — taste, texture and temperature — are engineered and arranged to provide the maximum impact. We achieve this through complement (classic flavor pairings, as well as the unconventional) and contrast (sweet and tart, smooth and crunchy, hot and cold, etc.). One caveat I learned early on: No matter how well two or more elements might go together, each must also be able to stand alone. Attention is also given to the structure itself — the form of how we eat and experience a dish. The thought process behind how diners will approach a plate of food mirrors how architects envision how a space will be navigated by its inhabitants.

Cooking from an architectural perspective goes beyond creating a pleasant-looking dish. It helps us refine our approach by thoughtfully layering flavors and textures; using techniques to best express the qualities of our ingredients; considering how the consumer will ultimately experience our final product. Though architecture and food serve practical purposes, constructing with an eye for maximizing experiential enjoyment elevates practical forms to a works of art.

Want to study Pastry Arts with Chef Michael? Click here to learn more about our career programs.

By Michael Laiskonis ­– Creative Director

As we look back at the latter half of the 19th century, continuing the results of historical research I’ve posted here and here, we arrive upon what might be considered the “golden age” of chocolate manufacturing in Manhattan. We see what began as a localized industry concentrated in lower Manhattan shift from small-scale “independent” makers to the greater reach of regional and nationally known brands, whose sizable factories often took up the length of a city block, moving uptown as the city continued to grow in size and influence.

Henry McCobb chocolate advertisement

With the industrial revolution of the 1800s, chocolate and cocoa made an interesting transition from the beverage served at coffeehouses and pharmacies into the realm of confections. The innovation of pressing ground cocoa beans into its cocoa butter and powdered components (a process perfected by Dutchman Casparus Van Houten Sr. in the 1820s) allowed for a number of new applications and refinements. We first see this shift in early advertisements extolling the virtues of “digestible” cocoa — lower in fat and thus lighter and easier to prepare. Extra cocoa butter from this pressing would soon be added to bars of “eating” chocolate, leading to the smooth refined textures of the bars we consume today. Of course, the range of traditionally sugar-based confections expanded with the introduction of sweet chocolate products. While I tried to limit my own research to manufacturers who produced chocolate from the cocoa bean itself, those lines between chocolate-maker and confectioner began to intersect even 150 years ago — a distinction that continues to confuse most consumers today. Indeed, many of the most prominent chocolate companies in New York City branched out into chocolate candies in addition to manufacturing plain bars and cocoa powders.

I’ve come to think of the latter half of the 19th century as New York’s “golden age” of chocolate, in part because of the growth in number of chocolate makers in the city, from a handful in the early 1800s to a dozen or more before the turn of the 20th century. Much of what we know of chocolate culture during this period is preserved in the form of ornate tins and whimsical advertisements of the day. One might also imagine the role these chocolate makers played in the daily life of the street, tempting passersby with colorful displays, and perhaps a view of the chocolate-making process itself. One contemporary account describes the shop run by Felix Effray at 64 East 9th Street, whose stone melangeur was prominently positioned in the store’s window:

December 10, 1849

On the corner of Broadway and Ninth Street is a store kept by Felix Effray, and I love to stand at the window and watch the wheel go ‘round. It has three white stone rollers and they grind chocolate into paste all day long… (Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, by Catherine E. Havens)

Effray was among a group of small, independent chocolate businesses in the city; we first see him at Broadway and Grand in the early 1840s, then at his shop near Astor Place, which he operated until at least 1880. Eugene Mendes, whose chocolate career spanned the same period, began on William Street and later moved to Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, then to Leonard Street in Tribeca, and finally to Broadway near Bleecker Street — one of the few chocolate-related buildings of its time that still stands, at least in part, to this day. New York poet Walt Whitman was known to have frequented an adjacent bar during the time of Mendes’ chocolate operation. Maine-born Henry McCobb’s Owl Brand chocolate was short-lived and the site of his 1880s shop on East 22nd Street near Gramercy Park is now a modern apartment building. McCobb was among the first to use photography in his advertising. Claude Crave made chocolate at the same location in the years after McCobb, and with him we see not only the transfer of existing chocolate companies, but also an example of shifting partnerships in New York’s chocolate “community.” Crave started making chocolate in SoHo at 16 Grand Street in the 1870s and at 176 Chambers Street in the 1880s. Though the relationship between Crave and McCobb is unknown, Crave partnered over the years with Philander Griffing and Alfred Martin, who at various points were independent themselves. Martin was also a partner of Mendes years prior. Other similar professional relationships I’ve uncovered suggest a tight-knit community and exchange of ideas and skills that mirror the craft chocolate industry today.

645 Broadway, Mendes chocolate factory

645 Broadway, site of the Mendes chocolate factory

In contrast to the small independent makers, likely limited to serving the local or regional consumer, larger companies with broader reach emerged, with large factories that no doubt employed the latest in chocolate-making machinery. Henry Maillard emigrated to New York in the 1840s and built an empire that culminated in a massive factory along Sixth Avenue, as well as a flagship retail store that stood nearby at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue across from Madison Square Park (the current site of Eataly). Herman Runkel began making chocolate at Maiden Lane and Broadway downtown in the 1870s and eventually operated out of a block-long facility on West 30th Street near today’s Penn Station. Huyler’s was another well-known brand that continued into the early 1900s, with a modest factory at Irving Place and 18th Street that opened in the 1880s. John Hawley and Herman Hoops, two independent confectioners, would join forces to create the Hawley & Hoops brand that would later be acquired by Mars; their factory on Lafayette Street just below Houston Street now houses fashionable condos. Of note is the fact that many of these companies used chocolate making equipment manufactured by Jabez Burns (a pioneer in both coffee and cocoa roasting) at his factory at 43rd Street and 11th Avenue.

Henry Maillard Chelsea factory

Henry Maillard’s Chelsea factory


Advertisement for Hawley & Hoops

Other companies, both domestic and foreign, would at various times set up shop in New York for retail and for limited manufacturing. The Massachusetts-based Walter Baker Co. was perhaps the most prominent brand of its day, with offices in lower Manhattan, and at a later date, ownership of the East 22nd Street factory previously occupied by McCobb and Crave. English import Cadbury ran its New York operation out of 78 Reade Street in Tribeca, and Emile Menier opened an outpost of his French company nearby at Greenwich and Murray Streets. One surprising discovery was the brief existence of a Hershey factory at 21st Street and 6th Avenue around 1920; it is a bit ironic that I began this project looking for chocolate near the current downtown location of ICE, when it existed just a block away from our former facility!

After the turn of the 20th century, virtually all of the chocolate-makers in New York faded or were simply absorbed by larger companies that eventually moved either to the outer boroughs or out of the city altogether as density (and property value) increased. As these final remnants of chocolate manufacturing disappeared, there remained a decades-long void, bridging little gap between iconic brands of their day and the current crop of craft chocolate makers in the city. Once again, we find the number of New York-based chocolate makers fairly small (and admittedly, located primarily in Brooklyn). Walking into the ICE Chocolate Lab each day, I feel honored to play a small role in the city’s rich chocolate history and as I wander the neighborhoods from the Financial District to SoHo to Chelsea to the East Village, I’m now constantly reminded of the names and places of chocolate-makers past.

Want to study with Chef Michael? Click here to learn about ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

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