You may have heard of trial by fire. Well, that’s nearly what a young Adrian Vasquez experienced when he first made brownies. The smell of scorched chocolate caused his mother to rush into the kitchen, convinced that the house was headed for cinders. Vasquez has clearly learned his lesson, as he’s gradually scaled America’s pastry mountain. The one-time guitarist and almost-architect graduated from elaborate home-cooked meals to Socca’s pastry department. He went on to work at other high-profile restaurants, including Aqua (during the Michael Mina era) and Chicago’s Bin 36 before accepting the executive pastry chef job at Providence in early 2006. On September 28, we met at Providence’s chef’s table to discuss his background and approach.
What is it that inspires you about pastry?
I like fruit, and obviously sugar. I like the creative aspect of it, and I like being on my feet all day, as opposed to a desk job. A desk job would surely kill me.
How did you become so interested in pastry?
I always remember having a sweet tooth as a kid. How I became interested? A cousin of mine from Miami came to live with me in San Francisco. Just out of survival, we took turns cooking for each other and going out to eat occasionally and it quickly became a competition who could cook the more elaborate meal. In a matter of months, it became huge tasting menus at our little tiny apartment. I figured I enjoyed it, and I already spent enough time in college and decided I’d just work for free at a local San Francisco restaurant.
How did you decide which restaurant?
I had a meal [at Socca], and at the time, it was great. Granted there were a lot of restaurants in San Francisco, I just felt this one was really special.
Did you get everything you wanted about that experience?
I was only there for probably a year-and-a-half or two years. It was a small Provencal restaurant, so the desserts were very rustic. After that, I rode my bike around Europe for six months, worked in England and got physically abused by a French pastry chef and came back to San Francisco and worked at Aqua, which at the time was one of the greater restaurants in the country, and learned a lot there.
Who was the executive chef during your tenure?
Michael Mina, and the pastry chef was Jason Gingold, who’s now a professor at NECI in Vermont.
Would you say that you have any pastry mentors?
Unfortunately not. I would have liked to have had one, it just didn’t work out that way.
With the lack of mentors, how did you learn?
I read everything I could get my hands on, spent all day and all night in the kitchen and did a lot of trial by error.
Do you think your architecture degree helps you in what you do now?
Had I stuck with it a little more, I think so. Certainly the aesthetic and the mantra that form follows function when plating, absolutely.
What do you think is the key to having a great dessert?
Having a variety of temperatures, hot and cold. Texture. I’m a big fan of texture. There’s always some sort of crunch on my plates. And depth. I feel like when I go out a lot of desserts don’t have depth. It could be an herb or spice.
What’s the latest pastry or dessert you’ve developed?
I just put it on the menu last week. It’s an apple cooked sous vide for a few hours in curry, and then we fill that with an apricot chutney and we serve it with some fennel that’s cooked in white wine and honey and serve it with a praline ice cream. It’s pretty tasty. The fall/winter transition from summer is always the hardest. Unfortunately, peaches went off the menu last week, for the year. Strawberries, unfortunately, are going to be next. It’s always a sad time of the year.
What was your approach with the apple dessert?
I’m a big fan of Indian food and I do like curry. I feel like curry is just like a winter thing, and obviously the apples were around, so I was kind of thinking curry chicken salad. Obviously I couldn’t put chicken in a dessert, so it just kind of went from there. It needed an acid, so we figured a chutney. The fennel was the last little thing for some crunch and just an added component. It’s a pretty simple, straightforward dessert given the rest of the dessert menu.
When you say, obviously, you can’t put chicken in a dessert, what are the actual limits to what you can do?
Well, I don’t know. We’ve done foie gras on a dessert. We’ve done chorizo caramels. We’ve done bacon. Everyone’s done bacon ice cream. So I don’t know that there really are any limits. Black olive caramels too, were a big favorite of mine.
What distinguishes your style from other pastry chefs?
Flavor combinations and, like I said, the depth. Added spices or herbs.
Would you say that your desserts have changed much since you first arrived at Providence?
Absolutely. Just the other day, I was thinking about what I did for Michael in audition to get the job. Obviously I got the job, but would I do those desserts again? No. I just think the desserts, lately, are more solid. They’re more well rounded, and I think they’re those of a seasoned pastry chef, which I probably couldn’t say about myself five years ago.
What were the desserts that you made for the audition?
One of them was a milk chocolate-marshmallow-Kahlua-cocoa-coconut streusel thing, which actually did end up working out, after a few major tweaks, into a dessert that stayed on the menu for quite some time. Then there was a coconut – I love coconut. I could probably put it on everything – passion fruit and carrot amuse that was just one bite on a spoon, that looked really pretty and actually was kind of tasty. Those are the only two that I thought of.
Do you not like the idea of reviving desserts on a yearly basis?
I don’t, for a couple reasons. I do it, just because I think the desserts are worthy, but I also have to think of my staff. I have a responsibility here, not just to the guests, but also to keep my staff interested and to continue learning. But also for myself, I have to continue increasing my repertoire and learning. In that regard, I don’t always want to bring back desserts I’ve done before. That’s not to say I don’t do them. Occasionally, I’ll be in a pinch. Something needs to get off the menu because that fruit’s not available. Okay, I have to put something on right now. So I’ll take something I’ve done before and put it on.
Is there any single dessert that’s untouchable, that you can’t imagine having off the menu?
Yes, and it has come off the menu twice, and it went back on the menu. No, three times. It was the kalamansi-lychee-shiso dessert. It came off the menu once, went back on, came back off the menu, and went back on slightly tweaked. The kalamansi, the acid jelly, is now a passion fruit-mango, and the lychee-shiso sorbet is now a lychee sorbet that’s been infused with lemongrass, ginger and Kaffir lime. So it’s very Thai scented. Other than that, it’s still has the coconut-white chocolate-soy milk soup with tapioca. I love it. I think it’s a great dessert, and it’s been on the menu for a long time, but at the same time, there are eight desserts on the menu. If one of them stays, I could live with that.