In many ways, Johnny Iuzzini has become the quintessential 21st Century pastry chef. He’s spent the past decade leading top tier departments for internationally renowned chefs Daniel Boulud and Jean Georges. The native (upstate) New Yorker is currently executive pastry chef at Jean Georges, Nougatine and Perry Street in Manhattan. He authored “Dessert Fourplay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef,” and given the chance, will write more cookbooks. However, his most high profile role yet is as the head judge of Top Chef: Just Desserts, where he’s become the leading arbiter, protector and proponent of what his profession can and should be. We recently met on the roof of a building near downtown L.A., where he delved deep into his background and approach.
What’s the criteria for a Johnny Iuzzini dessert?
First and foremost, it has to be delicious. Anything you create, whether it’s savory, sweet or a cocktail, if it’s not delicious, you fail. If people wouldn’t order it again, or wouldn’t walk away saying, “That was great,” and they’re still thinking about it, you fail. People don’t care. The customer doesn’t care if you spent four minutes creating something, or four days. The only thing that matters is if it’s delicious. That’s how I get back to talking about ego. Are you creating for your ego? Are you creating to say, “I’m doing something that no one else is doing”? Or are you creating that because it’s amazingly delicious and you want to share it with the world? A lot of times, it’s one thing to be a technical cook, or someone who’s a pioneer, and that’s great. There’s always going to be some resistance when you give people something they’ve never had before, but if it’s great, if it tastes good, there shouldn’t be that much resistance, so it’s a matter of, are you cooking for your own ego?
I have a problem with people who jump on a bandwagon for a very modern style of cooking, say working with hydrocolloids. People say, “I’m working with hydrocolloids too,” and they do it in such a bad way, that people who are trying it for the first time, try that horrible dish that was ill conceived without people understanding the ingredients they’re using, and then it’s black marked forever in their mind. They’re like, “I’ve had molecular gastronomy. It’s horrible, I can’t stand it.” You had it by someone who didn’t understand the ingredients they were using, and executed in a poor way.
What’s the latest dessert you created, and what was your inspiration?
I’m very seasonally based at Jean Georges, and I do Fourplay, so I do four desserts based on a single ingredient, or a single motif, so right before I left [for Los Angeles], I put on two new tastings. One I had never done before, and I don’t know why, based purely on vanilla, because it was that weird time. Spring hadn’t started yet. We’re coming out of winter, so I already had citrus on the menu, I had chocolate, I had caramel. I wanted to do something a little bit different, so I did a vanilla dessert, straight vanilla, showcasing vanilla four different ways. One of the desserts is so simple, it’s only three different components, but texturally, it’s amazing. For me, I think about texture, I think about balance of sweet and sour, crispy and creamy, hot and cold, so the dessert is actually a puff made from a vanilla syrup. I essentially make a foam texture and dehydrate it. Imagine a Hershey’s kiss shape times 10. It’s a big mound. It looks like a buoy, a big beautiful white buoy, with specks of vanilla in it. I hollow out the very center of it, and fill it with fresh passion seeds, and an aerated vanilla curd, and just sift a little bit of ground vanilla beans on top. So you look at it, and you don’t know what it is, but you go through it and all of a sudden it’s a beautiful crunch, and then you have the acidity from the fresh passion seeds, and the crunch from those. Then there’s aerated texture of just pure, fatty vanilla flavor. And it goes so well together, and it’s so simple. I love when I’m able to create dishes like that, very few components, but very strong, and a pop of flavor. For me, that’s probably one of my favorite things on the menu right now.
The other new tasting is a rhubarb tasting, where I take rhubarb and just juice it. I clarify it, so I take all the particulate out of it, so I get a dead clear rhubarb juice, balance it with a little sweetness. So essentially I have a beautiful, carbonated, fresh rhubarb soda with just a little bit of fresh strawberry and a light vanilla crème fraiche. It’s amazing, simple ingredients but powerful in flavor.
Are there any pastries, or pastry chefs, that have impressed you in L.A.?
I had a really delicious strawberry dessert a couple days ago at Drago Centro, which surprised me because I didn’t realize they were a modern restaurant. They served me a green salad that was very modern, it had a component that had alginate pearls on it. The dessert, they did a basil microwave cake, a really light texture with a light mascarpone cream and strawberries. It was a good dish. It had a lot of homey, recognizable flavors that evoked emotion, but done in an a very sophisticated way.
Last time I was in town, I ate at Bottega Louie. The boyfriend/girlfriend husband/wife team over there, I think they do a great job. Their Viennoiserie looks beautiful, and I think their desserts are nice. Other than that, I haven’t really experienced a lot of what’s going on. I visited Madame Chocolat yesterday, had a bunch of stuff from her showcase and thought she’s doing a great job, especially since there’s essentially very few people on that team making that happen and they offer a lot of different products. I tasted a bunch of stuff and I thought it was all really delicious.
If you could only eat one more dessert, what would it be, and who would make it? It can’t be you.
Unfortunately, my mom passed away seven years ago, and like I said, she wasn’t a great cook, but she was known in the neighborhood for making this Black Forest cake. It was funny because the other wives in the neighborhood would actually pay my mom to make it for their anniversaries. I remember as a kid, her building this monster thing. It looked kind of ridiculous in a lot of ways and oversized. Maybe it was because I was so small that it seemed so big to me. It was like bigger than my head. I just remember eating it and thinking, “I don’t like that so much,” but it was probably because of the alcohol in it with the kirsch and whatever else – the cherry brandy – but I wish I could have that one more time from my mom. That’d be the thing.
Do you have the recipe?
No, no. I lost her unexpectedly, so I was never able to get that recipe from her.
Do you have any favorite outdoor activities?
I’m a big motorcycle guy. Not only do I commute every day on my motorcycles, but I have a house in the mountains, outside of New York, probably another hour from where I grew up, deeper into the woods. It’s a little bit like “Deliverance” up there. I have 16 acres of land, with a cabin in the middle, and it’s butted up against 23 miles of State land that they’ll never develop, so it’s very quiet and secluded. I spent a lot of time up there chopping wood and going through my land. I don’t chop trees down, but there’s a lot of downed trees that I’m always breaking down. I burn my own firewood all winter long. So I chop a lot of wood, I ride motorcycles a lot through the mountains. I love to be out. A lot of the reservoirs that feed New York are up there, with beautiful rope swings into deep pools of ice water that came right off the top of the mountain. I’m definitely an outdoors guy. Anything to be outside, yard work, stuff like that. I’m one of those people, like, one of my favorite smells in the world that truly evokes a lot of emotion in me is the smell of fresh-cut grass. I don’t have that in New York ever, so going Upstate is something that I really look forward to.
Talking about food and cocktails, you talk about scent, and scent plays such a huge role in the creation of food, and the delivery of food. Scent, after vision, is one of the first things you’re greeted with, and scent truly evokes emotion. That’s why people identify with certain fragrances, because certain scents remind them of certain memories they have. If you have a positive memory of something that smells good, it can uplift you from a bad day to a good day, just with a single scent. I take that into consideration with a lot of the food I create. Fragrance is something I’d like to get into as well, and tie who I am as far as what I’ve achieved in my vision of food, and apply that, not only to cocktails, but also to fragrance.
Do you know Tony Conigliaro?
Yeah, I know Tony.
I imagine you would get along in that regard, then, since he focuses so much on scent when creating cocktails.
Yeah, Tony, he’s a great guy. I haven’t been to 69 Colebrooke, but we’ve done events together at Tales of the Cocktail and in New York. We did an event at Star Chefs. It’s interesting. Everybody approaches things a bit differently. We’re always constantly learning from each other, and I have a huge amount of respect for anybody in the industry.
Do you plan to publish any more books?
I’m actually working on two more books. My first book came out, called Dessert Fourplay, and it’s great, but a very prominent chef, who has a lot of books out, when I was doing my book and was very adamant about doing it a certain way, there was a lot of contention between my publisher and I, because I’d hand it in and they’d hand it back to me and say, “Sorry, too complicated.” I’d simplify it a bit, turn it in, they’d hand it back to me and said, “Sorry, too complicated.” The third time I was like, “You know, if we can’t see eye to eye on this, I’m going to have to give you the money back. It’s not going to work, cause I can’t go any farther, because it takes away from what I want to do.” This chef told me, “You know, for every chef, the first book is for your own ego, because you want to say, this is what I can do, and every book you make after that, because you realize, it’s not about you, it’s about who you’re making the books for.” So the first book did well, but it didn’t do as well as I hoped it would do, and now the next two books, one’s actually being designed as a children’s book. It’s already been written, and I have a huge pop-up book collection at home. I love pop-up books, and I always wanted to do a pop-up book. It’s a children’s pop-up book, an intro to baking, to try and get parents and kids back into the kitchen together. It’s actually the story of me, as a child, with my dog. I was going through the trials and tribulations of learning how to cook on my own, because my parents were at work, and all the disasters that can happen, and this and that. It’s kind of fun.
The second book is essentially based on watching Top Chef, and shows like that, the Achilles heel of all these chefs is that they can’t make desserts. They’re so accustomed of having a pastry chef take care of it for ‘em, they can’t do it themselves. Many more pastry chefs are comfortable cooking savory, than savory are comfortable cooking pastry. It’s just funny to see, so this book is not only for people at home to really kind of get them back into baking, because baking’s a lost art at home. Growing up, there were always pies and cakes baking, and you don’t see that as much anymore, and I think it’s a lost art, so I want to show how to simplify that and bring that back into the house. And family style dishes, not plated desserts at all. And then the flipside is also to help savory chefs conceive and develop desserts for their restaurants without needing a pastry chef.
When will those books be out?
The kids book we’re shopping now. We’re actually having a hard time selling it. The childrens market, as much as it’s a big sector of the book market, with Borders closing and all these things, it’s a hard sell, especially for a pop-up that costs so much money to make. We’re redeveloping now, maybe as a flat book. I’d rather not, but I’d rather get the story out there than not at all, so if it has to be a flat book, then fine. And the other one is still in the development process.
Do you mind sharing a recipe with Food GPS readers that people could conceivably pull off at home?
“Reprinted from the book Dessert Fourplay by Johnny Iuzzini. Copyright © 2008 by Johnny Iuzzini. Photograph copyright © 2008 by Gregor Halenda. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc.”