What continues to inspire you?
I have a very strong work ethic. I can’t ever expect anybody to give me anything. If I want it, I have to work hard to get it. That’s always been my drive. My main drive – all my life – is actually driven by fear. I have a fear of being mediocre. It’s been my downfall in a lot of ways in life. Take sports, where sports at the high school level and the middle school level is meant to teach kids about security, or teach ‘em how to work together and everything else. But like I said, I’m very competitive with myself, and I feel like if I can’t excel at something, I’ll quit. I played about every sport in high school for one year or two years until I realized I wasn’t going to be a star and quit and tried something else. It’s always been that same fear of mediocrity, and I felt like in the culinary field, in pastry, I feel like I could always see myself getting better, and it wasn’t about comparing myself to other people. I was always growing. There was always a thirst for knowledge. I never felt like I could reach a goal, and that’s what kept pushing me forward. I feel like every time I set a goal, I’d reach it, and it was very easy to set five more in the future, so I’d keep growing and heading for these goals, and never giving up.
In terms of setting goals, what do you still have to accomplish?
I’ve achieved a lot of goals I never thought I’d be able to, like I’ve been a four-star pastry chef for over 10 years, at the highest level of New York City, between Daniel and Jean Georges. I just passed nine years at Jean Georges and I was at Daniel for seven, two as pastry chef, at a three-star Michelin level. I’m 36 years old now, so that’s great. How do I then keep moving forward and redirect that skill? Part of the fun was climbing the ladder. I’m getting to a point now, now I’m like, okay, now how do I shake it up? That’s what was great about it, climbing that ladder to get to the next level. That’s not to say I’ve reached the end all, because there’s so much more I can do, but now it’s like, okay, how do I take everything I’ve done and transform it into a new direction? Whether it’s now becoming an employer, versus being an employee, or applying everything I know as a pastry chef to a new medium. I really love bars, cocktail bars, I love cocktails, well made cocktails, I love the technology behind it, as well as behind well made desserts. I would love to tie the two together, cross what a pastry chef is to what a cocktail bar is and really use a lot of technology, art and the balance and appreciation for flavors, and ability to combine flavors in a unique way, and combine the two together. So that’s something I’ve been thinking about for the future.
What city do you see that happening in?
My goal is to have them in every major city. I’m not looking to do monsters. I’m looking to do boutique size or controllable. It’s reachable – as a businessman, you have to make money. If it’s too small, you’re not going to make money. That’s a fact, so they have to be big enough to make money, but small enough to be controllable and do a good job. I would love to put one in New York, one to put in Vegas, one to put in L.A., one in San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta. Those are the main hubs that I believe that people understand food and are really excited about food. Chicago would be another one.
What are some of the bars that have inspired you, that you’ve seen in New York or otherwise?
I’m a huge bar fan in general. When I’m in L.A., I’ve been spending a lot of time at The Varnish. I think Seven Grand is a beautiful bar. As basic as it is, in some ways it works. It’s effective. When I was out here last year, The Tar Pit had a unique way of bringing in high-end bartenders, combining with a food concept. Unfortunately, the partnerships failed, so the concept failed, in my mind. Where else is really good? I love The Spare Room. It’s really well made cocktails. I love the idea of putting a lot of thought behind not only the atmosphere, what you offer your clientele, but don’t spend all this money and serve crappy cocktails. The fact that they’re really spending a lot of time developing well made, well crafted cocktails, thinking about the ice program, thinking about creating their own bitters, their own vermouths and infusions. Sotto’s doing a great job. Julian Cox is doing a great job. Alex Day is doing a great job. Eric Alperin. All these guys are really influencing the direction L.A. is going.
This has been going on for quite some time in New York. You have Sasha Petraske, Audrey Saunders and all these people are very inspiring in New York. Then they have all the people that they’ve inspired. You have Richie Boccato, all these people on the second tier that are launching these amazing bars. It’s amazing.
What and where do you drink when you’re not working in New York?
There’s not a whole lot I won’t drink, other than silly drinks. You can give me something with gin that’s really refreshing, with cucumber. I love a lot of brown and bitters. I tend to drink a lot of Amaros. I drink a lot of bourbon. I’m actually friends with Julian Van Winkle of Pappy Van Winkle. Now every time I go somewhere, I ask to have a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle waiting for me in my room. When I got to L.A., there was a bottle of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle waiting for me. Nothing makes me happier, just something as simple as that. Nothing else needed, just delicious and balanced and complex, so much too it.
Getting back to pastry, is there any technique that was especially challenging for you to learn?
Everything’s difficult at a point. If you have an open mind, you can learn anything. I had a chef that told me once, when I was young, he said – because when you’re first out of school and you’re very excited, if somebody asks you, “Can you make a pavlova?” Rather than say yeah – if you’re always saying what you know, you’re not learning anything else – so I learned at a young age to say, “Sure I know how to make it, but I’d love to learn how you make it.” Then it becomes putting your ego in check. That’s a very hard thing to learn as a young chef, especially because our industry is so ego driven. If you can learn how to be humble and put your ego in check, and actually, the chef was Daniel Boulud. He’s like, “Johnny, you’re going to be a great chef. There’s no doubt about it, just always remember to be humble. Always remember where you come from and how hard it was to get there, and you’ll always be okay.” I carry that with me daily.
What were you hoping to accomplish by being a judge on Top Chef: Just Desserts?
This is the first time that pastry chefs have been in the spotlight on their own. The reason why I wanted to be involved in the show in general, I think it’s a great brand, and what they’re doing in showcasing a certain skill set – whether it’s chefs or pastry chefs – is phenomenal. It’s really teaching the world what we do, and how much creativity is really involved, and how much hard work. So when the opportunity came along to be a part of Just Desserts, I embraced it because, like, wow, not only could I be a part of something, but I could help direct it in a certain way, and make sure we are represented properly, and we are represented to our fullest and maximum, and not just make a joke out of it. Part of it was almost, I wanted to guard my profession, and the other part was to embrace the fact that this is a great opportunity to teach the world about what a pastry chef is. So many times, I’ve told people I’m a pastry chef. “Oh, so you make cookies every day?” Which is fine. There’s a place for that. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s so much more than that that people don’t understand. I had a girlfriend, she said, “Oh you’re a pastry chef, you make pasta.” She had no clue what a pastry chef was, at all. There’s nothing wrong, that’s a cultural thing, but now that it has the exposure, I really want to make sure the show shows how versatile as pastry chef is. You can have a cook that cooks a certain style, but a pastry chef needs to know way more than you think they do. You have to be versed not only in desserts, but also bakery, Viennoisserie, showpiece work, ice. There’s a lot of different facets to what a pastry chef is, and the skill sets and the craftsmanship they acquire.
What have you learned from the competitors?
We’ve had a lot of different competitors. Unfortunately some competitors, they don’t hold up well in that spotlight or that arena, and that’s something that maybe it’s hard to know until you’re in it. I wish some of them would act in a more professional way, cause they are representing us as a trade. As much as I’m a head judge, I’m still a pastry chef. They represent me, as much as any of the other pastry chefs in the world. Sometimes I wish they would just be a little bit more stand-up, a little bit more professional in the way they’re talking to each other, and the way they’re handling the food.
The hardest part for me is that I don’t get to touch food. I’m spending all this time with these guys and watching them cook, and I can’t say, “Hey, have you thought about this?” or give them some advice. But for sure I learned some new techniques. I saw some great combinations. I keep a notebook on set, and if I see something I like that I haven’t thought of, I actually put it down in the notebook to think about in the future for applying to my own menu in my own restaurants.
What’s the criteria for a Johnny Iuzzini dessert?