The holiday season becomes a time when (though our cooking skills come in handy) our lack of baking skills cramps our style. We all know baking is a whole different ballgame. You have to be…accurate (rather than the
usual sometimes haphazard, improvisational way we like to cook). So we sat down with the bad boy of pastry (yeah, we said it), Johnny Iuzzini, to talk to about his new book Sugar Rush (a bible to all things baking), as well as how sweet is too sweet, pastries to send during the holiday season, his fear of mediocrity and food TV…
From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
I am an espresso fanatic. I always start my day with a fresh ground and pulled double espresso in my Breville Double Boiler. This machine is no joke and allows me to make café quality coffee drinks. I’m trying to eat better, so I’ve been on a oatmeal kick in the morning with just some berries or raisins along with my vitamins and Crestor pills. The rest of the day is a free for all. It depends where I am and who I am with but I don’t have a set routine. Usually lunch is out of convenience. I love ramen and I can usually pop in and out quickly. I’m also a fan of well-made sandwiches on good crusty bread. If I’m in a restaurant, I will do a nice hearty salad with some protein, or I’ll order fish. With dinner, you never know. I rarely cook at home when I am in the city, and I travel a ton. When I’m at my cabin in the Catskills I love to cook and make big meals, even if it’s only myself I’m cooking for. In the city, I always try to eat at a place I haven’t eaten at before. I am definitely an adventurous eater and will try anything that sounds interesting or unique. I have to admit, Seamless Web kind of changed my life and made me a little more of a homebody when I actually am home. That said, there are usually over 100 places to choose from when I order, so I still get the variety, just not the exercise to get there and back.
As a pastry chef, do you think there’s such a thing as ‘too sweet?’
Heck yeah! The first thing I teach my cooks about developing a dish is that sugar/sweet are not flavors. If you taste something and the first thing you detect is sweet and sugary, you have failed. I definitely have a sweet tooth, but I enjoy flavors and balance in food. Just because it’s a dessert doesn’t mean it has to be cloyingly sweet. If it’s a fruit dessert, you want to have a pop of that flavor. If it’s chocolate or caramel or whatever, I want to taste those flavors, not have them be masked by additional sweetness.
What ingredient in baking is overrated?
I definitely feel that there are some flavors that are safe things that people will always gravitate towards, mostly because of childhood memories which evoke emotion. Like vanilla ice cream, chocolate cake, peanut butter and jelly, etc. As much as I love bacon – and when it’s done right it is amazing – there are a lot of bacon products out there that just don’t taste good or that don’t do the ingredient justice.
What ingredient in baking makes everything better?
Salt! I use salt in everything I do. This doesn’t mean I like salty food. Salt is a natural flavor enhancer and helps heighten what we taste in an ingredient. A simple demonstration: Take a piece of chocolate and let it dissolve on your tongue as you eat it. Now do the same thing with the chocolate except this time sprinkle some sea salt on top. You will see the flavors of the chocolate unfold and become more dynamic. It’s also great for finishing and garnishing, as a flaky salt like Maldon adds an extra element of texture.
Something we don’t know about you we’d be surprised to learn…
In my twenties, I was a poor struggling cook (like so many others) living in NYC and trying to make it. I decided long ago that I would make every sacrifice and compromise I had to make to work for who I felt was the best. This meant minimum wage at a four-star restaurant. I was buried in college loans and could barely make ends meet. I did have a love for clubs and house music and found out I also had a knack for being able to get people to show up at parties. I started working two to three nights a week in the big clubs of NYC at the time. I dressed up, had outrageous clothes and promoted parties, did the door, danced and made more money in two to three nights after working in the kitchen all day than I did in six days at the restaurant weekly. This allowed me to pay off my loans, pay my rent, and more importantly, follow my dream of working for the best in hopes of one day being a great chef.
What’s your personal mantra?
I have a fear of mediocrity. If I can’t be really good at something, I give up pretty quickly. I was one of those people that played every sport in high school for one season, then changed to something else. Cooking is the only thing in my life that I can push and depend on myself to get better daily. I am not restrained by anything or anyone but my own drive, determination or creativity. I am truly lucky that I found this at the age of fifteen. I fell in love and never looked back.
Can you give us one easy pastry recipe in three simple steps?
1. Melt 2 3/4 cups of chocolate in microwave in short increments, stirring each time until hot to the touch. Whip 2 cups heavy cream until soft.
2. Swiftly fold the hot chocolate into the soft cream, just to incorporate.
3. Divide into bowls, chill for 10 minutes and serve.
Many regard baking as more difficult, because precision is everything. Do you think that’s true?
Yes. Baking requires a certain attention to detail, not only in the exact measurements of ingredients, as a slight mis-measurement could cause a disaster, but baking is about multi-tasking. You need to be able to pay attention to the methods and techniques and how you mix ingredients together. There is a discipline required, a specific process – no shortcuts. I always explain to people that their best course of action to help ensure success is to follow three simple steps. First, read the recipe from start to finish before you do anything at all. Next, measure out all the ingredients in advance to starting. Third, take out all equipment, tools, pans and pre-heat the ovens before you start. Following those three steps alone is half the battle and will almost guarantee a successful baking experience.
Can you tell us a bit about your new book Sugar Rush?
Sugar Rush is my second cookbook. The first is titled Dessert FourPlay which essentially was a snap shot of what I was doing during my decade long tenure at the four-star restaurant Jean Georges in NYC. Sugar Rush is almost its opposite. It is a building block book that truly defines the basic principles in baking and pastry. We talk about ingredients and how they work together. We talk about equipment as well as temperature of ingredients. We break it up into chapters like, Custards, Cakes, Meringues, Caramel, Mousse, Tarts, and Cookies. I also give basic flavor combinations and then show you how to exercise creative freedom with them. Baking is one of those things that is passed down through the generations, and now with most families where both parents work, that art and those skills have faded. Sugar Rush teaches those small lessons that help demystify and give the home baker the confidence to execute recipes with ease and knowhow.
Biggest faux pas you would most commonly see on Top Chef Just Desserts…
Competitions are hard, man. I have judged a bunch and competed in a bunch. What people don’t realize is that you don’t necessarily have to be a great chef to be a great competitor and you aren’t necessarily a great competitor just because you may be a great chef. You have to be able to think quickly, make split second decisions, and constantly adapt and flow with the challenges thrown at you.
Do you want to do food TV again? Why or why not?
Yes. I enjoy food TV. At this point, I have been doing it for many years, between competition shows, talk shows, morning news shows, and travel shows. It’s fun, but it was never my goal. There was no food TV when I was growing up other than Julia Child, The Frugal Gourmet or the Great Chef series. These were based on teaching and exposing people to great ingredients, real techniques and cuisines of the world. There was no celebrity chef or reality chef TV. It’s crazy, but I have found a way to use TV as a tool. It’s a stepping stone that helps create new opportunities in markets that I may not have been able to reach before. If it weren’t for TV, I wouldn’t have an audience to teach through my cookbooks. I wouldn’t have a following that helps me raise money and awareness for charities through social media. I like being able to teach people and share my food experiences.
Advice to pastry chefs just starting out…
When you graduate from cooking school, that degree doesn’t mean you are a chef. It is a tool; you now have a foundation to build a career upon. Find a chef whose work you admire and work for them. Do your time and then repeat the process, but this time with a different style of food. This is how you will absorb and define your own food philosophy or “food voice.” You will sift through these experiences as time goes on and hone your own style based on what you have learned and experienced and you will decide which direction your cooking will take you.
A trend you’re hating in food and why….
I’m not a fan of trends in general. I try to ignore them. I believe trends are mainly caused by the media in their search for the newest and best, and the need for content on blogs and in newspapers. Trends are also the cause of a lot of mediocre food experiences. People jump on the bandwagon with below quality products in hopes of making money on the curtails of something or someone who is actually creating something special. I guess that’s what business is all about, but when it comes to food, there needs to be a standard of quality and pride. An example would be the Cronut. The name was created by my friend and great pastry chef Dominique Ansel. Did he invent it? No. Have other people been making them for a long time? Yes. What Dominique did was trademark a kitschy name and make a good product that people like. He was smart in his marketing and then the media took it from there.
What are some of the best pastries to send people in NYC?
I love my friend Mark Israel and his creations at The Doughnut Plant. The creme brûlée and peanut butter and jelly doughnuts are no joke. If I want Macarons, even though I spent a short time at Laduree in Paris, I call MadMac and order from them. The flavors are always spot on.
Despite the Cronut, my favorite thing at Dominique Ansel’s bakery is his DKA – a Kouign-Amann – which is a specialty of Brittany, France. It’s crusty, chewy and utterly delicious.
Francois Payard, one of my mentors, is the go-to for mini desserts and birthday cakes in NYC. The interesting flavor combinations and textures are hard to beat.
For all things pie, I turn to Robicelli’s Bakery. This husband and wife team are pretty amazing at what they do. For the frozen stuff, I’m all about Sam Mason’s Odd Fellows Ice Cream. He’s probably one of the most creative chefs of our generation.
What are your all-time favorite restaurants?
Peasant in Soho is my special secret. Frank Decarlo is not only an amazing chef with a rich pedigree, but he may be one of the most endearing and humble chefs I have ever met. Every time I go and see him there working behind the line, it teaches me a lesson about humility and reminds me of why we do what we do. Some of my other favorites are Aldea for Chef George Mendes’ modern Portuguese fare, and Seamus Mullen at Tertulia for sharp-flavored Spanish tapas. Wylie [Dufresne] at the soon-to-close wd-50 has been an inspiration for years. Also Mark Ladner at Del Posto constantly amazes me with his extensive creative tasting menus.
In the same vein as ‘what is the new black’ in fashion, what’s ‘the new potato’ in baking?
I think the consumer is more in tune with what they are eating now. They want to know what ingredients are in the preparations and where those ingredients are coming from. I think this is a positive movement, where we as a culture are moving towards a healthier and more educated way of cooking and eating. We are in a movement where people are now reflecting back to the old ways of respecting ingredients, supporting local farms and food producers and cooking with less manipulation in order to serve a more honest meal.
*Johnny Iuzzini, photographed at Odd Fellows Ice Cream in Brooklyn, NY by Danielle Kosann.