We’re thrilled to bring you our new series, The Art of Plating, where we take you into the imaginations of chefs as they design and present their dishes. We show you how they do it, in step-by-step photos, and let them explain their creative process in their own words— why they put this sauce here, for example, or why they placed the herbs just so. First up: the revered pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, formerly of Le Bernardin and now the Creative Director of the Institute of Culinary Education. Also check out the last two days’ installments for more dish design from Chef Laiskonis. – Ed.
The Dish: Black sesame “gianduja” mousse, cherries, black sesame cake, mandarin sorbet, crêpe dentelle
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I’m working on curriculum revisions for the school, and I wanted to be able to say when gianduja—the Italian mixture of chocolate and hazelnuts—was invented. That turned into a full day and a half of research, and it turns out no one really knows. But in early versions, the thinking was that since it was difficult to get cocoa and sugar, they would add lupini beans, cornmeal, almonds, or other ground nuts to stretch the mixture. So I’ve been thinking about blending chocolate and nut pastes into “giandujas”. Black sesame has been a big thing of mine since 1999, when I started working for Takashi Yagihashi as his pastry chef, so this is my tribute to Japanese flavors—and it’s also sort of an “anti-presentation” presentation. I’ll explain…
Black sesame gianduja mousse
I love the idea of black and grey desserts, especially when paired with bright colors—here we have a black, orange, red combination. This is a mousse, so I could have spooned it onto the plate or piped it, but I wanted the cleanness of a hard geometrical shape versus all the other stuff in the dish. So I froze it in a dome mold so I can place it, and we’ll let it temper on the plate.
I sprinkled on a little sugar on the cherries and torched them for a little crackle, caramel flavor, and a sheen. I like that the cherries mirror the shape of the mousse domes, but flipped over.
Black sesame “micro-sponge” cake
This microwave sponge cake was developed by Albert Adria. It’s 30 percent black sesame paste, so it tastes like black sesame and has that dark black color. It’s very light, very craggly when you rip it apart; it has that indeterminate shape that I like against all the round elements.
Caramelized rice crisps
I took these rice crisps and did the basically the same thing you would do as candying nuts—cooked them in hot sugar syrup. Then you pour it out so that they clump up as they cool and you break them up. You get much more crunch that way. And the shape of it echoes the dynamic on the plate; it’s a craggly thing made out of round shapes.
Mandarin orange sorbet
It’s a pretty small scoop– look at the cherry as reference. I guess that’s all I want to say!
This is traditionally a very thin, crisp caramelized butter cookie; I added Japanese roasted soybean flour, kind of like their equivalent to malted milk powder. I left it at an angle here, so you can still see everything underneath in the photo. But I actually would prefer it sitting flat on top, hiding what’s underneath. My hope is that if I place it like that, your instinct would to tap the crêpe dentelle and break it all apart to get at the dish. I wanted an element of surprise, a breakthrough, a surprise underneath.
On the rise of and limitations of plated desserts …
One of my idols is Phillipe Conticini, a Parisian pastry chef. It wasn’t really until the 80’s that desserts were served as plated compositions by the chef—before that, dessert in a restaurant was often a slice of something or maybe a soufflé or crepes suzette. Conticini embraced plating; he wrote about how liberating it was. “We can think like cooks!” he said. But eventually he turned away from it, because the plate didn’t help combine flavors—they were just piles of components. He has this quote I think about a lot:
What creates synergy in a dish, as I slowly figured out, is not just the combination of flavors, but how they are combined. And often with a dessert, a plate simply won't do. Because it's flat, it does not allow the components to mingle as they are eaten. And it makes it hard to get the proper range of flavors in each bite.
So he started doing everything in glasses, where you only really had one way of eating a dessert; it forced you to combine the flavors in a specific way. He said, “the flavors are like neighbors in a small community. They bump into one another, they interact and they are concentrated.” It was kind of the ultimate anti-presentation, and I could appreciate that because he had reasons for it.
So my sesame / cherry dessert is plated, but it’s pretty tight, and I’m using that crêpe dentelle to hide it and keep it tight together. Hopefully, a diner would break through with their spoon and just start eating, combining everything but having each bite be just a bit different. It’s a glassless ode to Conticini.
The Dish: “The Egg” Milk chocolate custard, caramel foam, caramel sauce, maple syrup, sea salt
But while we’re talking about this, I also wanted to include The Egg in this series. I’ve been doing this dish for over 10 years; it’s followed me everywhere. It’s refined, it’s delicate, and the flavors are kind of all-American, so there’s a nostalgic element to it.
But take it out of its eggshell, and there’s no sexy aesthetic to it. You can only eat it the one way, dipping your spoon in and combining all the elements. That kind of retreat to simplicity and ultimate restraint…to me, I kind chose it as an anchor that almost says, “Presentation doesn’t matter, as long as you have good flavor and texture.” I’m an extremely visual person, but I want that as my anchor.
Milk chocolate pot de crème, baked in eggshell
I’d seen David Burke doing fun things with eggs in shells, and of course Alain Passard at L’Arpege has his famous egg with sherry vinegar and maple syrup. This dish was more of a nod to a Michel Richard dessert. I originally did a crème brulee that I was going to caramelize, but I used a white egg, which didn’t look good when we torched it. I’ve served this in egg cups and in bowls, but to do it on a plate I like to nestle it in cocoa nibs to keep it standing.
Caramel sauce and caramel foam
Ideally we serve this with the chocolate pot de crème at room temperature, a warm liquid caramel, and cold caramel foam.
And the maple syrup was a nod to Passard.
The big flakes give a spark of saltiness, and also crunch. The dish is so simple. It’s just greater than the sum of its parts. And serving it in the eggshell not only gives that directed way of eating it, but it also controls the portion size—just a few spoonfuls. You leave it wishing there was just a little more...though I have been asked to make it in an ostrich egg.
Yesterday: Growing a delicious "rock garden"
And before: Designing a panna cotta like you've never seen