The Sweet Spot: Celebrating Desserts

For the past 19 years, Dessert Professional Magazine has hosted an awards and tasting party for the country’s top ten pastry chefs. Last night, at the Institute of Culinary Education, New York took the largest piece of the winning pie with chefs Sandro Micheli from Daniel, Marc Aumont from The Modern, Angela Pinkerton from Eleven Madison Park, Damien Harrgott from Bosie Tea Parlor, and the city’s darling, Christina Tosi from Momofuku Milk Bar.

As they lined up with the other winner—Sally Camacho from WP24 in Los Angeles, Craig Harzewski from Naha in Chicago, Nathaniel Reid from Norman Love Confections in Florida, Jean-Marie Auboine from his self-titled shop in Las Vegas, and Chris Hanmer from Las Vegas’s School of Pastry Design—I couldn’t help but notice all the champs were skinny. I’m not talking about just being smaller than Mario Batali, but I-never-even-eat-dessert thin. Oh well, so what if Tosi looks like she could be a vegan? It’s her pretzel and chocolate-chip cake-truffles we really care about.

You can just look at Tosi’s innovative creations to see that the art of dessert has come a long way. While a decade ago the real trick came in making superb chocolate mousse, a moist flourless chocolate cake, or perfect, airy pastries, today’s chefs have made dessert more than the end of the meal treat. They are creating art. Take Pinkerton’s lavender meringue with cocoa sorbet, for example; it didn’t look like anything you would order off a cafeteria sweets bar. The dish she offered had layers of crumble, cold, hard, light, sweet, and sour—all on one plate, which is a theme she carries over to Eleven Madison Park. Tosi too has been known for her original use of packaged crackers, pretzels, and various candies to spruce up cookies and cakes. Based on some of the other dishes at the awards ceremony, this trend isn’t going away, and people like it.

As guests fought to sample the gourmet sweets, past award winner Pichet Ong of Spot Dessert Bar flittered about the tables, garnering an excited “Hey chef” every where he went. Anita Lo of Annisa was also seen heading to the dessert room where Top Chef: Just Desserts Season Two winner Chris Hanmer whipped up a modern looking pineapple confit with a crazy tube of passion fruit studded with cilantro. Hanmer’s show mate and the United States representative of the Culinary Olympics in Germany, pastry chef Sally Camacho, also offered an interesting dessert involving a cup filled with a landscape of fluffy, crumbly, stiff, floral, salty, and chocolaty.           

Across New York you can find enjoyable desserts like the ones represented at the awards including the crazy flavors of rice pudding at Rice to Riches, everything chocolate at The Chocolate Room in Brooklyn, and next level desserts by chef Justin Hilbert of Gwynnett St., also in Brooklyn. If you happen to be in San Francisco, check out Humphry Slocombe ice cream parlor where Jake Godby creates the strangest flavors including salt and pepper, oolong tea, and peanut butter curry.

Despite all the innovative desserts being passed around the culinary school last night, I still go for the simplest, like Jean-Marie Aubione’s perfect chocolates and crispy bars and the bright raspberry and chocolate pastry by Nathaniel Reid. No matter how you like your sweets, though, there is something for everyone to indulge in. 

Industry Insiders: Trenchermen Brothers Mike and Pat Sheerin, Living Large

When settling on a name for their new restaurant, brothers Mike and Pat Sheerin found a moniker that seemed to embody their own life philosophies: Trenchermen. The term describes hearty eaters and drinkers, but, as Pat explains, "We take that a step further to mean a person who lives life fully." It’s something both know well. Pat, the older of the two brothers, has an extensive background in fine dining, having worked at such acclaimed Chicago restaurants as Everest, Ambria, Naha, and most recently as the executive chef at The Signature Room. Mike is just as prolific, having spent time in the kitchens of New York hot spots Jean Georges, Vong, Lutèce, and  WD~50, But it was back in Chicago when everyone began to take notice of his work as the chef de cuisine at Blackbird, a post he served until 2010, when he left to pursue Trenchermen. In the process of opening their newest restaurant, (which should hit the Chicago scene this spring), Mike and Pat took time to chat about how they got started cooking, what it’s like to work together, and where they opt to grab a bit after a long night in the kitchen.

When did you first get started in the restaurant industry?
Pat: For me, it started long ago. I was lucky enough to get some work at the Taste of Chicago for a company called Shucker’s, which was an old steak[house] with a raw bar out front. We’re talking about 23-24 years ago, though. I kind of caught the bug at that point–I was 12/13 years old and I knew that was what I wanted to do. My parents were smart enough to guide me to go to a four-year school before I went to cooking school so I have my undergrad [degree] from Michigan State in Hospitality Business.
Mike: I did not go to college just because I didn’t really feel like I was ready and I didn’t really know what I wanted to study. I had been baking bagels for many years and then I started working as a short-order cook or a prep cook in a restaurant and my brother was like, “Why don’t you try cooking?” so I went to school for it at Grand Rapids Community College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Pat helped me get my first two jobs.  
Pat: They [Michigan State University] set me up with a six-month internship at Everest and that’s where I caught the fine-dining bug. Being in that environment was a real eye-opener. I realized I needed to go to cooking school. We were breaking down venison, wild game from Scotland, stuff like that there. I went out to New York to go to the French Culinary Institute. I lived in Brooklyn in Brooklyn Heights, just right across the bridge–it was a 25 minute walk to school. It was just fantastic. I went back to [Everest] and spent almost three years there.  I was the poissonier–the fish chef; that’s where Mike and I worked together. He was my veg cook. It was fun. It was interesting, I’m sure, for everybody at times. Some days were a little bit longer than others, to say the least.
Would you guys ever butt heads?
Pat: Yeah, we would. Just over stupid stuff or not stupid stuff. It happened, but I think we got past it pretty quickly.  
When did you and Mike first start talking in earnest about opening a restaurant together?
Pat: It was close to 10 years ago–maybe a little longer than that. He and I always talked and kept talking about food and just dining in general and ideas [that] we’d bounce off one another. When we got a little bit more serious about it, it was probably two years ago when we started to discuss the idea and work on a business plan. We just kept meeting with people and learning more and more about the process and going to meetings. It can be deflating because you meet all these different people and they’re the ones with the money. Everyone thinks restaurants are extremely risky and you have no idea what you’re doing going into them, but if you have a stable plan and you execute it, I don’t think it’s as risky. It’s making sure you find the right match.  
What first prompted you to resume discussions two years ago?
Mike: The truth is, why do people leave the jobs they have before? I was honestly looking for something that was gonna allow me to have ownership and partners as well, and that’s what I’ve enjoyed in the kitchen with people – the collaborative efforts. I wanted to push myself and I wanted my brother Pat to be part of that. [And] to be able not to have guidelines set by somebody else. I wanted to see how far I could think about food and where exactly I wanted to go. You never really know where you can go until you get there. I felt like I had definitely grown and gone further in my culinary career and my ideas but I wanted to go further, I think, than Blackbird wanted.
What can you tell me about the concept behind Trenchermen and some of the dishes you’ve been developing on the menu?
Pat: [Our business partners] wanted to make sure we did it right. We were all in agreement that everyone was gonna do what they do best; this is not about holding back. We’re gonna create a restaurant that people either love or hate because we want to make sure it’s defined. It’s a lot of things from the turn-of-the-last-century and some steampunk things to it. Things that–I don’t want to say vintage–are being retrofitted so that they’re purposeful. Nothing’s being used because it looks good; everything’s being used because there’s a purpose for it. It’s functional. We have a great barrel cocktail and tap program that we’re working on with quite a few great beers on tap, as well as ciders and wines on tap and we’re gonna do a carbonated cocktail as well. Kevin [Heisner, one of their business partners] has found a bunch of different old-school taps, but he’s gonna retrofit them so they’re usable for our purposes. The [interior] design has these elements of an old turn-of-the-century factory. We wanted to create a booze-y restaurant, which kind of fits with the moniker of being a trencherman, which is a hearty eater and drinker. We kind of take it a step further to mean a person who lives life fully.
What are some of the inspirations menu-wise?
Mike: We want to make delicious food. We want to present familiar flavors in unexpected ways. We really want to bridge what casual fine dining should mean.  For us, casual fine dining [has meant] fine dining atmospheres that have very casual, rustic food. We really want to have a casual atmosphere, but extremely refined food. That means it’s technique-driven, the food is plated beautifully, and it’s obviously very seasonal.  
Pat: I think we draw inspiration from almost everywhere. We’ll take ideas from a mundane concept, [such as] a tri-tip pastrami that’s brined and smoked and cooked sous-vide slow and low. We reverse a sandwich where we make a sauerkraut-flavored gnocchi and then make a broth with gruyere cheese and clarify, and then we make a mustard air. We add soy lecithin to a mustard broth.  t’s familiar flavors presented in an unfamiliar way.
How do your two styles complement or clash with one another in the kitchen now that you’re working together again?
Pat: We went in two different directions but they were very parallel, I guess. Mike’s a phenomenal cook and he’s got great ideas. When we talk about our food, how’s it gonna mesh, Mike brings some advanced technical skills to the mix.  
Mike: I think that Pat’s had a different audience than I have had for the last nine years at The Signature Room. He’s also really brought a lot of great things there, such as seasonality and the use of the farmer’s market. I definitely learned that at Blackbird, and he’s influenced me as well. We’re similar in that we really like to push ourselves to do better everyday and try our hardest, always. And where we clash is I think that we’re stubborn and strong-viewed, when we have different ideas and we’re not communicating or clarifying everything. We’re looking for a conversation with each other about all things.
Will you have a noisy kitchen?
Pat: It’ll be focused. During service, it won’t be quiet-quiet but it’ll be quiet.
What do you guys like to do to unwind after a long day in the kitchen?
Pat: Now that we’re getting a little bit older – we don’t do this as much anymore – but we definitely like going out, going to the late-night spots, having a bite to eat, and socializing with friends in the industry. But I’m married with two young kids so that doesn’t happen very often anymore.
Favorite Chicago place to grab a bite when you’re leaving the kitchen?
Pat: If they’re open, I definitely love to go to Avec. That’s one of my favorites. Now that we’re in the neighborhood, I definitely see myself at  The Bristol a little bit more often. I haven’t been there enough but I really like Maude’s Liquor Bar.
Mike: Lately I’ve been going to MingHin in Chinatown because I live on the Southside. They do a chilled beef tendon and tripe salad. The two restaurants I’ve really been digging a lot and I’ve been going to is Nightwood and Lula Cafè. They’re definitely better than ever now.