Trust the Process: Building Desserts at Blackbird

Saturday, Apr 9th, 2016

Change happens slowly– or so I’m told. In a professional kitchen, however, change is just part of the day-to-day. Controls are in place to anticipate change and inform reactions to it: a hierarchical system of chef, sous chef, cook; detailed inventory systems and recipes, the concept of “mise en place” and how it rules a cook’s mindset. Still, every new day is a possibility for a wrench to be thrown in the system, whether in the form of an unannounced eight-top during a busy service or a cook putting in their notice. However, the sort of change that challenges me the most is of a different sort– deliberate change.

With time, with seasons, with pressure from managers or expectant customers– menus change. Desserts in particular are meant (at least to me) to be in a constant state of flux, at once complimenting the savory dishes they follow and standing alone as a representation of a certain time of year or state of mind. The pastry kitchen at Blackbird never rests. Once a new dessert, workshopped over the course of (up to) several weeks, tasted and revised and tasted and tasted again, finally makes its way in a completed form onto the menu– it’s time to start working on another. Before Blackbird, I had only witnessed this process as an observer, but being a pastry cook here means undergoing the process yourself.

In my current position, I’m in charge of coming up with two different desserts for the lunch prix fixe menu. One takes the form of a “coupe,” basically an ice cream sundae, and changes almost weekly. All I need is an ice cream flavor of my making and three to four textural components to go with it: typically some sort of sauce, a cake/cookie element, a flavored whipped cream, and perhaps a finish of meringue, candied fruit/nuts, or just maldon salt. This is (relatively) easy, since the format is so well-defined and I can repeat components if I like them and they work well.

The other option on the prix fixe menu is a plated dessert, intended to change on a loosely seasonal basis. Something on the small side, not too heavy, and easy to execute. Within these boundaries, the challenge is to create something compelling that will appeal to a lot of people– with perhaps one “wild card” ingredient, that surprise element that elevates a dish to Blackbird standards.

For someone with little experience conceptualizing plated desserts (such as myself), this is all more difficult than it initially sounds. And it doesn’t particularly sound easy.

Luckily, I’ve had some guiding forces to help me get whatever’s in my head to make sense on a plate. I distinctly remember approaching Chef Dana one morning when we were the only ones in the kitchen. I had recently moved up to the lunch cook position and was eager to begin exploring the opportunities of the role– but, admittedly, at sort of a losses to where to begin. A born perfectionist, I hate the process of trial and error, but every composed dessert (or any creative project, really) begins from this point. “I think I might have an idea for a dessert?”

Chef Dana was all enthusiasm, and immediately grabbed a piece of paper. My dessert began as a grilled peach panzanella, using day-old service bread as buttery croutons. From there, Dana began to show me her technique of mapping out a dessert: the central flavor occupies a main bubble on the page, off of which other ideas begin to branch out. What goes with peaches? Coffee, creme fraiche, bourbon– but also sourdough, parsley, zucchini. And what goes with zucchini?

In this way, we were able to pare down the dessert to its most distilled, necessary components. Make no mistake– the process unfolded over the course of several weeks, with multiple different ice cream test batches and a brief deliberation over whether the dessert might be better suited to the dinner menu over lunch. However, one of the most essential things I’ve learned during my time at Blackbird that critiques are not necessarily born out of mistakes. “This component doesn’t need to be on this plate” does not imply that it was error to include it in the original idea– everything must be tested, tasted, and questioned. “Mistakes” often breed more ideas, or turn up in another later dessert, or can be simply written off as a learning experience.

From these first impromptu scribbles on a piece of scrap paper to an actual, real-life, approved-by-my-bosses dessert to be sold on a Blackbird menu, we ended up with a bourbon-poached peach panzanella with walnut butter, sourdough croutons, and a zucchini bread ice cream. This, and subsequent dessert development projects that I’ve taken on, work well because the Blackbird pastry kitchen is a collaborative environment. (It’s really too small of a space not to be– nothing occurs in a vacuum!) I am still developing my confidence as a pastry cook, but fortunately for me in this industry, if at first you don’t succeed– at least your mistakes double as snacks.