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An interview with Michael Laiskonis

May 1, 2008

Michael Laiskonis went from helping a friend at a local bakery to a pastry chef job at one of suburban Detroit’s hottest restaurants, and in 2004 to one of the top restaurants in the world, New York’s Le Bernardin. Mostly unknown and under the radar when he arrived in New York, he is no longer unknown, having accolades such as the James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007, and Bon Appetit’s Pastry Chef of the Year in 2004. When he arrived, Michael fit right in to the atmosphere of creative perfection that has been Le Bernardin’s hallmark for 22 years. We are pleased to offer Diana DeLucia’s photographs of Laiskonis’ delicious concoctions within the pages of Restaurant Insider this month, alongside an extended interview with the Midwesterner turned New Yorker.

NYRI: You grew up in the Midwest and didn’t start working in restaurants until after high school, how did you become so interested in pastry?
Michael: I didn’t grow up in a gastronomic environment by any means. I was actually a fairly picky eater as a child. Then in my teens, for whatever punk rock political reasons, I got into vegetarianism. I had a blond Mohawk and everything. People think I am so conservative! So, going into vegetarianism kind of exposed me to the fact that if you don’t want to cook for yourself, you end up eating junk food. So I started to explore the cuisines of the world that were vegetarian friendly; Middle Eastern and Indian and Asian, when I was probably 18 or 19 years old. I was going to art school at that time and as a sophomore I felt like I needed a break from school already, so I traveled around the country. Six months later, after going everywhere from Idaho to San Francisco to South Carolina and back, I needed a job. My roommate’s brother owned a small bakery/catering operation. At that point it was not a career, but it was actually through working with bread there that something clicked, and I’ve never looked back.

NYRI: How did you land your first big pastry job at Tribute in Detroit, with chef Takashi?
Michael: Just through connections. My boss at the time knew and was good friends with the opening Maitre d’ at Tribute and he was essentially employee number one. I had also met Takashi the chef, so it was already a friendly arrangement. I worked as a line cook there for about a year and then I left, and shortly after that the pastry chef position opened up. The opening pastry chef, a girl named Tanya, came with Takashi from Chicago and decided to leave and I figured I already had a bit of an ‘in’. I did a tasting, and I was the pastry chef there for five years.

NYRI: Tell us how you made the connection from Tribute in Detroit to the four-star Le Bernardin in New York?
Michael: I had met Eric at various events throughout the country. He actually came to Tribute to cook as a guest chef twice, and I had seen him in Naples, Florida at an event we were doing there. In early 2004, having been at Tribute for almost five years, I was starting to get a little antsy and I started to explore my options. I figured okay, the three main places I would go are New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. I actually had a vague business proposal for a place in San Francisco and I had a tentative offer in Chicago. Then somebody said, well, you know, Le Bernardin does not have a pastry chef at the moment.

NYRI: Who was the pastry chef at Le Bernardin before you?
Michael: Oscar Palacios had just left, and I think for a few months it was being run by the number two guy who is still the number two guy now, Jose. I did go through a brief period of ‘wow, am I ready?’ Because it was always my end goal to come to New York and start in a two-star. Eric was familiar with my work already but he was not going to call me directly out of respect for Takashi. So while I was in New York doing an event I met him, and we had about a two-hour chat and I left with an offer. That happened in March or April 2004 and then I moved here on Memorial Day Weekend and started that week.

NYRI: When you first started working here, was it a little intimidating working for someone as well known as Eric?
Michael: I think any time you start a new job, it always takes you a while to kind of figure out your role and find your place. I think it evolved very quickly and now we have an amazing relationship, which I always have with my chefs. I hear stories about pastry chefs who butt heads with the executive chef and that is such a foreign concept to me because really you have to work together.

NYRI: You have such a nice big space in the kitchen here to work in, and it’s pretty separate from the other stations.
Michael: Yes, that is a benefit of being a pastry chef as well, there is that autonomy. And, I think, subconsciously, that is the reason why I gravitated toward pastry because I am a self-starter. I do have bosses but I also have a lot of freedom in my own responsibility and my own accountability so I treasure that.

NYRI: What was the biggest transition in style you had to make between Tribute and Le Bernardin?
Michael: Takashi was very complex, there was a lot on the plate, and Tribute opened in the mid-‘90s at the height of fusion. Not that it was too much or too busy but compared to here where things are deceptively simple; you have a piece of fish, a garnish and a sauce. Now, that sauce may have taken four days to make. But I definitely had to rethink things and focus more on two or three flavors on the plate, and also engineering the menu in a similar fashion than the savory menu is. When you look at the title on the menu, it is what it is; it’s black bass. Eric’s philosophy is that we’re not cooking with ingredients, we’re cooking for ingredients. Everything we’re doing is to elevate the black bass. It does not translate completely to desserts but what we do is pick a focus - say a hazelnut. So everything that is there is there to reinforce hazelnut. Basically when I conceive a dessert, it is more like a sculpture, it’s a subtractive process like, “Okay, what can I take out and still be happy with it.”

NYRI: Did they ever have to reign in your style a little bit here?
Michael: I think out of anybody on the staff I am probably the more apt to use a lot of the molecular stuff, but, I also kind of reign myself in because I think some of the ingredients and the chemical stuff is useful but I wouldn’t want it to completely dictate my style. So, I have inserted some of that into the style and then the kitchen has in turn taken some of that as well. I am always conscious of ‘okay this is this veering too far off of what Le Bernardin is’. But then, at the same time, the great thing about this restaurant is that it is 22 years old but it keeps evolving and it is never going to be avant-garde, and that is good ultimately. But it still stays contemporary.

NYRI: How much have you been influenced by your travels or experiencing other restaurants?
Michael: I had been to Paris three or four times but I’ve never worked there. It is one thing about my resume, it is pretty boring. I’ve never worked for any big names or did romantic stages in Europe. But when I would go there, I would eat at Pierre Gagnaire one day and then lunch at L’Arpege the next day. To me they are operating at the highest level but they are representing two different sides. Gagnaire was always my idol in my crazy days where the more stuff I put on the plate, the better, and over time working with Eric especially I see more of the L’Arpege angle where there might only be literally three ingredients on the plate and that’s it.

NYRI: Which purveyors have done a really great job of getting you some interesting or exotic things for your dishes?
Michael: Well, I am definitely diversified, I’m loyal but I definitely spread my business around to create new relationships. One of the best relationships I created was actually with small company based in Indiana. The guy who started it is a former chef and they have amazing products and hard to get ingredients. There is something that I have been getting from them for a couple of years now, freeze dried corn. It’s amazing but hard to describe; it is lighter than air, super crunchy and it actually inspired me to do a chocolate and corn dessert. But they also carry a lot of the scientific stuff. Another guy is a spirits importer named Eric Seed, who runs a company called Haus Alpenz, and he imports the kookiest liquors, very rare things, things that have not been in this country for a hundred years. When he first walked in he brought in a pine-flavored liquor from Austria and a Wild Pear Cream liquor. Kind of like Bailey’s but it has little bits of dried pear in it. It was really textural and interesting.

NYRI: What is your philosophy for developing a menu when you are doing a consulting project with Eric?
Michael: To date I have worked on eight different projects. Right now, we are focusing on the Ritz Carlton projects; we just opened in Washington D.C. in November, and in about a month on May 20 we open in Ten Arts in Philadelphia. Each project is different, each menu is different and the concepts are different. What we are doing in Philadelphia for example, it is a bistro with the focus on east coast American. There is a classic French approach to things but with things familiar to Americana. So for example for Philadelphia there is actually sort of a joke on the menu. One of our consulting people said, “Mike, I have an idea for the dessert menu for you.” It is very rare that anybody will come to me, even Eric. Usually, I come to him first and he approves it, or not. So I was like, “What is your idea?” He said, “Tasty Cakes. You should do something with Tasty Cakes because it is as Philadelphia as the cheese steak apparently.” So I played around with it, I actually took the tasty cakes and whipped them up in the blender and made a parfait out of it. The media in Philadelphia picked it up, so now I kind of felt obligated to do it. I am also doing my take on the lemon meringue pie. It is deconstructed and just a little bit more refined and cleaner in presentation. I’m also doing cinnamon donuts with a milk chocolate shot. So, things that are casual but also refined and anyone will ‘get’. Cayman is the project that most resembles what we do here, although it is in the Caribbean so it is much more casual. What we do in Cayman is, as soon as I take a dish off here at Le Bernardin I will send it to Cayman.

NYRI: So your project in Cayman pulls from your repertoire here in New York.
Michael: Yes, and even when I do a dish for Cayman, it won’t be exactly the same whether it is because of logistics or I use a lot more tropical ingredients there because they are more plentiful, but the general style will be the same. For a Spanish restaurant that we worked on, there was a completely different approach. But it all comes out of a broader repertoire and the great thing about having all these different avenues is that I see each of them as their own challenge and it broadens my repertoire, because I’m doing something that I haven’t done before.

NYRI: When you create a menu in a place like Philadelphia, what happens down the road, do you go back and change and update the menu, and how often?
Michael: With any given project, I go back periodically. Cayman, I go twice a year. And, because Washington and Philadelphia are so close, it will be more often than that. And in the past we’ve had things here in the city, that’s a blessing and a curse because when there’s a problem, you can fix it. But it is so close, you can be there every day. So, the consulting is great but sometimes it feels like a second full time job.

NYRI: So how did it feel to win the James Beard award last year?
Michael: It was great, especially being the first time out. I’m sure that there are people that have that as a concrete goal, but for me, just the fact that I am working at this level is enough to make me want to pinch myself everyday. But I have always felt and I still feel that there are guys who are perhaps more talented pastry chefs than I am, that nobody will ever hear about. Exposure helps. Eric’s advice to me when I started here was, for the first couple of years, say yes to everything. Go anywhere that anybody asks you and the more people that you meet and the more people that recognize you, it definitely helps. You have to back it up ultimately, but I think that it is great career advice because to me, that has always been one of the perks of the job. I get to do all these fun events and experience things. I will do anything once just for the experience.

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