Chef Michael Laiskonis: Teacher, Developer, Reluctant Food Scientist

Chef Michael Laiskonis has scores of accolades for his kitchen chops: awards fromPastry Art and Design, Bon Appetit, the James Beard Foundation, and the IACP. While he was the executive pastry chef of Le Bernardin, the restaurant achieved three Michelin stars and four stars from the New York Times, along with high praise for his innovative, delicious desserts. But it’s his kitchen at the Institute of Culinary Education that has us excited right now.

Laiskonis took the creative director position at ICE in 2012 to pass along his extensive pastry knowledge and have the time to focus on experimenting with truly new techniques; two activities that are part and parcel to a fine dining chef but hardly top priorities. At ICE, he teaches several workshops monthly, does regular consulting work and recipe testing for a range of culinary clients in different fields, and experiments with the cutting edge of kitchen technology.

We recently joined him in his kitchen/lab, both to hear about his essential tools of the trade and pick his brain about kitchen science, professional food-tasting, and the lessons he passes on to his students.

Favorite Small Tool

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Economy in the kitchen is vital; one of the many things I learned from my first mentor was the ninja-esque ballet of the kitchen. I was struck by how easy he made it seem, with this economy of movement. When used in that way, with that economy, this seemingly simple tool has a lot of uses, from flipping to spreading to an impromptu screwdriver. Ultimately, whether it’s a spatula, a spoon or a whisk, it’s about using it as an extension of your own hand.

These are from Ateco, and they’re only a few bucks; I probably buy 10 or 12 a year since I leave them places. Usually in the kitchen you don’t want utensils in your pocket, but I pretty much always have one of these in mine.

The Most Vital Tool in a Pastry Kitchen

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If you’re a savory cook and you’re making a soup, you can taste and adjust it from start to finish. Pastry chefs have to predict the future; we’re putting something together that’s going to transform during a crucial time period where we can’t touch it. If I’m making a cake, I can’t take it out of the oven halfway through and add more baking powder.

Anything that gives us precision is not going to lie to us. To me, everything starts with a scale. If something asks for volume measurement, three people could measure a cup of flour and come up with three completely different quantities. Invest in a digital scale; they’re inexpensive, and a decent one will last you forever.

A Secret Weapon Ingredient

Xanthan gum. It’s the one “modern” ingredient that I also use at home in day-to-day cooking.

It truly is the most user-friendly hydrocolloid. It doesn’t require heat to gel; it’s a stable over pretty much the entire range of pH (others don’t work under 3.0 or they require heating to 185 degrees). With xanthan gum, you add it to something, whisk it in, and it thickens.

Using it this way sorta contradicts the scale thing, and I criticize cooks for it all the time, but mix a “pinch” in with salt and pepper to what you’re making. If I’m doing a braise or some sort of stew and I want the liquid to have a little more body, it’s great. Xanthan gum has no flavor and is elastic. It’s sometimes better than starch or flour for thickening, which have their own flavors and mask your palate. But it’s easy to over use it, so the one drawback is that if you use too much, the liquid gets a snotty quality.

A Favorite Ingredient Combination

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It often comes to chocolate and hazelnut. Hazelnut paste is just one of my favorite flavors; especially praline paste that’s roughly 50% caramelized sugar and roasted hazelnut. I constantly go back to it, possibly too much. I prefer gianduia, Italian hazelnut chocolate, over Nutella.

Chocolate holds a fascination because there are so many complexities and variables, it can be manipulated in so many ways, and it can become almost anything, which I think is fun because there’s the savory-versus-pastry analogy to it: a savory cook is bound by the anatomy of a product, whereas if I’m dealing with eggs, sugar, butter, flour and chocolate, I can make almost anything.

Chocolate is one of those things we take for granted; it goes from a pod to a box to a bag, through so many steps with so many people behind it, with such a sense of place. A few weeks ago I had the rare chance to open a fresh cocoa pod to some students, and they had no idea how a huge, fresh pod somehow turns into chocolate. I don’t have a specific brand loyalty since, for the most part, once you start to add a lot of sugar and fat, the inherent subtleties in chocolate are going to fade away when cooking. But I do like the idea of using a Peruvian chocolate that has a lot of banana notes in a banana dessert, for example.

A Basic But Transformative Skill

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Seasoning is one of those things you have to train yourself to do.

When I teach, I bring up an exercise that Eric Ripert started at Le Bernardin: a couple of times during service, you were encouraged to go to the walk-in and eat a slice of Gruyere cheese. It was not to take a break and have a snack; it was to calibrate the palate. If you taste something with a clean palate and then you taste the same thing an hour later after cooking and tasting a lot of other stuff, it will taste less seasoned and you’ll know your palate is fatigued. Gruyere was the constant basis of comparison.

I do that with massive chocolate tastings, where I taste 30 to 40 chocolates in one sitting, and every five or ten I stop for a palate cleanser. Also, I taste a control chocolate the whole way through and take notes on it, so I can be honest and see how my palate is affected as I go; you recognize that you’re not picking up certain notes in the chocolates the longer you’re tasting a variety.

That goes to the idea of cooking to a known or desired result; if you don’t know what’s happening, it’s almost by accident that it turns out right. So taste incrementally and note how something’s transforming. Seasoning incrementally is how you learn.

A Top-Notch Piece of Equipment

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The one piece of equipment that I’m currently obsessed with is an Italian ice cream machine made by Bravo. I love equipment and, as with so many things in life, you get what you pay for.

With ice cream in particular—formulation and quality of ingredients aside—the best product is going to be that which is frozen the quickest; the faster it freezes, the smaller the ice crystals are and therefore the better the product. There are relatively inexpensive tabletop machines that may take you 25 to 30 minutes to freeze a quart or two. If you can do that in two to three minutes, the ice cream is going to be better.

What’s cool about this one is that there are two separate components: on the top is heat, so I can put all the ingredients for my ice cream base in, cook it, and then the trap doors open and bring the base down below, where it freezes. Most of the time I want to chill and age the base, so very rarely would I do that, but I could program everything on this down to a degree and make my ice cream would be very consistent.

It has a lot of preset programs, too, so I could make pastry cream, temper chocolate, make lemon curd, or even buttercream start to finish. Say you’re doing a Swiss buttercream, so you make a meringue with your egg whites and sugar over a double boiler, then whip it while adding softened butter. Here, you would put in the egg whites, sugar, and butter; it pasteurizes it and then it cools it down to just under room temperature, so that you have a nice, soft, fluffy buttercream. If you have to make batches for a gigantic layer cake, that’s saving you massive amounts of time.

This machine is all about basic temperature control. Once you have things like these, the mind starts going to, “What else can I do with this?”

Teaching Tools

The objective of my pastry classes—whether on chocolate, ice cream, or confections—is to go beyond the surface of what may be familiar ingredients or preparations in order to better understand what they are and how they work. I encourage students to shrink themselves down to the size of a microscopic particle in order to relate to their ingredients.

We’re lucky here that we have monitors, and with my iPad I can show scanning electron micrographs of ice cream, pointing out a blob that is fat, which is an air cell, which is ice, etc. I love the original Alton Brown shows, where he’s talking about something and styrofoam balls with pushpins fall from the ceiling to show fat molecules during an emulsion; any time you can use those things that people can relate to, it’s a good thing. With this greater understanding comes, hopefully, better results, the ability to correct problems, and for some a launching point for creativity.

Every time I pick something up, I shrink myself down.

Every time I pick something up, I shrink myself down. I pick up a carrot, and it’s not a carrot; it’s 85% water, and it’s sugar and it’s starch, and it’s all these things. I love seeing people have that “aha” moment, where they realize cooking is about soft materials and physics.

And the Personal Touch

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A lot of the motivation behind my career shift two years ago was the desire to give something back after cooking for 20 years.

Any instructor is going to act as a filter for whatever the material is; hopefully a good instructor relays some of themselves. Part of the reason I’m here is selfish—I get space and I’m still working on new things—but people just entering the business want to know what it’s like, especially if they have no way to relate to it. So I can tell them that what we’re working on was served at Le Bernardin, and we can go behind the conception of the dish: how certain components were dictated by the space or the time we needed to plate it; the architecture of the dessert; how many people worked each shift in a typical day and would be on it.

Things like that are sprinkled into what I’m doing. Of course I get to bring in attempts at scientific understanding. I don’t claim to know a fraction of food science, but the goal is to get people thinking of ingredients that way. All of those aspects come into play.

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