It seems almost trivial to talk about Michael Laiskonis’s beginning in Pastry. I could say that he grew up in Michigan, studied Visual Arts, and wandered into a friend’s shop where he became fascinated by the Zen of bread baking and the dough’s “living, breathing nature”. We could discuss how he explored both sides of cooking: alternating between sweet and savory before ultimately being drawn in by the science and precision of the pastry world. Or how in just a few years, without any formal culinary training and only books and mentors to guide him, he landed an Executive Pastry Chef position at what the New York Times called, “the best restaurant between New York and Chicago”, a role that earned him the award of “Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America” by Art & Design Magazine in 2002 and 2003. Finally, from there he made the big move to New York City; to Le Bernardin.
So why don’t I think his history is worth discussing in great detail? Well if George Washington was “born on a horse”, it seems that Michael Laiskonis was born with a whisk in his hand; or a bowl of sodium alginate or something. It’s strange to think of him as a line cook, sweating over a pot of some savory concoction. Or being yelled at and told he wasn’t good enough, precise enough; it just doesn’t seem possible. He’s an artist, chef, mentor, writer, visionary, photographer, and I refuse to see one of my heroes any other way.
When I arrived at Le Bernardin to interview Michael a few weeks back, I was instantly aware that I was in a great chef’s kitchen. It was pristine. And not just in that I wiped down the countertop because I knew you were coming sort of way. I mean not a speck of anything, anywhere. Not one unlabeled plastic Cambro. Not one tiny vessel of mise en place out of sync in the perfectly organized row of garnishes. His whole world seems like a work of art. Everything is precisely placed, instinctively built layer upon layer until it isn’t just pleasing to the eye, but a revelation. His desserts are pure. Flavors aren’t mixed, they’re precise, virtuous. Each element works within an ensemble and works on its own. Every time he adds another element you think it will be superfluous, but it isn’t. It’s just right. Simple. Sensational.
I think what makes Laiskonis’s plates so exciting is his youthful idealism. “If I don’t walk into my kitchen in the morning and get butterflies in my stomach, it’s time to get a new job,” he told me. He’s still growing, learning, pushing, after how many years at the top? Surely, that alone deserves some sort of award. Oh, and speaking of awards, since joining Le Bernardin in 2004 the restaurant has achieved a four star review by Frank Bruni in the New York Times and three Michelin stars. In 2004 he was named Pastry Chef of the Year by Bon Appetit Magazine and Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation. Just to name a few.
In addition to his work at Le Bernardin, he’s worked as a consultant with various restaurants across the country and abroad, particularly at pastry shops in Japan. In his downtime, he’s an incredibly talented writer and blogger, posting recipes and articles that are truly inspirational to chefs, home cooks, or, I assume, anybody who can turn on a computer. The photographs that accompany his articles rival some by top food photographers, all produced with a handy little digital camera.
He seems to attack projects with childlike enthusiasm. As soon as he decided to begin blogging, with a slight push from Chef Eric Ripert, he fanatically began posting every day for months, literally creating his own cookbook day by day with original, spur of the moment recipes and photos. While all of his posts tend to draw me in, one in particular, labeled “Infectious Creativity” stood apart from the rest. In it, Laiskonis discusses Pastry’s link to fashion, architecture, music, writing, painting, design, theatre and photography. He questions how each element can influence and improve the creation of a dessert; how instead of concentrating on nostalgia or “culinary irony” as a means to elevate a dish intellectually or emotionally, chefs can use the influences of the world around them. For example,
(Music) “How would you go about ‘unplugging’ an already amplified ingredient?”…(Writing) “Does the dish/menu provide a narrative? What forms of punctuation can we use to good effect: periods, exclamation points, question marks, ellipses?”…( Painting) “Is a quick sketch less valid than a laborious masterpiece?”…(Theatre) “As a chef, is it possible to slip into character, to become the ingredient, to see the dish from its point of view? Do flavors listen to and play off of each other in the form of a dialogue?”
He inspires us to look at food in new ways. And I can tell you after going from restaurant to restaurant and seeing nearly the same menu recreated over and over again, it’s time to push the envelope. If there’s any justice in the world, Michael Laiskonis will be putting out a cookbook in the next couple of years. But until then, I hope many more chefs and home cooks will have the opportunity to taste his desserts and follow his writing. It’s a rare treat.