“This ice cream is amazing!” I declared upon a recent visit to The Hurricane Club, a 13000 square foot tiki-inspired restaurant on Park Avenue South. “Who’s the Pastry Chef here?” But as usual, I didn’t get an answer. While incredibly talented Chef/Partner Craig Koketsu and Fourth Wall Restaurants Founder Michael Stillman rightly get the attention they deserve for this exceedingly opulent homage to Polynesian cuisine, complete with complimentary shoe shines and a “rum fountain”, the question of the Pastry Chef seemed to linger at our table. “But who is it?” I asked my companions again. The flavors of the ice cream were just so intensely pure, the chocolate panko crumbs and sesame brittle perfectly seasoned, perfectly crispy, and the viscosity… was it Soft Serve? Finally someone chimed in. “Richard Leach! It’s Richard Leach.”
The Richard Leach. Of course everything was delicious. Recognized as one of the ten best pastry chefs in the country, not only twice by Chocolatier Magazine, but also as Pastry Chef of the Year (1997) by the James Beard Foundation, Chef Leach’s career has taken him from the kitchens of Lespinasse, Aureole and La Côte Basque, to simultaneous posts at Park Avenue Autumn and The Hurricane Club. Known for his elaborate and oftentimes tall desserts, he takes a simpler approach to the sweet menu at The Hurricane Club, trading superfluous dessert components for exotic flavors and unpretentious plating. It’s a treat to indulge in such elegantly understated desserts made so perfectly right.
A week or so later I paid the restaurant another visit; this time to interview the man himself. At first glance he was intimidating. Tall, serious, and obviously a perfectionist, Richard Leach is the type of chef who doesn’t allow music in the kitchen, doesn’t pay for cable at home (even with two young sons), rarely eats desserts when he’s not working, and who, when asked to name his favorite kitchen tool, replied “A knife.”
Not exactly someone you”d want to hang out with. But beneath his dark chocolaty shell lies a milk chocolate center. A quiet man who always makes time to cook for his family, he somehow balances his day wedged between The Hurricane Club & Park Avenue Autumn, making whimsical desserts like “Chocolate Kill- Devil”s Food Cake” at the former and intricate desserts at the latter, including his current favorite: “Warm Pumpkin and Molasses Cake with Sour Cream & Praline”. Not to mention his endless cocktail menu at The Hurricane Club, boasting more than 30 “Frozen”, “Tiki Style” and “Boat” drinks.
“We started with over forty drinks, and whittled it down,” he said, because “”bartenders definitely aren”t cooks.”
So why does he do it all? Well because he can of course. He has a fantastic staff and a fool-proof training system for the Front of House that makes that 30 cocktail list possible. But unlike other chefs who make it big and hand over the reigns, Richard Leach continues to work the pastry station when his sous chefs have a day off, and still goes through a meticulous tasting process when designing new desserts. Nothing goes on the menu without unanimous approval; a refreshing touch of modesty for such a well known master of sweets.
But back to that ice cream. It turns out he does in fact have a Soft Serve machine hiding in the back. And achieving the ideal viscosity wasn”t as easy as it seemed, taking him several tries in order to create the perfect texture for both his Caramel Coconut & Thai Coffee concoctions. The toppings take them up a level, turning his luxurious ice cream into a sophisticated mélange of textures and flavors that put commonplace sundaes to shame.
Take my word for it and head over to The Hurricane Club – you can thank me later.