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«My family originally came from Calabria. My grandmother used to make crostoli: we would roll and cut the pastry into shapes before frying it. After which, we used to put the biscuits into a paper bag filled with sugar and shake it to get the sugar evenly distributed which ended up with the biscuits being broken. That was the part I liked best».
The paper bag story is a perfect metaphor for what Brooks Headley still does today, decades later: he is shaking up the art of making traditional desserts. By upturning, questioning and rocking its foundations. Since 2008 this 42 year old American is executive pastry chef of Del Posto, the New York restaurant that has earned itself a Michelin star (and the - possibly even more prestigious – four star review from the New York Times). Nominated Outstanding Pastry Chef 2013 by the James Beard Foundation, with a newly published book, Fancy Desserts: it is difficult to believe that Headley actually started out as a drummer. He has gone from hardcore punk to indie rock and even emo, playing with the Universal Order of Armageddon, Born Against and the (Young) Pioneers (among others). It goes without saying therefore that the press call him the “punk” pastry chef.
Does this definition fit you?
No. It’s easy for a journalist to combine the two terms but music and pastry making are two completely different scenes. I started to play music at the age of fourteen and I still do it to let off steam but music and desserts occupy two different sides of my brain. Of course they inevitably inspire each other but it is difficult to explain how. Desserts come at the end of a complete meal and are an inseparable part of a flow: they are part of a single piece of music. You have to work closely with the chefs and create desserts that have a meaning within an overall structure. A single song, so to speak.
Another definition you don’t like is that of pastry chef.
That’s right. I started later than most – I was already 27 – without having done any professional training. I don’t need a brand title: I just cook. I work as a cook and am proud of it. Whenever I enter a kitchen I feel the same energy kick as I did on the very first day: if you work surrounded by people who really love their job, there is such an electricity boost, an intensity that fills you with energy and excitement. A cook has to be a little crazy: long working hours, very little time for family and friends. As well as a level of concentration not required in other crafts. If you build a chair, even the most beautiful chair in the world, you can take as long as you wish, you can waste time and delay its completion. But if a sweet has to be ready in five minutes, it has to be no more than five minutes.
You are famous for your criticism of “traditional” patisserie.
I don’t believe there is a right or wrong way to make sweets. I view desserts from different viewpoints and with different techniques. A brief moment of sheer pleasure at the end of the meal has to be small, direct and exciting, it has to reawaken and stimulate the palate. Why present a heavy dessert full of cream and chocolate after a long demanding meal? A slice of cake or a coupe of ice-cream are fine for lunch or a snack. Besides, the style of the dinner should not be compromised. A pastry chef should forget his ego and study the rest of the menu, talk with the chef and complete the meal in a way that gives it a meaning from start to finish.
So, what should a dessert be like, in your opinion?
I have absorbed Lidia Bastianich’s philosophy: what counts most is finding the best possible ingredients and treating them with respect and kindness. I try to create light desserts played out on acidic notes and based on fruit and vegetable elements. But I don’t do it to amaze or to be avant-garde at all costs. Lidia makes a cake from white beans and coffee sauce: she found the recipe in an old cookery book that was written when all these pastry chefs who love to shock us with vegetables, pulses and extraordinary techniques, were yet to be born.
What was the gourmet experience that most inspired you?
A duck served with half a candied nectarine in a small restaurant near Siena. The peach was incredibly pure, beautiful to look at and delicious to eat. It was difficult to communicate with the chef because my Italian was so terrible and so was his English. At home (I was staying with a local family) I tried to reproduce what I had understood – or had not understood – from my chat with him. I didn’t have any professional equipment, just simple saucepans and a hob but I got pretty close to creating that peach: it may have been done with unusual or ultra modern techniques but the chef was smart enough to keep them out of sight. Let’s not forget that most people cook with simple equipment in a domestic kitchen.
Sweets are not the only thing you do: you have become well known for a veggie burger most journalist define as “the world’s best”.
That was the result of having a bit of fun. Sometimes the best inspirations come to you when you are on the job and have twenty minutes free here and there and you have to distil all your creative juices in a hurry. But also during staff meals before starting work. You see these people more than your own family so it is important to care for each other.
Which dessert are you most proud of?
We create special giveaway desserts and complimentary surprises for our customers’ birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions. At times, we make fried apple rounds coated with crisp breadcrumbs which are as spicy as an apple pie. We place them at the centre of the table dusted with sugar, a pinch of salt and yogurt ice-cream. Absurdly simple. Yet everyone praises them enthusiastically and says they are the best part of the meal! It’s great to see fritters being shared and “attacked” by all those people. A useful reminder for pastry chefs like us: we can go to town preparing elaborate desserts but their beauty is ephemeral, the time it takes to get from the kitchen to the table. At the first spoonful, the dessert will collapse and from then on, the only thing that matters is the taste.