Made to Order: A La Minute Desserts Are the Trend Du Jour

Robert Wemischner explores the latest trends sweeping the nation in the dessert industry.

 

Dominique Ansel (Dominique Ansel Kitchen, NY) is laying down the gauntlet for pastry chefs everywhere, raising the stakes in the tightly choreographed dance of presenting desserts freshly made to order. It’s no longer good enough simply to place pre-made elements on the dessert plate, however beautifully arranged they may be. The goal instead is to do as little pre-prep as possible and serve something just out of the blender, the oven, the steamer or the ice cream machine (chilled using liquid nitrogen). Served as they are meant to be served, desserts à la minute are the next trend, pleasing sweet teeth, from New York to Chicago to San Francisco and sugary points in between. Imagine eating the first spoonful of a hot, freshly based soufflé that’s perfect for that moment. Taking cues from a freshly made dessert such as a soufflé, chefs now are looking to replicate that experience without the customer having to think about pre-ordering dessert before they have even been served their first course.

Chocolate Bread Pudding with à la Minute Ice Cream by Tony Nguyen. Click image above or link below for recipe.

Formatted much like the check-off menus handed out at a dim sum parlor, Ansel’s menu for the retail part of the operation is divided into sections, two of which are the following: Breakfast and Viennoiserie (with laminated doughs filled freshly just before serving); Desserts (best served à la minute), including Puffy Mille Feuille (filled and layered to order) and Mini Matcha Beignets (fried to order). The menu also features desserts which benefit from being prepared in advance, such as a Tea-ramisu, West Village Chocolate Caramel Cake, among others. 

Ansel stresses, “Time is an ingredient, so emulsifying the lemon curd using a milkshake machine for the 1:1 Lemon Yuzu Butter Tart just before serving leads to the lightest, creamiest and most delicious filling, contrasted with the freshly baked crisp short crust shell. Likewise, in the Made-to-Order Chocolate Mousse, I fold a chocolate ganache into a meringue and whipped cream just before plating to order so that the mousse retains a light and airy texture, without becoming dense and set in the fridge. That one was inspired by my love as a young chef when I would consume a bowl of chocolate mousse right after the ingredients were mixed. How different that was from a mousse that stays overnight in the refrigerator with its fats congealing and the light airy texture being lost.“ 

Staffed with a crackerjack team, Ansel’s operation is capable of turning out ready-to-eat desserts literally within seconds after orders are placed. Speaking to the issue of the challenges of assembling a good team, he notes: “It’s always a good investment in our future forming talented, passionate people who can be team players and realize that there is room to grow with us.” 

Another NY operation, Chikalicious, owned by Don and Chika Tillman, has been serving plated desserts for the past 12 years (three locations), with a three-course prix fixe sweet menu of American, French and Japanese tasting portions. Catering almost exclusively to a loyal audience who have had dinner elsewhere and can count on consistently high quality and aesthetically pleasing desserts à la minute, Don says: “Important elements of the dessert tasting, the Fromage Blanc Island “Cheese Cake” and the Warm Chocolate Tart have been on the menu since we opened. We don’t dare take them off.” To accomplish their rigorously high level of quality, he remarks further: “When it comes to staffing, we like people who have no bad habits. We train staff the ‘ChikaLicious way’. Orders for each table must be finished being plated at the same time. Hot desserts must be served hot. Sorbet and ice cream elements must be served in a non-melting state. To maximize efficiency, almost by instinct, each of the kitchen staff must know precisely what each of the other platers are doing so that the desserts are completed at the same time and ready to serve at their peak.“ 

Smoked Tea Mochi & Cashew Steam Cake by Jeremy Brutzkus. Click image above or link below for recipe.

Jeremy Brutzkus, Pastry Chef for Longman and Eagle (Chicago, IL) for the past six years, concurs: “Overseeing the pastry program at three restaurants, with just six employees accomplishing everything, I want to surprise the hell out of a customer, with elements of the dessert that are whimsical but relatable. And serving desserts à la minute offers both challenges as well as opportunities. The challenges are to streamline elements in a way that allows the dessert to be executed well every time. As I see it, coming from a fine dining background, the opportunities in serving desserts à la minute are that all of the multiple elements of the dessert can be served each at its right temperature and all of the elements work together contrasting clearly to produce the desired complex effect. That’s what I strive for every time.”

For his Asian inflected cashew-vanilla-tea based cake steamed in a banana leaf, Brutzkus says: “We steam the cake to order, which yields the nicest texture. It’s served warm contrasted to two accompanying ice creams, cashew and charred green tea flavored, which are frozen but yielding. Garnishing the plate are a tea gelée (which holds its shape but is properly tremulous), a few mounds of crispy souffléd rice, wedges of freshly fried ripe plantain and a cold passion fruit avocado puree.” 

Using a patented individual batch cream churner of her own design, Robyn Sue Fisher, owner of Smitten Ice Cream, has concocted a successful business in the San Francisco area with three locations and expansion planned to Southern California. Local and seasonal ingredients and, in her own words, ‘nothing unpronounceable’ make up Fisher’s dreamy “new, old-fashioned ice cream.” Here’s à la minute ice cream handed over a counter to customers, mixed and frozen to order. Here’s the scoop: “We’re never fully satisfied in our quest for perfect ice cream. We are still tinkering a bit with our recipe algorithms. After eight years of R & D and my life savings, I realize that it takes a lot of precision to create super creamy ice cream. It’s not an easy thing to accomplish no matter how many copy cat versions of liquid nitrogen-frozen ice cream are out there tarnishing the idea.” The seed of the business was catalyzed by Fisher’s self-proclaimed fanaticism and frustration with what was available on the market. “Producing an ultra creamy product with non-discernible ice crystals is our goal. We do one thing better than anyone else; with a small and narrow focus, we strive for perfection.“ 

Beet & Goat Cheese Ice Cream. Click image above or link below for recipe.

À la Minute, the brainchild of Ryan and Cassandra Berk, a hyperlocal ice cream producer also using liquid nitrogen technology, is based in Redlands, CA. Berk explains: “Working as a chef in corporate venues, I yearned to learn the source for the ingredients that I was using. At À la Minute, I am in direct contact with 20 to 25 different growers in and around the Inland Empire region, and we tell their stories through our product.” Also operating Parliament Chocolate (Redlands, CA), a bean-to-bar company, they supply chocolate to their ice cream shops. “Making small batches of each ice cream flavor right after the customer orders, we can insure that the flavors are bright and the texture is perfect.” He continues: “Right now we use a responsibly made ice cream base made with cream, eggs and buttermilk from Straus Family Creamery, whose care of their livestock is truly impressive. We are committed to building our business in small communities where each of the vendors supports each other. I am proud to feature beer from our local brewery and coffee from the small batch roaster, all in an effort to support the local economy.” The proof of the ice cream is in the eating and customers are eating it on a regular basis, enough for the Berks to expand with an eventual plant to produce their own ice cream bases. 

Within a restaurant setting, as part of a dessert program for the House of An group of restaurants in Southern California, Executive Consulting Chef Tony Nguyen fashions liquid nitrogen-frozen ice cream as just one of the components on the plate of his signature Chocolate Bread Pudding at Anqi (Costa Mesa, CA). “Having a large restaurant of over 200 seats means getting the food out fast is a constant challenge. Although some of our desserts involve elements that are made in advance, the bread pudding is warmed just before serving and adding to the drama of the dessert, the ice cream is frozen right in front of the customer. The end result is that hot and cold co-exist beautifully on the plate, leading to a dessert that is sensorially satisfying.” Growth in dessert sales at this location is directly tied to that special touch. The wait staff communicates a sense of excitement to the customer and the meal ends happily on a memorably sweet note. What else can one want out of a dessert? 

Look at your current dessert offerings, carefully examining the methods involved in making their components. Are all of the time-consuming steps truly necessary? Consider the use of a blast chiller during dessert service to reduce setting or cooling time, as needed from hours in the conventional freezer to minutes doing it the fast way. Look critically to see if there are ways to streamline methods to be able to make all or part of the dessert à la minute:

  • Look in a detailed way at your mise en place and see if there are areas that may be altered to tighten up and speed up the plating process
  • Gauge the current responsibilities of your pastry cooks and plating staff; can their specific tasks be re-apportioned; can you add another part-time staffer to handle the made to order desserts or move someone from their current position and train them into a new role?
  • Introduce one à la minute dessert at a time to your offerings, being sure that staff is up to speed, literally and figuratively
  • However, don’t compromise the quality just for the sake of being able to boast of the made-to-order status of the dessert
  • Gently add a note on your dessert menu or have the wait staff verbally deliver the message that incorporates the following language: “Perfection takes patience. Please be aware that X dessert is made just before it is delivered to your table. It may take a few minutes (insert however much time the plating of your specific desserts may take here)”

 


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