When will sweets get their due?

Posted on November 1st, 2016

A rainbow of macarons at London's Laduree

At first glance, these seem like sweet times. Eater just wrapped up Dessert Week (don’t miss Bill Addison’s roundup of his favourite desserts in America, which reads like a paean to pie), Dominique Ansel opened his London pastry shop to much fanfare (cronut with your afternoon tea?), and Christina Tosi continues to woo New York with cereal milk, crack pie and birthday-cake everything (which features prominently in Julia Moskin’s story on the rise of funfetti).

And yet, The New York Times reports that the demand for pastry chefs has gone up, but wages have not. The story looks at the economics and politics of the pastry department, and in particular, how pastry fits into a restaurant. Many—I’d go so far as to say most—restaurants don’t hire a dedicated pastry chef but assign the duty to someone else, typically a sous chef or garde manger. The garde manger, in particular, makes a lot of sense on paper because they’re responsible for cold appetizers and salads. Once they’ve finished those, they can move onto desserts, thus following the flow of the diner’s meal and saving a restaurant from having to pay two salaries.

The Times also explains that by not having an executive pastry chef, restaurants avoid personality clashes between savoury and sweet sides of the kitchen. I’ve worked with enough chefs to know that pastry gets short shrift, including one who claimed that “no one goes out for dessert, they go out for a meal.”

Of course, he was wrong, because I ask for the dessert menu at the beginning of the meal so I can plan ahead for the last course. And I’m not alone—I know plenty of people who do the same. Granted, I hang out with people who have either worked as pastry chefs or chocolatiers, or have an unusual predilection for sweets, but I suspect we’re in the minority.

In my happy place, having ice cream in Brussels

So, restaurants continue to cut corners when it comes to dessert. Usually dessert consists of lemon tart, chocolate fondant or panna cotta. If the restaurant is ambitious, they may offer creme brulee (though usually, they won’t get it right). And so the cycle perpetuates itself. Diners don’t order dessert because it’s boring, if not disappointing; the restaurant doesn’t sell much dessert and so they don’t invest in it.

And this doesn’t just happen in your run-of-the-mill restaurant. It happens in some of the best rooms otherwise. I think of one of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver, where the food is a beautiful expression of fresh and local ingredients, prepared with talent and care from the kitchen brigade; the wine list interesting and food-friendly; the service impeccable. But there is no pastry chef, and it shows: the desserts reflect the thought and execution required for the frenetic sizzle of the savoury line, not the cool patience and architecture of a pastry department.

For example, one of the desserts is cannoli. When done well, cannoli is an ethereal contrast between a crisply fried pastry tube, filled with a dreamy, creamy ricotta. But at this particular restaurant, the cannoli is—no joke—prepared behind the bar by the moustachioed man whose main responsibility is to construct charcuterie plates. I have a favourite seat at the bar where I can watch him hug the the fire-engine-red Italian slicer, coaxing each paper-thin slice from the blade, swaddle them together and fan them onto a plate with house-made bread, pickles and salt-adorned butter. It’s like a charcuterie ballet.

But then someone orders cannoli. He washes his hands. From under the bar he produces a deep-fried pastry tube, hopefully fried that day, and wields a piping bag—awkwardly, like someone holding a baby for the first time. Next, he plonks the finished cannoli on a plate before showering it with so much icing sugar you’d think you were back in the ’80s, and placing a teeny sprig of mint on top. Safe to say, it is a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar meal, and I have since resigned myself to what that obnoxious chef said many years ago—that this particular restaurant is for a meal, but not dessert.

Dessert at West Restaurant, from pastry chef Rhonda Viani

Thankfully, there are places where it’s worth saving room for dessert. In Vancouver, at West Restaurant, Rhonda Viani is one of the most under-appreciated chefs in the city. (Notice I said chef, not pastry chef.) Her desserts continue the attention to detail and respect for the diner that begins from the moment you walk in the door. She’s not afraid to play with savoury flavours and unusual textures, and the balance is spot-on every time. Every dessert is well-architected: few things irk me more than something pretty that can’t be eaten without squashing the entire thing, or spurting coulis across the table at your dining companion. I like what she does with ice cream in particular, like sorrel sorbet for a raspberry dessert or popcorn ice cream with a chocolate-nutty creation. Fun fact: in culinary school they teach you to put something underneath ice cream so it doesn’t melt as quickly. Rhonda takes that opportunity to introduce new textures and flavours with crumbles, cookies and the like. It’s something the typical diner wouldn’t even notice—and an example of how thoughtful her plates are.

CHAU Veggie Express is proof that you don't have to splurge for fine-dining prices to get good dessert.

Easy enough, you say. West is a fine-dining spot and can invest in a pastry chef. But the much more affordable CHAU Veggie Express on Victoria Drive (with a new outpost in Granville Island) also gets dessert right. Andrew Han, their executive pastry chef makes desserts that fit in seamlessly with the vegetarian menu at CHAU, including vegan ice creams that taste like the real deal and cashew cheesecake that tastes like good cake, not good vegan cake. There is often a not-vegan, gluten-full chocolate tube cake that when sliced, shows off its cream-cheese heart. If a place like this, where you can stuff yourself silly for about $20, can invest in a talented pastry chef, there’s little excuse for other restaurants.

While restaurants are still a sad place for pastry, there’s a lot to be excited about in standalone pastry shops, cafes and bakeries, especially in Vancouver. Four years ago I started writing Sweet Spot, a monthly sweets column for the Vancouver Courier. I wondered how long I could keep it up before I ran out of stories to tell. Now, I can hardly keep up with new openings, which is clearly a first-world problem.

Here’s the thing: sweets beget sweets. With more places for people to experience good pastries and chocolates, the general public begins to develop an appreciation for what distinguishes the ho-hum from the excellent. More important, as more places open up, there are more opportunities for burgeoning pastry chefs to train. Down the line, it means more pastry talent for the city. Together, these two factors can, and should, raise the standard of sweet in the city—and with it, our expectations for dessert, whether with a cup of coffee in a bakery, or at the end of the meal in a restaurant.

I can only hope.

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