Food is such an important factor in our culture. I think people are returning to dining, not just eating, but enjoying the full experience, from the first cocktail to the last bite of dessert. I’m happy to be part of that, and embrace it.
Years ago, before I started working with Michael Schwartz, I worked at Mark’s Place in Miami, where the food was very thoughtfully placed and pristine. I really got away from that; what I did for so many years at Michael’s Genuine was more like comfort food that feels good and doesn’t require a lot of plating. The main focus was flavor.
And now, it’s come full circle. I’m lucky that I can play with two styles of food. Our new restaurant, The Cypress Room, has a very different feel. The food is very sexy, very feminine. Everything is thoughtfully designed. There are more elements on the plate that bring the dish together, and each one helps influence the other flavors. I am able to be more thoughtful in how I look at the entire plate, and have a more fine-tuned approach.
We are all being elevated, in the way we want to be viewed, the way we conduct ourselves. There’s a new level of professionalism, of really thoughtful food and service, and atmosphere, how we view a dining experience.
Pastry chefs today have opened a lot of folks’ eyes to the fact that desserts can be as creative as the entrée and appetizers. Of course, desserts have to finish the meal, and the dessert program has to mirror what’s going on in the first few courses. I could never end a meal at Cypress, with that gorgeous food, and sugar bomb it. You want guests to be satiated, but you want their mouths to recover.
I try to mirror the food and sensibility of the chefs, without losing my voice. It’s always there. It has to be logical, make sense to the consumer, to the palate. It’s about the flavor, the way you present, the design, the symmetry or lack thereof. It has to be consistent, with harmony and balance for the entire meal.
We’ve taken it to so many different levels. I would never have put beets with chocolate dessert eight or nine years ago, but now I do. We’re using vinegars, we’re using ingredients that are pickled, salted, preserved, fermented. We would have never thought about doing that years ago. There are so many creative options. We keep pushing the envelope.
A lot of us are changing with the times, and now it’s all catching up. If you want to call it a trend, you can, but I think it is more about the evolution of each personal chef. I travel and experience different flavors outside of what I would find in Florida. With the internet, you can read anyone’s menu from all over the world. The sensibility of reading menus teaches me. The direction I’m going in now is to make dessert refreshing. I’ve changed my style of eating. I eat lighter, more visually than ever before.
The next generation of pastry chefs is really pushing themselves to be more creative, and is pushing for others to follow. Some folks would say it’s outlandish, but I wouldn’t. It’s exciting to see, and it’s exciting to eat.
Chocolate chips, toffee pieces, raisins, walnuts — all very traditional cookie add-ins. I grew up slicing and baking cookies from logs of pre made dough bought from the refrigerated case in my grocery store. You know, the “Dough-boy” brand.
Thinking outside the cookie log will set you apart from other cookie bakers. Have you ever thought about adding chai tea, potato chips, pretzel chunks, licorice or even bacon bits? Keep your mind open and read on.
In my Chocolate Chip Gingersnap Chai Cookie recipe, I use ground chai tea leaves along with Indian spices such as cloves, cardamom, mace and freshly grated ginger. Think of a classic gingersnap with a modern spin (or your favorite coffeehouse beverage).
Crushed potato chips along with peanut butter-filled pretzels make a cool, slightly salty statement. I love a little kosher salt with my chocolate. Junk in da Trunk® cookies from my cookbook are my answer to the question, What can I do with small amounts of salty treats leftover from Sunday football games? On that same note about football treats, try substituting bacon fat for butter in your chocolate chip cookies. I’ve found that I can substitute up to 50 percent and still have a perfect cookie with a slightly smoky, salty flavor. And while you’re at it, go ahead and toss in the cooled crispy pieces of bacon — what the heck.
I also love to sprinkle the cookies with a little bit of sea salt before baking.
Once in a while I get a kooky idea to actually smoke something and add it to my cookies. I’ve been known to smoke sugar, chocolate, salt, flour, milk, corn and butter. Butter can be a little tricky. Before smoking, I cut the stick into chunks and place them in the freezer then set the smoker on the lowest temperature. (Household smoking guns or smoker boxes can be purchased online or at your kitchenware stores. Follow the manufacturers’ instructions.) Place the butter in a pan, set it in a larger pan of ice, place that on the top of the smoker and let it go. You want lots of smoke with very little heat. Smoking works so quickly that it needs only about 20 minutes. Taste it and pull it out when you really like the flavor, chill it and it’s ready for baking. The smoke flavor works really well with recipes that include nuts, chocolate, cornmeal or chipotle peppers. This may sound crazy, but it’s a great way to add a bit of zing. Try a dish using a chunk or two. If you like it, let it rip the next time.
Use your imagination: malted milk balls, caramel chunks, butterscotch morsels and salted peanuts.