The Evolving Bond Between Cocktails and Pastry

A decade ago, collaboration between pastry chef and bartender was something of a novelty, often rooted in the sharing of molecular technique. Today, it's become the norm. Sarah Amandolare on the ever-progressing relationship between cocktails and pastry.

Kyle Davidson, head bartender at Blackbird in Chicago, wanted to add smokiness to a coconut- and lime-flavored cocktail. He tried grilling the limes, and using a hand-smoker on shredded coconut, but nothing quite worked. When he finally sought out Blackbird pastry chef Dana Cree, whose experience includes a stage at Noma and stint at Alinea, she suggested gently toasting coconut husks for a rum infusion.

“They’re really aromatic, and you can kind of burn them to your liking,” Davidson discovered.

He added dried coconut to the infusion, resulting in precisely the flavor he wanted. A bartender from Grant Achatz’s The Aviary recently staged with Cree as well, taking back inspiration for a Blood and Sand variation.

Pastry chefs have long used the sort of scientific techniques that only began to trickle into bars about a decade ago. The fact that Modernist Cuisine, the six-volume food science encyclopedia published in 2011, avoids pastry almost altogether is telling. “Pastry chefs are already hard-wired to think in this way,” says Michael Laiskonis, creative director for the Institute for Culinary Education and former pastry chef at Le Bernardin.

While linked throughout history—canelé de Bordeaux have been made with rum for more than three centuries—drinks and desserts have both reached a turning point, a post avant-garde paring-down that is still shaking out.

In 2003, when Wylie Dufresne hired Sam Mason and Eben Freeman to join the opening team at wd-50, the two quickly set off on what would become among the most compelling pastry chef and bartender collaborations of the past decade. Following Dufresne’s out-of-the-box lead, Mason churned out unexpected flavors like candied olives and beet caramel. Freeman followed suit behind the bar, with drinks that routinely borrowed from Mason’s modernist bag of tricks. In 2007, the duo went on to open the now-shuttered Tailor, where Freeman credited Mason for his own innovative creations, which ranged from absinthe gummy bears to smoked Coke to dry-hopped gin.

Simultaneously, Will Goldfarb was playing with similar ideas, applying molecular techniques to both cocktails and desserts at his SoHo bar, Room4Dessert. He’s since moved to Bali, where he’s opened new incarnation of Room4Dessert in the village of Ubud. Remnants of the original New York bar remain—like Chocobubbles, white chocolate mousse textured with cocoa butter bubbles made of soymilk, cocoa butter and bourbon—but Goldfarb says he’s grown up and become more comfortable merely using his knowledge to make subtle improvements to simple cocktails, doing away with the avant-garde drinks that were his hallmark.

Now that many modernist techniques—if not always the expensive machines—are ingrained in bartenders’ repertoires, they’re looking for less obtrusive applications. A decade ago, when the notion of applying a high-tech pastry approach to drinks was new, the end game was often shock and awe. Today, bars like The Normandie Club in Los Angeles and Midnight Rambler in Dallas, are more often turning to modernist methods to improve the quality and consistency of drinks, or enhance the speed with which they can be served.

While many restaurants, like Pass & Provisions in Houston or The Aviary in Chicago, are still playing off of the expectation-bending modernism that places like Tailor and the original Room4Dessert exhibited, Goldfarb’s trajectory seems to mirror a larger shift in the relationship between pastry chef and bartender. Which begs the question: What does this sort of collaboration look like today?

At places like Little Bird Bistro in Portland, pastry chef Helen Jo and bar manager John Peterson borrow from the creative collaboration that was so evident in Freeman and Mason’s creations, but do so in a more behind-the-scenes fashion. Jo routinely helps Peterson with housemade syrups and infusions, like a recent Lapsang Souchong tea syrup, which she perfected by testing different steeping times, thicknesses and tea varieties until getting it right.

After working with classic desserts at Del Posto and Eleven Madison Park, Jo spent five years immersed in the heady sentimentality of Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar, a path reflective of today’s wide-open pastry culture. Tosi transitioned from plated desserts at Bouley to informal, though no less inventive, Milk Bar staples like Cake Truffles and Crack Pie, while Sam Mason has traded high-tech pastry for small-batch ice cream at Odd Fellows. The avant-garde dessert stars of the wd-50 era have scattered, and in their wake is a mixed bag of styles that showcase technique in very different ways.

“On both sides of the kitchen and behind the bar, we’re not seeing as much, ‘here’s a dish that shows off this technique.’ It’s more ‘where can we use this technique in a subtle way to make this dish better?’” says Laiskonis.

Eben Freeman agrees that avant-garde techniques are due for fresh air. Now Director of Beverage and Business Development for AvroKO Hospitality Group, he longs for bartenders to break from the established vocabulary, but seems keenly aware that he hit the career jackpot, having worked alongside extreme innovators who shared his fickle, but ultimately fruitful, attention span.

“It was my inability to focus that had me poking around in the kitchen,” says Freeman. Now, bartenders tell him they feel boxed in by how much has already been done, with Google searches poking holes in what they thought were unique ideas. “I don’t have huge hopes that there’s that much more ground to cover in the realm of cocktails,” he says. “Figuring out how to make programs faster is more of a priority.”

Now that many modernist techniques—if not always the expensive machines—are ingrained in bartenders’ repertoires, they’re looking for less obtrusive applications. A decade ago, when the notion of applying a high-tech pastry approach to drinks was new, the end game was often shock and awe. Today, bars like The Normandie Club in Los Angeles and Midnight Rambler in Dallas, are more often turning to modernist methods to improve the quality and consistency of drinks, or enhance the speed with which they can be served.

Still, brains like Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax continue to carve out a somewhat over-the-top experimental path that borrows heavily from the kitchen. But the goal is different. Aside from the occasional plume of nitrogen smoke or giant hot poker-heated drink, innovation at Booker and Dax comes by way of tweaks to established classics that, beyond your drink simply tasting better, you’d be hard-pressed to notice. Arnold, the bar’s inventor and the former Head of Culinary Technology at the French Culinary Institute, might, for example, clarify lime juice in a Daiquiri by way of a centrifuge to achieve a cleaner essence or use a dual-gas carbonation rig to make a drink super-aerated and thus smoother in texture.

“I don’t think we’ve come even near the edge of what we can do with new techniques yet because not enough people have access to them yet,” says Arnold. But with the space and money required of some high-tech equipment, broad access seems unlikely anytime soon.

In the meantime, innovation is arriving by way of tweaked old-school drinks like Goldfarb’s in Bali, and geeky twists on traditional pastries requiring more thought than meets the eye. Laiskonis has been breaking down fundamentals to find new applications, draping pâte a choux in sablée for crunch, for instance, and forming cylindrical pâte croustade tarts to upend the ubiquitous “piles of stuff” aesthetic of plated desserts.

Goldfarb’s overall vision, too, recalls a simpler era of drinks and desserts. “I like a dandyish but fatty and not too sweet dessert paired with a strong, basic, sour, bitter and cold cocktail,” he says. Such spare words for such carefully construed ideas seem an embodiment of the current state of pastries and cocktails, in which progressiveness and complexity are masked with straightforward presentation and driven by a rather simple intention: to improve.

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