In late spring of 2013, a rather ingenious piece of viennoiserie called the Cronut rocked the world of pastry in a way that no one could have predicted. New York had seen its fair share of fads before — the era of the cupcake was only barely over when the Cronut hit the scene — but the fanaticism sparked by a doughnut-croissant hybrid felt somehow more extreme. Many even saw it as vaguely apocalyptic, as if some piece of serious dining culture, and pastry culture in particular, had just died.
They were right in some ways. The Cronut’s debut did start an escalating game of hybrid rainbow pastry one-upmanship. But the Cronut also helped revive an interest in serious pastry, which now is working its way into both bakeries and restaurant pastry programs.
A classically trained French pastry chef, Dominique Ansel — the Cronut’s creator —excels at viennoiserie and petit fours, the kinds of things that, pre-Cronut, had been pushed out of the spotlight by cupcakes and ice cream. “When we first opened,” he says, “people told me that French pastries wouldn't sell in New York — that I would need to do cupcakes or cheesecake.”
Four years later, it’s a different dessert landscape. Now, he says, “there's so much more open-mindedness and delight in all different types of pastries. The pastry scene has gotten much more eclectic, and inclusive of other cultures and flavors. It's no longer just chocolate and vanilla, if you know what I mean.”
This change is not lost on fellow pastry chefs. “In recent years we’ve seen people becoming more interested in pastry,” says Miro Uskokovic, the longtime pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern. “And I think you can credit Dominique Ansel a lot for that. He was the first pastry chef in many years to achieve stardom.”
Interest in the Cronut has translated to Ansel’s pastry work — not just his novelties but also his kouign-amann and his Paris-Brest. We suddenly saw new possibilities in a well-made croissant.
Just about every pastry chef I’ve talked to agrees that pastry is on the way out of a slump. It can’t be entirely due to Ansel — it also has to do with economics, developments in social media, and larger dining trends. But I start with the Cronut because it demonstrates, in one neat little cream-filled package, all the ways in which the New York pastry scene is growing and changing: with a renewed appreciation for technique, an eye toward Instagram, and an appetite for nostalgia.
If you didn’t even realize pastry was in a slump, the story goes like this: In the early aughts, pastry chefs did achieve stardom, and greats like Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern and Johnny Iuzzini at Jean-Georges had name recognition even among special-occasion diners. But following the 2008 financial crisis, pastry programs found themselves with low funding and high rates of attrition, as even stars jumped ship.
Daniel Skurnick, the pastry chef at Le Coucou, has been in the New York pastry scene for 15 years and remembers the shift. “It was 2010, and both Michael Laiskonis” — then the lauded pastry chef at Le Bernardin — “and Johnny Iuzzini quit restaurants on the same day: New Year’s Eve,” Skurnick says. (Editor’s Note: It was a day apart, with Laiskonis quitting on the Dec. 30 and Iuzzini on Dec. 31) Other pastry chefs were shifting gears too. That same year, Alex Stupak left his pastry position at wd-50 to open Empellon Cocina and eventually launch a Mexican restaurant empire. In 2013, Karen DeMasco, another talented pastry chef, announced her departure from Locanda Verde.
In those recession years, says Skurnick, “Pastry would be first thing to go. Pastry is a luxury.” Instead, chefs took over making the desserts, and as a result, says Uskokovic, “you saw a lack of creativity.” The difference was pronounced enough that two years ago, Adam Platt of New York Magazine declared it the “dark age of desserts.” Blaming tight budgets and “a generation of no-frills cooks (and eaters), who prefer a midnight tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to a well-fashioned éclair,” he lamented that too many new restaurants were forgoing pastry departments for pre-made cakes and crowd-pleasing churros.
Of course, that was a generalization. Fine-dining establishments like Daniel will always have a pastry department, as will the larger restaurant groups — Andrew Carmellini and Danny Meyer consistently hire skilled pastry chefs. And not every restaurateur will take a hard economic line. When that Platt article came out, Marco Canora, the chef-owner of the East Village institution Hearth, wrote a response for Esquire arguing that, despite the extra cost, he would keep a pastry chef in order to “create a culture in my restaurant where we act according to a belief system rather than fulfilling the basic demands of a demographic.” Notably, Canora has since convinced Karen DeMasco to return to restaurant pastry by offering her daytime hours in return for desserts that can be finished and plated by cooks at dinner.
But the general consensus is that pastry was down and now it’s coming back. You see it in a crop of new-ish restaurants equipped with daytime pastry counters or cafes: Lilia, Italienne, Pondicheri, and Flora Bar to name a few. Even two-year-old Rebelle, the kind of hip wine bar that never seems to have a need for dessert, now has Melissa Weller — whose best-known work includes the sticky buns at Roberta’s and the babka at Sadelle’s — offering inventive but familiar daytime pastries like a cherry-pistachio croissant.
Desserts are also a priority at refined French and Italian restaurants like Le Coucou, Augustine, Le Coq Rico, and Cafe Altro Paradiso, where dessert feels more essential to the experience. A dreamy French meal isn’t complete without a slice of tarte tatin or an ethereal ile flottante. Le Coucou “is big on making the whole thing an experience, a cohesive event,” Skurnick told me — which means prioritizing dessert at the end of the meal as much as wine at the beginning of it. “I would say 60 percent of our guests are eating their own dessert,” Skurnick says, which is at least double the restaurant norm. For comparison, chefs responding to Platt’s piece three years ago considered it good when they were selling dessert to 30 percent of their guests.
According to Natasha Pickowicz, that start-to-finish cohesion is one of the reasons that chef Ignacio Mattos — who had been expressly against having a pastry chef at Estela — hired her to manage the pastry program at first Altro Paradiso then also Flora Bar, his restaurant at the Met Breuer. “At Altro,” she says, “he needed someone whose style was very traditional Italian. A savory kitchen can’t do pastries like that.”
The pastries Pickowicz references are classics — like tiramisu, biscotti, and panna cotta. None are wildly complicated, but every pastry chef I’ve talked to agrees they’re the hardest to make well. If the menus at her employers’ restaurants seem simple and trim, it’s not for lack of expertise. “Ignacio and I have spent 10 months trying to figure out an olive oil cake,” Pickowicz told me, and “it still isn’t there yet.”
As Brooks Headley explains, “If you’re serving a super rustic slice of something, your flavors and your textures and the quality of ingredients have to be laser like, especially if you’re charging more than $6.”
Headley is one of those celebrated pastry chefs of the early aughts. He left behind a fine dining career at Del Posto to open Superiority Burger: his tiny, affordable vegetarian restaurant in the East Village. That move was not so much a reaction to a decline in pastry as it was a reaction against the excesses of fine dining.
“The thing that bummed me out about desserts in general was that they were always the same: something learned from bouncing around to different high-end restaurants, and often more about structure than about the unctuousness of flavor,” he says. So at Superiority, alongside veggie burgers in paper boats, Headley offers his alternative: one flavor of gelato and one flavor of sorbet a day, made perfectly.
Superiority Burger is an extreme example, but what all those bakery counters and French and Italian restaurants have in common is a trend towards simplicity — fresh but classic desserts like Skurnick’s chiboust at Le Coucou, or the gâteau au citron at Italienne. Simple classics are a reaction to the same trends that Headley balked at, be it modernist showpieces or new Nordic bowls.
“In fine dining,” says Rebecca Isbell, now the pastry chef at Italienne, “it was always these fancy desserts with 27 components on a plate.” Working at Eleven Madison Park, she recalls, “I was using like seven different fluid gels.” New Nordic style, says Skurnick, was “not exactly dessert. It’s stuff in a bowl with more stuff.”
We can’t talk about showy desserts without returning to the Cronut, which undoubtedly helped inspire the ballooning field of rainbow Franken-desserts clamoring for viral fame. It’s hard to reconcile those Instagram creations with the work of pastry chefs who are pushing toward elegant simplicity — and who couldn’t care less about going viral. You couldn’t call over-the-top milkshakes and doughnuts simple in the way Pickowicz’s tiramisu is simple. But you can call them familiar. And it’s here that these two seemingly at-odds pastry trends find common ground.
“People are looking for something nostalgic in dessert more than in savory courses,”says Isbell. Whether it’s an artisan Twinkie at a festival or a really good chocolate chip cookie at a restaurant, Uskokovic thinks these desserts are appealing because “in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, that’s the processed food people grew up eating. There was not much in modernist cuisine that would remind you of childhood.” Nostalgia is as much to blame for the resurgence of bakery counters and the reintroduction of restaurant pastry chefs, as it is for the prevalence of doughnuts and ice cream cones on Instagram.
Split as the current dessert scene is, the new wave of restaurant pastry highlights more significant hurdles. In an article last year, the Times noted that while pastry chefs are in demand again, salaries have stagnated. Many restaurateurs learned in those recession years that they could get a pastry chef with less experience or no formal training for a lot less and adjusted their budgets accordingly. Today, it may be obvious to pastry chefs that simple things can be hardest to make, but to some restaurateurs the trend towards simplicity comes with the assumption that simple is easy.
Another question is whether the focus on Instagrammable desserts arrives at the expense of less photogenic or more complex desserts and the people who make them. Think of the corn husk meringue at Cosme: It’s a wonderful, appealingly simple dessert, and was one of the most talked-about and photographed dishes of the restaurant’s buzzy first year. Yet as Skurnick pointed out, no one seems to know that it was created by pastry chef Jesus Perea, or that he is no longer at Cosme, having left the meringue recipe in the capable hands of the new pastry chef, Italivi Reboreda.
In the same vein, one of Uskokovic’s best-known desserts is the chocolate chip cookie he created for Untitled, Gramercy Tavern’s sibling restaurant at the Whitney. It’s delicious and appeals to both nostalgia and Instagram — thanks to the cute accompanying milk bottle — not to mention media outlets like Grub Street, which devoted a whole story to “New York’s finest chocolate chip cookie.” But Uskokovic is a talented pastry chef, and has created many more exciting desserts. “I love that cookie, don’t get me wrong,” he told me, “but I always think, ‘Damn, we’re working so hard creating all these dishes and then all people talk about is the cookie.’”
More recently, he says, his colleague Daniel Alvarez, the pastry chef at both Union Square Cafe and Danny Meyer’s new daytime cafe, Daily Provisions, has experienced some of the same conflicting feelings over the wildly popular crullers he makes for Daily Provisions. It can be frustrating to find the public focused so narrowly on just one pastry, especially one that’s a relatively simple feat for a chef trained in high-end French kitchens. “But it’s not about that anymore,” says Uskokovic, “it’s about comforting. And we need to embrace that. We should take it as a compliment.”
Ansel, with his Cronut, is arguably the victim of the same kind of social media tunnel vision. But he’s also one of the first chefs to rise above it to achieve fame in his own right, and in doing so bring more attention to pastry in general. He’s managed to walk the line between the increasingly ravenous public desire for novelty desserts and the pastry chef’s commitment to technical excellence, getting people almost as excited about croissants as they are about cookie shots.
These are two sides of the same coin, as the Cronut taught him: “It certainly inspired a lot of bakers and pastry chefs to go out there and test new techniques,” he told me. “It also inspired a lot of people to chase a monetary opportunity, and what resulted wasn't always tasteful and made with care and reason. But what it did do was give a little spotlight to pastries. That's always a good thing.”