In case you haven’t heard, croissants are everywhere. You can find them in New York bakeries stuffed with pistachio cream or a subtle red bean paste. In some places, croissants are pressed into waffle shapes and sliced into bear claws. You can even find them in cereal, each crescent is as small as a baby’s thumb.
“It’s lamination insanity right now,” says Claudia Fleming, the culinary director at Daily Provisions.
These croissant boom times are a sign of a new era of desserts in New York City. By some counts, revenue at retail bakeries in New York is at an all-time high. Restaurant operators have noticed the trend — just a few months ago, the wine bar Claud almost turned itself into a bakery as a plan-B effort to stay open when its temporary liquor license expired.
As restaurants catch up to the sugar rush and vie for a bigger slice of the proverbial pie, a new guard of pastry chefs is bringing a fresh perspective to restaurant pastry programs across the city. It’s time we turned our attention back to the pastry chef.
At the turn of the 21st century, restaurant pastry chefs were the idols of the restaurant world. Back then, the acceptable standard in restaurants was a three-course meal of mostly (what used to be called in fine dining) continental European fare, ending with dessert. “In my day, it was the day of the pastry chef,” says Fleming, who is also the former executive pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern and an American pastry legend.
Over the years, taste and economics jeopardized the existence of restaurant pastry chefs. Food courts, tasting menu counters, and international cuisines, all of which were putting out increasingly good food, grew in popularity. The emphasis on dessert lessened. And the austerity years of the Great Recession further proved that while it’s not impossible to be profitable with a pastry program, it is so much easier to make money off of dinner than dessert.
But, despite some headlines, pastry kitchens have always existed, especially in the upper stratosphere of fine dining. “You’re not opening the Grill and not offering dessert; it’s not even a question,” says Rick Camac, dean of restaurant and hospitality management at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). Legacy fine dining restaurants like Le Bernardin, Daniel, and Jean-Georges have maintained robust pastry departments for decades.
People’s appetite for dessert didn’t diminish, either. In fact, interest in sweets has been growing. Chefs like Christina Tosi and Dominique Ansel went solo and turned their quirky kitchen innovations into household names. In 2010, Top Chef: Just Desserts foreshadowed the deluge of dessert-themed reality TV. What did change is that pastry chefs no longer needed a restaurant to catapult them to star status.
More recently, the pandemic exacerbated this trend by putting so many pastry chefs out of work. Much of that creative energy and entrepreneurialism was channeled into stand-alone projects, which partially explains all those croissants. From lavish patisseries like Eunji Lee’s Lysée to homegrown pop-ups like Bánh by Lauren, there has never been a better time to satisfy a sweet tooth.
The pandemic has also reshaped pastry in restaurants, as operators supported and expanded their pastry departments to take advantage of New Yorkers’ enduring love for sweets. To these businesses, pastry has become more important than ever.
At the height of the city’s indoor dining ban, baked goods became a vital and, in some cases, new source of revenue. Restaurant operators experimented with breakfast, lunch, and to-go options for the first time. At the Musket Room in Nolita, Camari Mick was brought on to build out the restaurant’s all-day menu in 2020. The program’s success led to Mick landing a job as the restaurant’s first-ever executive pastry chef. “You can do very well selling scones,” says Camac.
Chefs who once never considered opening before 5 p.m. are seeing the allure of an all-day restaurant. “After the pandemic, I wanted to have a restaurant that is always there,” says chef Markus Glocker, who’s latest restaurant, Koloman — with pastry chef Emiko Chisholm — is open for breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner. Practically speaking, it maximizes the profitability of a restaurant’s real estate. But there’s also a renewed appreciation for the restaurant as a social third place — not home, not work, but still integral to life.
New Yorkers may be eating out at all sorts of new hours, but eating out is still the city’s favorite pastime. And in this post-pandemic environment, people are craving experiences again. To compete with the overall quality of pastry in the city, restaurants have to offer something special. “Pastry is an extremely visual medium,” says chef Alex Stupak, a modernist pastry chef turned restaurant operator. “In that way, maybe, hopefully, pastry sees a resurgence.”
If anything can revitalize the dessert cart, it’ll be the abundance of new French restaurants. At Le Rock, the final course is a conspicuous moment: The souffle makes a grand return alongside a buckwheat profiterole doused in fudgy chocolate, tableside dessert service, and a multitiered dreamscape of mignardises.
With expanded restaurant hours, there is also an opportunity to share more of the platform with pastry chefs, who are usually cast in the shadows of a restaurant’s head chef. When chef James Kent of Saga Hospitality Group opens his restaurant on Park Avenue next year, it will incorporate a daytime bakery, run by the executive pastry chef at Crown Shy and Saga, Renata Ameni.
There will always be a case to make against pastry chefs — that paying for them is an expensive investment that doesn’t always pay off. But for a certain segment of the restaurant industry, call them the traditionalists, dessert is and always has been nonnegotiable. As the last impression a restaurant can make, dessert deserves the same amount of attention as the opening bite. “If the last memory was bad, who is going to want to come back?” says chef Jiho Kim, who previously ran the pastry department at the Modern; he’s now the chef-owner at Joomak Banjum, with executive pastry chef and co-owner Kelly Nam.
But celebrating restaurant pastry chefs shouldn’t just be a traditionalist’s endeavor. It should be an industry-wide effort that spotlights the increasingly diverse group of talent working in pastry kitchens today. A new guard of pastry chefs emerged during the pandemic. They are busy experimenting with updated takes on classics, plant-based substitutes, global ingredients, and whimsical techniques. And, yes, they make some pretty great croissants, too.
From legacy pastry kitchens to all-day fine dining, here is a look at some of the city’s inspiring restaurant pastry chefs.
Emiko Chisholm, executive pastry chef at Koloman since 2022
Hometown: I grew up between Cape Breton, a small island off of Nova Scotia, and Tappan in Rockland County, 20 minutes outside the city.
Who or what are your culinary influences? Right now, one big hero of mine who I’m really inspired by is Will Goldfarb. I think his cookbook is so beautiful. He has such a unique style and a unique take on flavors.
What is your dessert or pastry style? For me, flavor is number one. That’s the most important part, but it’s supported by technique. The type of pastry that I’m doing is referencing old-school Viennese pastries and desserts or classical French. But also, the restaurant concept is very New York. It’s like multiple cities and styles coming together. And being at the green market informs the stuff that I do.
What do you love about pastry right now? I’m interested in what people are doing as far as bread programs. I’m really liking Lysée; Eunji Lee’s stuff is so beautiful. The environment and how it’s displayed, but also how it’s so French, but with her own style.
What do you dislike about pastry right now? I support everyone who’s really trying to do something with pastry. I don’t love when people are not really into their pastry programs and it’s kind of a throwaway. You can tell.
What is your favorite dessert on the menu? It’s something we put on the menu recently. Palatschinken just means crepes, but Austrian crepes will always be rolls, not folded like a French crepe. We made it our own where we slice it so we have an interesting cross section. Over the summer the garnish was cherries with a little cherry balsamic and hazelnut. We’re currently working on a version with grapes, verjus, and a celery sorbet.
Notes on the future? I’m happy being in a position where I can grow other people’s careers. An important part of being a chef is being able to teach other people and become a mentor.
Renata Ameni, executive pastry chef at Saga Hospitality Group since 2018
Hometown: I am from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Who or what are your culinary influences? I call them the OG pastry chefs who paved the way for pastry chefs in the country and for women in the kitchen. Claudia Fleming, Emily Luchetti, Joanne Chang. I worked with Angela Pinkerton; she’s a friend.
What is your dessert or pastry style? I’ve always been a little more about taste than looks. I like desserts with familiar flavors. I’m not going to make a dessert with mushrooms and peas. Nothing against that, it’s just not my style.
What do you love about pastry right now? Lately I’ve been really into baked goods. So many really good bakeries have opened in the city. I really love Librae bakery because of the flavors that they use.
What do you dislike about pastry right now? Honestly, there’s not one thing that I’m tired of. My personal taste is I don’t like things that are too out there, but everyone has their own style. I’m not really sick of anything.
What is your favorite dessert on the menu? My signature dessert is the sticky toffee, but one thing that I’m proud of is the ice cream that I make at Crown Shy. It’s almost like a plated dessert. We do a lot of ice creams for Crown Shy and SAGA, and I do ice cream bars for Overstory. It’s like Dairy Queen over here.
Notes on the future? After the pandemic, a lot of pastry chefs decided to do their own thing because sometimes they don’t get the recognition that they deserve. My goal is to open a full-blown bakery and ice cream shop, but I’m very lucky here. I’m lucky to work with James because he gives me a lot of freedom. And we sell a lot of desserts.
Camari Mick, executive pastry chef at the Musket Room since 2020; co-owner/executive pastry chef at Raf’s since 2023
Hometown: I’m from Easton, Pennsylvania.
Who or what are your culinary influences? My parents, our culture, and what I grew up eating definitely influences what I cook today, especially at the Musket Room. My dad is Jamaican and my mom is from Brooklyn and they’re both really great cooks. Pretty much anytime I use chocolate, I try to use Jamaican chocolate, or Caribbean chocolate. I also use spices, fruits, and veggies from the Caribbean.
I also like to take inspiration from my peers. Orlando Soto at Le Bernardin: I worked with him at db Bistro Moderne. I love seeing what he does.
What is your dessert or pastry style? The rum cake is one of my top signatures. I did a sweet potato bao bun, which is also becoming one of my signatures. The sweet potato inside is based off of my mom’s sweet potato pie. I took her original recipe and adapted it and made these frozen pucks and then I insert that inside a bao bun, bake it, and then brush it with butter and salt when it comes out.
What do you love about pastry right now? The overall trend of pastry chefs starting to come out on their own and using their own heritage with French techniques. Being able to highlight flavors other than just strawberry and bringing it into the new century.
What do you dislike about pastry right now? Nothing, I love it all. Like the Cronut, it’s not like Dominique Ansel does the one flavor over and over again. It’s rotating every month. It’s still new and exciting. So, I’m not tired of anything. I love everybody’s stuff.
What is your favorite dessert on the menu? I’m putting on a dish at the Musket Room that’s loosely based on rice and peas, which is popular throughout the Caribbean diaspora. It’s a rice pudding with kidney bean ice cream and a mostarda of dried gooseberries, dried apricot, and some fresh apricot on top as well. And a rice cracker.
Notes on the future? I would love to one day open up a community center in a food desert where we would host farmers markets, classes about how to garden, and cooking classes showing people what they should be eating. And I do want to write a book.
Kelly Nam, co-owner and executive pastry chef at Joomak Banjum since 2021
Hometown: I grew up half in Korea and half in California, but Diamond Bar in California is probably my hometown.
Who or what are your culinary influences? Chef Jiho, he’s my mentor, family, and friend. I learned all the modern techniques from him. Chef Abram Bissell, who is one of the smartest chefs that I’ve ever worked with. I look up to him tremendously. And Chef Gregory Marchand from Frenchie in Paris.
What is your dessert or pastry style? My style is a little bit more modern. I try to go for nostalgia instead of comfort. Technique wise I use a lot of savory ingredients. I have a black garlic ice cream right now. I’m always scared when I put something that’s really weird on the menu, but it’s going really well.
What do you love about pastry right now? I get curious, but I don’t use any of the trends. I’m more curious about what the techniques are. Although I will say that I did jump on the bandwagon and I made Barbie and Oppenheimer bonbons.
What do you dislike about pastry right now? I used to always hate mint garnish on dessert, like ’90s style. Unless it’s a mint dessert then obviously there should be mint.
What is your favorite dessert on the menu? I try to always keep things moving. I do keep our tasting dessert in a similar format where there is a meringue cup and then it’s filled with something. My signature dessert is probably the electric lemon dessert. A citrusy dessert with pop rocks is really my thing.
Notes on the future? The pandemic created a lot of different career paths for pastry chefs, which I think is great. In the past, it was, survive or don’t. Now, it’s not like that. I think that’s good for a future generation. Not everybody fits in a restaurant or bakery.
Orlando Soto, executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin since 2022
Hometown: My hometown is Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
Who or what are your culinary influences? Growing up in the tropics, you don’t really bake. I spent most of my childhood in my grandparents’ house so during that time, just cooking rice and beans was a moment. It was to be savored. That homey feel really inspires me along with the technical side of what I’ve learned over the years.
What is your dessert or pastry style? I was vegan for about three years. When I decided that I wanted to do pastry, I was like, I’m going to forego veganism because I really need to understand butter. But now, you see it in the orders, the clientele, people are asking for more options, and less of the traditional approach – which is butter, eggs and milk. I am trying to find a way to still execute at the level that people expect and deliver on the flavor profiles that are nostalgic.
What do you love about pastry right now? We’re at a point where, especially after COVID, we let go of the mousse-heavy or petit gateaux-heavy presentations. We’re leaning more on the fresher things that have a shorter shelf life, but still, they deliver so much more in the moment.
Also, the boom we had with baked goods over COVID: The whole nostalgia thing really kicked off during the hiatus. That’s why now we are replying in kind. We are trying to find a way to be happy with what we’re doing and for the customers ultimately to be happier with what they’re eating.
What do you dislike about pastry right now? COVID divided times for us really abruptly. We’re catching up with the social change, the food change, and everything else. And not everyone is as flexible. It’s okay to let go of what we were doing before if it’s not working anymore.
What is your favorite dessert on the menu? Le Bernardin has always had a chocolate tart on the menu. I use really good Peruvian chocolate and make a simple tart but decorate it with these nice looking tuilles. It’s reminiscent of a molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, and who doesn’t like that.
Notes on the future? During COVID, some people were really pushing forward and getting creative and doing their own thing. It was amazing. For me, I’m approaching my year and half mark at Le Bernardin. I still have impostor syndrome at least once a month. Chef Ripert is a really great cheerleader. He’s like, “You have to believe in yourself.”
Shaun Velez, executive pastry chef at Restaurant Daniel since 2020
Hometown: I was born and raised in the Bronx.
Who or what are your culinary influences? Chef Daniel, because he stays very true to French classics while still pushing the boundaries. He encourages all of his chefs to do that, which has not only forced me to grow, but has also been very rewarding.
What is your dessert or pastry style? I strive to stay true to the classics. At the same time, it’s important that our guests have something they can recognize even if they didn’t grow up in France. I grew up in the Bronx. My grandmother didn’t make these things; but I can infuse different flavors, fruits, and spices that I’ve come across throughout my career and make it more synonymous with not only myself but New York.
What do you love about pastry right now? I’m definitely trying to steer my program into something that’s a little bit lighter, more delicate, and more elegant. I do like that aspect of where we’re going in the culinary world in general. The old-school way of adding tons of butter and gelatin is just not where our industry is going.
What do you dislike about pastry right now? My biggest frustration about being a pastry chef is being viewed as if I’m not a chef. I still have to make sure that my food is balanced, to make sure there’s texture. It makes sense, it’s cohesive.
What is your favorite dessert on the menu? We recently had a really nice pluot, rose, and pistachio vacherin. I’m a firm believer in pushing the boundaries and changing things as often as possible, not only to keep myself interested, but also keep my staff interested, and to make sure that they’re still learning.
Notes on the future? I’m still very much enjoying being in restaurants. A lot of restaurants are unsure if they can justify that luxury of having a chef in house. But it’s just so different to have somebody building food, creating some freshness. Pastry chefs are usually the first ones to get cut. And I think we have to reevaluate that as an industry.