It’s been over a year since we interviewed Johnny Iuzzini, and he’s been very busy. Since then, he’s published a new cookbook, Dessert Fourplay, and taken on a second career. Iuzzini’s isn’t just the pastry chef at Jean-Georges, which would be a full-time job for most everyone. He’s also been studying the art of cocktail making at PDT cocktail bar. He’s even got plans to open his own cocktail bar. For now, he’s perfecting the dessert quartet at Jean-Georges. Right now, there’s a chocolate quartet of cake, sponge, gnocchi and egg cream and spring is just on the horizon.
Unmarried but in a relationship
Since we last interviewed you in 2007, how do you think you’ve grown as a pastry chef?
I cook less for myself, and more for our clients, said another way, I have toned down some of the more extreme combinations I am known for, and have focused on newer techniques and more familiar combinations. I have a much greater knowledge of the ingredients I am using, and why I am using them. I am having more fun now, having let go of politics within our industry and focusing on what is important to this restaurant and my objectives.
In your opinion, how has pastry evolved or devolved?
Pastry has become rocket science in a way, because more doors of information keep opening up for us and we are constantly learning about new ingredients, including more
about the ones we have been using all along. I think cooks today understand their ingredients better than they did 50 or 100 years ago; therefore, they are cooking more intelligently. Cooking in general has evolved greatly over the last 20 years due to major leaps and bounds in technology and techniques.
You just released your book, Dessert Fourplay, which is filled with creative, cutting edge recipes – tell us about your technique and where you come up with your creations?
I have an amazing team that works hard to develop our recipes and techniques, but I would be a liar if I said that we were not inspired by other chefs both here and abroad as well. We often experiment with an idea that someone has shared with us and keep altering it and dialing it in until it becomes a product that meets our standard. I am lucky to be in a network of very talented people who are like-minded. We all share with each other in hopes of raising the bar together.
The dessert quartet is a running theme throughout the book. What’s your connection to it, is it your lucky number?
I actually inherited the four part dessert tasting when I arrived at Jean Georges in 2002. At the time there were only three of them on the menu and they consisted of much simpler desserts. I made things much more complex as far as adding more components. Moreover, I really tried to construct it so there are four different desserts on that plate that make sense individually and make sense in conjunction with each other. One would be warm, one cold, one room temp, something salty, something bitter, always looking for contrast to make the desserts POP.
We know you’ve been dabbling in the world of cocktails and mixology. Tell us about your experience and education behind the bar at PDT?
I have been working on a bar concept with my good friend and colleague David Arnold of the French Culinary Institute. The idea is to approach the bar from a chef’s point of view, using all available ingredients, technology and techniques in order to make the most delicious cocktails possible. It’s about pure chilled deliciousness, not tricks or gimmicks! While we respect what people are doing and have done in the past, we believe everything has evolved. We can apply everything we know as chefs to cocktails. However, we still have a great deal to learn. I want to get as much experience as I can, so I approached P.D.T. as a young cook approaches a chef. I asked to stage, to train and to trail. I wanted practical experience, in order to absorb as much knowledge as I could. I have a need to be as strong, if not stronger, than anyone who will work for me. Lucky for me, they were open to the exchange and in approximately three months there I gleaned many useful tricks of the trade. It’s very similar to working for a chef, whereby you learn as much as you can, then you move to the next chef and repeat the process. In the end you pick and choose what you feel are the best parts of all those experiences and you create your own style. You learn just as much from the bad aspects of an environment as you do the good ones.
What have you learned from the acclaimed Jim Meehan?
I learned a lot from Jim, he is great. He has a warehouse of knowledge- the trick was extracting it from him. In the end we didn’t have a ton of time together but in the beginning it was he who spent the time to train me and help me understand the flow of a bar, Not surprisingly, it is similar to the kitchen in a way that you have your station with your mise en place and everything goes back where it came from. If your station is set up properly and you are organized you set yourself up for a prefect service; conversely, if you’re not set up correctly, you chase your tail the whole night and never feel comfortable and sacrifice putting out the perfect product. I am very grateful to Jim, Brian and the P.D.T. team for allowing me to spend time with them and making me feel as one of their own.
What’s the ETA of your cocktail bar?
No definite plans, as we are still in the planning stages. No space or investors. We are just two creative guys working on plans to open a bar. It is difficult because we both have so much going on already, and our day jobs take precedence over everything else, such that we can’t really find time to work on it. We need to find the perfect partner to round us out, on the business side. We need someone to take care of the departments in which neither Dave nor I excel, to harness our energy and translate it into a business, so that we can focus on our concept and products. That’s not to say we don’t care about that aspect of the business, it’s just that we know our limits and would prefer someone who adds value to our business.
What kind of cocktails can we expect to see on the menu? A preview if you will…
All I can say now is that they will be flavor forward, they will pop, and they will be fresh and new. We understand the most important thing is to make it delicious- that is all we are concerned with.
What’s your favorite cocktail you’ve invented?
I have actually only created two proper cocktails. One was with concord grapes called The Heirloom that was on the fall menu at PDT- based on a combination of my family heritage and the concord bushes I grew up with in the Catskills. The second is the East Village Globe Trotter that I created for my girlfriend Lucinda based on a classic drink called the Cock and Bull Special.
What’s your favorite classic cocktail to drink?
I love the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Sazerac, and Daiquiri. One of my new favorites is called the Excelsior Special. Michael Madrusan, an amazing bartender at Little Branch, who is an encyclopedia of the classics, introduced me to this marvel. I love it.
What’s your least favorite cocktail?
I don’t like sweet drinks that much or anything that uses a mix. I would have to say my least favorite cocktail is one that doesn’t contain alcohol.
Does that mean you’ll be parting ways with Jean Georges in the near future?
I love my job at Jean Georges and JG and I have a great relationship. I have been open and honest about the project from the beginning and he has offered his advice along the way. Even if we got the money and space tomorrow I can’t see myself leaving here before a year or more, if I even leave at all? I am not sure I need to leave one to do the other.
What is your most indispensable baking tool?…
I would be lost with out a gram scale- I am so dependent on it. I tried to make something at home recently, realized I didn’t have it and just quit.
We know it was a year ago, but how did it feel to be voted NYC’s Sexiest Chef ’07?
I got a lot of flack for that but whatever- I would be lying if I said I didn’t like the attention. The bottom line is that it doesn’t make me a better cook so it doesn’t really matter.
What are some flavors or textures you’d love to work with in the future?
Jean Georges travels often and he always brings back cool new ingredients and shares his dining experiences from around the world. Yesterday he was going on and on about chipotle flavored Fritos drizzled with chocolate and salt. They were deadly. Also he told us about Myoga ginger, he was so excited. So of course we tracked it down and are awaiting its arrival.
Any experiments gone awry? Flavors you’ve realized simply don’t work for you?
Always!!! That’s part of the fun. We have blown up bottles of hot chocolate gel, frozen our fingers with Liquid nitrogen and had stuff just plain taste gross. I am not a fan of saffron and papaya but other then that- GAME ON!
Cupcake mania is still going strong in NYC – what’s your take on it?
Great way to make money, I suppose, and I try to stay abreast of it all. My cooks bring me cupcakes from different bakeries from time to time but usually they are either too dry or too sweet- or both.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I’m not sure. I have a lot of projects and ideas. I tend to work best when there is a lot on my plate. I started working on the next book- completely different from Dessert FourPlay. We are in the beginning stages now. I promise it will be fun. Dave and I have also shot a teaser for our own TV show and they are currently shopping it around. Who knows?
Do you have any advice for budding young pastry chefs?
My advice is always to listen more than you speak. Suck all the knowledge you can out of whoever you work for and work with. Don’t be concerned with titles or salary as much as the quality of experience. Take your time, you have your whole life to be a chef, enjoy being a cook, ask a lot of questions and have fun learning as you go.
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Dessert Fourplay $ 23.10