Michael Laiskonis, James Beard Award winner for “Outstanding Pastry Chef of 2007,” began his pastry arts career scooping ice cream at a local Detroit shop at the age of 15. In fact, Laiskonis never intended on becoming a pastry chef, graduating college with a degree in fine arts. During college he inadvertently spent time working at a bakery where he became interested in baking bread. From there, he moved to Tribute restaurant in Michigan where he was quickly named one of the “10 Best Pastry Chefs in America” by Pastry Arts & Design. Eric Ripert brought him to New York to work at the prestigious Le Bernardin. At Le Bernardin, Laiskonis receives praise for his ability to fashion skillfully layered desserts with exquisite flavors, including vanilla yogurt mousse with blood orange gelee, and a soft chocolate ganache with sweet corn in three textures.
Happily married to Heather, also in the “business”.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I think very early on, I dreamed of being some sort of scientist. As I got older, my interests turned more toward the creative. I think I ended up doing something that actually satisfies both impulses!
What was your first job in food?
Scooping ice cream, actually. At the time, I never would have imagined I’d one day be making the stuff!
You majored in fine arts in college; how did you transition to the art of pastry?
It was a bit of an “accident”. By that time I had a passing interest in cooking, and after a break from school and a bit of travel, I had taken a baking job with a friend of a friend. The obsession really began after working with bread, and there was no going back at that point. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else!
You recently won the food world’s highest accolade, the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. How has this affected your career?
It’s definitely been a busy six months! There are certainly more and more varied opportunities coming my way, but I’d have to say that the award has made me reflect more on the day-to-day stuff that got me that attention in the first place. It’s still about every plate that leaves the kitchen.
You have spent considerable time as a line cook in addition to pastry chef. What compelled you toward pastry versus savory cooking?
All of cooking is really about “manipulation” when you come right down to it. Pastry always offered me more of a challenge but also more room for creativity. And though it is generally more measured and exact, I still carry with me the spontaneity and urgency I picked up from savory cooking. And admittedly, being a self-starter, I appreciate the little corner of autonomy in the kitchen that being a pastry chef allows!
You grew up in Michigan and spent a good portion of your culinary career in restaurants in your home state. What was the impetus in moving to NYC?
I think that for a lot young cooks all over the country, New York is obviously the food mecca. I had always hoped to eventually get here, if not just to cook, but also because it’s likely the most vibrant city on earth. Coming up on four years, I still love it!
How did your current position as executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin come about?
I was in a sort of a “big fish, little pond” scenario and had started to consider other jobs in the bigger “food cities” like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. I had met Eric Ripert a few times, and he was familiar with what I was doing in Detroit. While I knew that he might be in the market for a pastry chef, it was actually a third party that put us together. After a few intense conversations I found myself with the job. I never thought I’d come to New York at this level, so when people ask me what my next move is, I’m dumbfounded, because this is where I’ve always wanted to be!
Besides Le Bernardin, you’ve been on the Food Network, Martha
Stewart Living Radio and even developed recipes with the National
Peanut Board. I have a serious peanut butter addiction myself. What
draws you to peanuts and how do you weave them into your pastry menu?
Everybody kind of grows up with peanuts, but I like to take familiar
ingredients like that and elevate them into something more refined. At
the moment, I do a chocolate and peanut tart, though paired with lemon;
the acidity almost evokes the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of our
youth, but it’s still light and delicate.
What’s your favorite dessert on Le Bernardin’s menu, and why?
Typically, it’s whatever is newest on the menu. At the moment, I like
the lemon dessert we’re doing. It’s simple, but also multi-textured and
creates a range of lemon flavors. But going on the menu this week will
be a chocolate and sweet potato combination that I’m really excited
What’s your least favorite dessert (and yes, you must pick one)?
Anticipating this question, I took a poll of my staff and they voted
the roasted plum with black sesame panna cotta. I kind of agree. Though
I love the flavors, we never got the presentation where we wanted it.
What is your junk food of choice?
At the end of the day, as a pastry chef, I typically crave anything
salty and crunchy. But when the sweet tooth emerges and I’m not in the
kitchen, it would have to be a Snicker’s with almonds.
Other than your own, what’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
I’m always lamenting my lack of nights off, which prevents me
getting out more often! My recent favorite was an amazing lunch at
L’Atelier Robuchon. But I also had a great meal when I finally made it
to Tailor a couple of weeks ago- I’ve always been a fan Sam Mason’s
What culinary trend do you most embrace?
I think it took pastry chefs a while to follow their chef
counterparts in the importance of sourcing ingredients, be they
local/greenmarket or foreign/exotic. But more and more pastry chefs are
broadening their pantries and that kind of exploration is one of the
most enjoyable aspects of my job.
What trend do you wish would die already?
While I embrace the spirit of what some term “molecular gastronomy”
and respect the serious practitioners of that style, I worry about the
next generation of cooks coming up that might attach themselves too
closely to it out of fashion, while ignoring the more basic
fundamentals of cooking.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Any new ventures or restaurants in the works? Spill the beans…
There is never a dull moment for us at Le Bernardin, so there are
several exciting things in the works. The consulting arm of the
restaurant is always fun and challenging. Most recently, we’ve opened a
bistro concept in Washington DC, with hopefully more to follow in other
Address: 155 West 51 St., nr. Seventh Ave.
Until we eat again,
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