Apart from the occasional Top 10 list, desserts don’t get much coverage in food media these days. But recently, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote an article bemoaning the ubiquity of one specific dessert: the ice cream sundae.
Wells’s article struck a chord among chefs, critics, and diners alike. I interpreted it as being less about sundaes and more about calling out restaurants that serve unthoughtful, redundant desserts.
I’m the chef and co-owner of Empellón but before that, I was a professional pastry chef for ten years. The job, then as now, is to transform edible materials into flavors, textures, and visuals that gratify in a way that savory food simply cannot. There is shelter and then there is architecture. There are clothes and then there is fashion. There is eating for sustenance and then there is dessert.
It’s a shame critics feel dessert menus are being phoned-in. Pastry chefs are working harder than ever. What’s changed are the economics and the coverage.
Restaurateurs are under immense financial pressure to jettison dessert menus. The data is clear: Labor costs typically exceed the sales that desserts generate. And as rents, minimum wage, and health care prices rise, pastry programs are typically the easiest way to save money by cutting.
“The majority of guests aren’t willing to spend more than $12 for a dessert and it is not uncommon for 3 to 4 people to share that dessert. That rarely happens with appetizers or entrees,” said Gabriel Stulman, whose empire includes Joseph Leonard, Fairfax, and Simon & the Whale. “People spend way more money and a disproportionate number of hours on the savory portion of their meal.” Some restaurants encourage diners to skip dessert to shave 30 minutes off their dining time: It can be more valuable to sell the next table appetizers, main courses, and multiple drinks.
Health and dietary concerns also work against the sweet section of a menu. Many diners avoid carbohydrates; some fear sugar.
Yet media coverage rarely touches on these issues. Well’s attack on ice cream sundaes was “missing the conceptual point” of the restaurants serving them, said Grant Achatz, chef and co-owner of Alinea (and my former boss). “They all thematically harken back to a period where sundaes were the predominate dessert at classic steakhouses, bistros, and brasseries.”
Achatz no longer employs a pastry chef. “The economics of the business handcuffs the industry,” he said. ”It forces savory chefs to learn pastry and execute it, or to simply move it down on the priority list.” He wishes that someone—like Wells—would champion the ambitious sweets at places like Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin and the French Laundry, and appreciate the technique that goes into the ‘sundae’ served at the Pool, with extras like whey caramel and hibiscus-poached rhubarb. ”Is it wrong or uncommon to riff on or elevate a traditional dish?” he said, regarding the different standards that separate desserts from savory options. ”Let’s talk about foie gras burgers.”
“If I wasn’t a partner in my restaurants I don’t think we would have the budget to have someone dedicated to pastry,” said Fabian von Hauske, co-owner of Contra and Wildair. ”We do a $20 dessert tasting menu at Contra which I wish got more attention.”
My first two Empellón restaurants started off with pastry programs, but I killed them for economic reasons. At my newest restaurant, Empellón Midtown, I resolved to try again and hired a talented pastry chef, Justin Binnie. We toiled to create a dessert menu that people would notice. Just in case, I stuck an ice cream freezer in the corner of the kitchen. If we had to cancel the dessert program for a third time, line cooks could resort to scooping ice cream orders.
“A plate of seven one-bite permutations of fruit… took me about four minutes (including pauses for such penetrating insights as “Wow!”) and completely restored my faith in the power of a good pastry chef to amplify and extend the themes that started with vegetables and meat.” Those words came from Wells, in his 3 star review of Empellón Midtown in the Times. Sales of desserts soared four-fold since his review.
And my emergency ice cream freezer has never been used.