The Origins -- And Future -- Of Dessert Modernism

12/28/2010 06:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker

Leafing through books at the neighborhood cookbook store, I slowly became aware that our dessert modernism sprang from somewhere else, and had a more revolutionary purpose than I knew--that the Portman plates were to a European movement what the Portman towers had been to the Bauhaus, the American domestication of something austere and rigorous. Here in New York, the true, uncompromised revolution was limited to a handful of places, and I went to one of them, Wylie Dufresne's WD-50. I broke my sweet fast, and had a full roster of the pastry chef's delicious devisings: cheesecake with dried pineapple, pineapple purée, and pineapple tuiles; lemongrass mousse with lemongrass foam. The chef, Alex Stupak, turned out to be an intense intellectual, clear and dry in his judgments.

"I happen not to like sweets," he said as we sat down after dinner and he began to explain his work. "It's an idiosyncrasy of mine. I decided to become a pastry chef because it gave me autonomy. Whether you think your desserts are manipulated or not, they are! When you're conceptualizing an entrée, a protein, you generally expect to get a piece of that thing intact. In pastry, it doesn't occur. Pastry is the closest that a human being can get to creating a new food. A savory chef will look at puff pastry not as a combination of ingredients but as an ingredient in itself. Pastry is infinitely exciting, because it's less about showing the greatness of nature, and more about transmitting taste and flavor. Desserts are naturally denatured food." He looked at me sternly. "Birthday cake is the most denatured thing on earth."

When I asked him who had influenced him, his eyes, which had been narrow slits of purpose, suddenly shone bright. "I admire Albert Adrià more than any other cook in the world," he said, referring to the younger brother of Ferran Adrià, of the legendary (and soon to close) restaurant elBulli, in Catalonia.

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