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Food for Thought

TeenLIVE at the NYPL in Retrospect: Johnny Iuzzini on September 20, 2012

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A Food Network Star! I am a big fan of the Food Network, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover that TeenLIVE at the NYPL was hosting Johnny Iuzzini, head judge of Top Chef: Just Desserts, "Pastry Chef of the Year" in 2006, and author of Dessert Fourplay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef at the Jefferson Market Library.

This was the first event of the 2012-2013 TeenLIVE season. Hosting professionals with different careers at TeenLIVE is about discovering who you are, what you want to do, and making it happen. Johnny Iuzzini is a proponent of immersion cooking and an executive pastry chef. He started his career in the River Cafe in Brooklyn as a teenager, and he recently toured Europe on his motorcycle chasing good food after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He has been named one of the top ten pastry chefs in New York City. He worked as an executive pastry chef at Jean-Georges Restaurant for nearly ten years. He is excited to embark on new missions, including finding his own coffee and cocoa beans and turning them into delectable coffee and chocolate, and he is investigating the possibility of distilling his own beer after being an executive pastry chef for 16 years.

Chris Shoemaker, Teen Programming Specialist at NYPL, introduced Iuzzini, then he commenced interviewing him.

Shoemaker started by asking what is the easiest dessert to ruin.

Iuzzini responded that it is chocolate that is not tempered properly or egg whites, since people tend to over whip them, thinking that they are not done yet. He says that if the egg whites are over whipped, the easiest course of action is to throw them out and start over.

How He Became a Pastry Chef: Shoemaker wanted to talk about how he began his career at the River Cafe.

Iuzzini responded that he started off as a dish washer doing basic kitchen work, and he loves cooking because it is something he can grow with and get better at. He kept earning money so that he could go on dates as a young man. As a 16-year-old, he was cooking in cooking school, and was incidentally disqualified from a competition for sneaking out of his room.

Why Desserts? Shoemaker asked why he became a pastry chef rather than a savory chef.

Iuzzini said that his mother was a wildlife rehabilitator, so he grew up being very nurturing towards animals. Therefore, it was somewhat upsetting for him to be pulling the heads off of lobsters when his job was to kill them in order to cook them. While he was doing that, he was very intrigued by the pastry chefs who were creating chocolate butterflies and chocolate bridges. There was something magical about the pastry for him. He was drawn to the precision of it.

Shoemaker asked if there was more science or art involved in pastry rather than baking.

Iuzzini said that it is important to understand how the ingredients work. One tenth of a gram in pastry can throw the recipe apart and ruin its consistency.

Shoemaker asked if he was able to talk about the science involved and the technical training. He proposed that the transition from savory chef to pastry chef was possibly a process of relearning.

Iuzzini said that there are different reasons why things happen in a pan. There are many old wives' tales out there. As a child, he loved to take his toys apart to find out how they worked. However, he did not put them back together again. He wants to provided educated answers for his pastry chefs when they ask him why things work the way that they do. He does not want to leave them wondering.

Shoemaker asked what is the difference between baked goods and fresh cooking.

Iuzzini mentioned that pastry chefs can poach and fry items. With baking, it is easy to put something in the oven for 45 minutes and then realize that you forgot this or that ingredient. Pastry chefs are very meticulous; it is important for them to do things right the first time.

Shoemaker mentioned that he had heard of different methods of food preparation, including vacuum packing.

Iuzzini said that he grew up in the Catskills, and that he was French trained. However, Europeans are more traditional about food preparation, and Americans experiment more. He loves to present plates in a different way, which is exciting for people who have never experienced food with ingredients combined in precisely that way.

Dessert held by Aureole at Aureole (RESTAURANT), Digital ID 2042183, New York Public LibraryA Former Music DJ? Shoemaker mentioned that Iuzzini had done some DJ work.

Iuzzini stated that he was 19 years old when he graduated from culinary school. He was too young to drink, so he spent time in the New York club scene. Eventually, the club owners payed him to bring his friends to the club. He earned a lot more than he was making in the food business, and he used the money to pay off his college loans and pay his bills. However, working two jobs took its toll; it beat him up for a while and he got pneumonia.

Shoemaker stated that in the food industry, you cannot just appeal to your own tastes.

Iuzzini mentioned that while cooking, you are a creating food for your own palette, that tastes good to you. However, it is important to always keep in mind that you are cooking for a guest and you have to be open to the feedback from the customers. It is good to have an open-minded attitude and to have dialogue with the guests and also to learn from your team. The food industry is a service industry and you have to pay attention to the wants and needs of guests. He always strives to ensure that customers are well taken care of during a meal so that they are happy and they come back again.

How He Selects Pastry Chefs: Shoemaker mentioned that he realized hospitality was important to Iuzzini. He wondered how Iuzzini chose pastry chefs.

Iuzzini said that he does not hire based on resumes. In general, pastry chefs come work for him for a while, and then he makes a decision as to whether to keep them on. He said that the most important quality pastry chefs can have is passion for their work and a desire to be better that they were yesterday. He wants pastry chefs that are in the moment with him. Technique can be taught, but passion cannot be constructed. One member who is not engaged with the work can bring a team down.

Dessert held by Le Cirque at Le Cirque (RESTAURANT), Digital ID 2042300, New York Public LibraryShoemaker asked what makes desserts so exciting and how will pastry evolve in the future.

Iuzzini stated that there are trends and phases in desserts. Things are going fast right now. A big thing in Spain is modern desserts. However, it is problematic when chefs follow trends and they do not understand how the ingredients work together. Things move forward, then backward, then forward and backward. What happens is that pastry professionals get bored and then they push themselves to be better. Iuzzini wants to provide customers with something that they can not experience anywhere else (eg, a levitating chocolate cake).

Shoemaker mentioned that cooking has taste, smell, and visual appeal. He asked if visual appeal comes first with desserts.

Iuzzini stated that taste is the primary and most important thing. If the dish does not taste good, it is a failure in his eyes. He sees beautiful wedding cakes that sit for three days, and he would not want to serve a customer something that is three days old. Food should be beautiful too, but it most definitely has to taste delectable.

Do You Like Cupcakes? Shoemaker asked if cupcakes are over.

Iuzzini said that people need fads and something to latch onto, and so they create movements. If the cupcake is not make from inferior margarine and sugar icing, it can be good. Substandard ingredients and products should not be made. Chefs need to be more responsible, but if quality ingredients are used, cupcakes can be good.

Shoemaker mentioned Iuzzini's cookbook Dessert Fourplay. He asked what is the significance of the number four.

Iuzzini responded that the concept of a four-part dessert came from Jean Georges. George was a proponent of simple desserts. For example, he would have a poached pear slice and three other single-component desserts. Iuzzini is too hyperactive for that, and it is not unusual for each dessert of his to have ten components. When this is the case, service can get a little bit hairy. 

 Hoboy - Chili strawberry - Scarlet-Alpine - Scarlet-flesh pine., Digital ID 1107534, New York Public LibraryCan Desserts Be Healthy? Shoemaker mentioned the dieting industry in the world today. He asked if dessert is the first thing to signify unhealthy eating.

Iuzzini said that he can make amazing dessert without added sugar. There is a perception that desserts are unhealthy, consequently dessert sales fall in the summer when people are concerned about beach wear. However, moderation and smaller portions are the key. To this day, Iuzzini has a tremendous sweet tooth.

Shoemaker said that he was aware of a 2003 or 2008 interview in which Iuzzini mentioned Kool-Aid and seltzer water.

Iuzzini stated that he liked both things and he drank three quarts of milk a day until he developed kidney stones.

Shoemaker asked if Iuzzini was ready to take his career in a new direction.

Iuzzini stated that he has hit a brick wall. When you are working 16 hours a day and you start resenting that, it is time to make a change. He does not want to throw away what he has accomplished. He has gotten to the point where restaurants cannot pay him more. He had made more money selling books. He does not want to become a disgruntled employee. He wants to move on, become his own boss, and continue creating products that he loves. He has spent the past 16 years being a four star executive pastry chef, and he wants to thank all who have helped him. He wants to continue setting crazy goals of things that he never thought that he would be able to accomplish in his life, but go about reinventing food in a new way.

Coffee, Chocolate, and Beer? Shoemaker mentioned that Iuzzini wants to roast his own coffee, make his own chocolate, and create his own distillery.

Iuzzini said that he is fascinated by the journey that the product takes from plant to plate. He loves to travel in search of food; he wants to find the best cocoa and coffee beans that exist and turn them into amazing products. He would love to transform rye into terrific whiskey.

Dessert menu held by Moulin at restaurant Moulin, France (FOREIGN,RESTAURANT), Digital ID 2041843, New York Public LibraryWhere Our Food Comes From: Shoemaker mentioned the importance of talking about food and the food chain in order to create visions and ideas.

Iuzzini said that we definitely need to be more conscious of where our food comes from. The schools are doing a good job of educating students. It is important to understand how expensive seeds are and the overhead that farmers face. You get what you pay for. Farmer's markets may be more expensive, but they are of a higher quality that some other produce. It is essentially a quality of life issue. Chemicals and sprays can be dangerous. Health information is now becoming available about this. It is scary how many health problems people can incur from ingesting pesticides.

Shoemaker mentioned that it can be intimidating to think about always obtaining freshly sourced food. He mentioned the importance of finding a balance of time and the best ingredients and having people feel comfortable using shortcuts.

Iuzzini mentioned that his grandparents were always cooking. Restaurants in their day were not like they are today. Now, there is so much take-out food available. Family time is gone. Now, two parents work in the family, and people do not have six hours to spend in kitchens. However, people can educate themselves about cooking. If they get a cookbook from a bookstore or a library, or a few recipes from the Internet, they can learn from that. It is important for amateur chefs to put their own spins on recipes, as well. People can be creative with food. He was amazed to learn that 80% of people who watch the Food Network do not cook at all, and they watch it sheerly for entertainment value.

Shoemaker mentioned that the 42nd Street Library ("the library with the lions") is having a Lunch Hour NYC exhibit. NYPL has cookbooks at all of its branches.

Iuzzini said that people need to start learning about cooking with easy recipes, and then progress when they feel comfortable. People can learn step by step. He didn't become a Food Network star instantaneously. He spent 22 years becoming a four star pastry chef. If people can invest time every day to learning, the practice will pay off. It is very important to read a recipe carefully and thoroughly before you begin making a recipe. Too many people forget an ingredient or realize that they do not have all of the ingredients in stock while cooking. 

China Painting #2 [depicting peaches and oranges]., Digital ID 488398, New York Public LibraryShoemaker asked if oral history is important for people passing down recipes. Shoemaker asked if we are losing our oral tradition in baking.

Iuzzini said that he could not learn cooking from his grandmother because she used a "hand" of this and a "hand" of that. He is still trying to figure out what that meant. Iuzzini stated that technology can make us lazy. There is so much TV and Internet. As a child, his dad listened to the radio with his family, which he found charming. Nowadays, people are too busy to spend time together cooking or eating together.

Shoemaker asked if that is what makes food holidays special.

Iuzzini said that families get together twice a year to eat. Eating better food is something that we need to relearn. Generations before us understood the importance of cooking and eating together.

Things to Know About Culinary School: Shoemaker asked what things are important for teens to know who may be interested in culinary school.

Iuzzini said that many people want to consider a culinary career because they enjoy cooking at home. Cooking professionally is nowhere near cooking at home. One needs to have a love of cooking before pursuing a culinary career. Culinary school is expensive; therefore, Iuzzini recommends finding a restaurant whose food you love, then getting an internship in that restaurant. Working in the kitchen until midnight and working on holidays entails a sacrifice that is not for everyone. It is important for neophytes to immerse themselves in the industry before they invest money, since culinary work is a difficult and demanding profession. A lot of people want to become a Food Network celebrity. However, you need a strong foundation for your career, and it is important to work with great chefs.

Shoemaker then opened the floor for audience questions.

Careers in Food Styling: I asked how one pursues a career in food styling (preparing food for professional photographs for magazines, advertisements, etc.)

Iuzzini responded that he would not advise going to culinary school for that profession. He said that it is important to understand how to cook food. He advised getting hands on experience at magazines such as Gourmet and Bon Appetit. This will help. Also, one can learn much from food blogs. After working with magazines, food stylists can then freelance.

Another audience member asked which season is most difficult to work in.

Iuzzini responded that summer is brutal. Berries are in season for such a short time. He said that is a game, making side deals with farmers to get the best fruit. Unfortunately, he cannot serve customers produce that is not in season. If strawberries are white inside, it should not be like that. Sometimes you have to say no to a customer, but it is for their own good. He wants to serve customers something delicious.

Which Ingredient Mystifies You? Another audience member asked if there is an ingredient that is particularly difficult to work with.

Iuzzini mentioned durian. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot get it. It is a fruit whose odor is overwhelming for some people. Iuzzini is allergic to papaya, but he makes papaya desserts and he forces himself to eat them since he refuses to be allergic to any food. His throat swells when he does eat it. He uses tomatoes in desserts; most fruits and vegetables have a sugar component which makes them suitable for use in desserts. It is important to let the natural fragrances of the foods emerge when working with them.

An audience member asked what his last meal would be.

Iuzzini spent five weeks on a motorcycle chasing food. He has eaten a 32-course meal, and he loves travelling for food.

Someone asked what would be the last dish that he would make.

Iuzzini said that he would make a reservation. He was too lazy to cook a last meal, and he never cooks at home. Interestingly enough, foods that he hates as a child (eg Concord grapes and rhubarb) have become loves of his as an adult because they remind him of his childhood. 

Shoemaker asked if he confuses swiss chard and rhubarb.

Iuzzini said that he has a recipe for swiss chard.

An audience member stated that he had never had olive oil in a dessert.

Iuzzini said that he loves olive oil, despite the fact that some people say that you can break down some nutrients when you cook with it at certain temperatures. It tastes much better than canola oil to him, and he uses olive oil in ice cream. He is Italian.

Shoemaker mentioned that the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit at the Schwarzman Building will be up until February 2013. He mentioned that we have a variety of food programs at NYPL including The Science of Pizza Tasting and other classes.

Upcoming TeenLIVE Event

Author Visit: Barry Lyga and Daniel Kraus
Mulberry Street Library
10 Jersey Street (Between Lafayette & Mulberry Streets), New York, NY 10012-3332
(212) 966-3424
Wednesday, April 17 from 4 p.m. - 5 p.m.

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