In Praise Of Dessert

There is no dessert like the one you get in a fine-dining restaurant.

It cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The à la minute plating, with every dessert component prepared at the optimal time, all assembled just for you—these things don’t happen even in the best pastry shops, no matter who runs them.

The best fine-dining desserts stand alone. They are also endangered. The problem is it cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The à la minute plating, with every component prepared at the optimal time, all assembled just for you—these things don’t happen even in the best pastry shops, no matter who runs them. The best fine-dining desserts stand alone. They are also endangered. The problem is price.

I have 15-, even 20-year old Canadian menus in my file drawer from my reviewing days at the National Post on which desserts are priced at $16, even $18. Index that for inflation and today that would be more than $20—and up to $24. Instead, even expensive restaurants these days mostly charge $12. It’s all that most of today’s consumers want to pay.

Nice deal, sure. But consider it from the restaurant’s perspective. They’ve got three people working in the pastry kitchen and 80 seats. Say the restaurant is full. Half those people eat desserts, and barely one of those nowadays will take a digestif with it. Max out, and your full room will bring in just $500. If a table of four sits at the table for an extra 45 minutes with two desserts and four forks, you can bring in an extra $20.

“I’d rather not sell dessert,” concedes David McMillan, chef-patron of Montreal’s Joe Beef. “Better to flip the table and get another bottle of wine on it right away.”

Among the upper echelon, this sentiment is the norm. The pastry kitchen is being de-emphasised. We are very lucky to have as many highly talented pastry chefs as we do.

In this 3 part series, we will shine the spotlight on a select group of them who genuinely excel at their craft, to say thank you while they are still at it.

Colette Grand Café’s Annegret Henninger  The Thompson Hotel, Toronto

A traditional mille-feuille may not have a thousand layers, but it has plenty, made up of puff pastry that has been squashed flat after rising, alternating with pastry cream and topped with a combed glaze of chocolate and white icing.

There are other interpretations, of course. But whatever exception you might have in mind this one is different, and almost certainly better. Two exuberantly puffed up layers of pastry sandwich one lusciously generous layer of pastry cream. And even after it all gets doused with a warm sauce of chocolate and caramel, the pastry remains defiantly crisp. “I bake the dough just after the guests arrive, and pair it with the unctuous, fluffy pastry cream that focusses on one flavour—vanilla,” pastry chef Annegret Henninger explains of her rethink. “The sauce has intense depth. The three components complement each other while showing off their individual qualities. My mother always said, ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’” Henninger has had other excellent culinary advisers, too—mostly in Europe where, between the wars, the German side of her family was already into its third generation of pastry chefs. The fourth got started in Paris, studying pastry at the legendary

Henninger has had other excellent culinary advisers, too—mostly in Europe where, between the wars, the German side of her family was already into its third generation of pastry chefs. The fourth got started in Paris, studying pastry at the legendary Ferrandi, then working at the Ritz. Next, she was in the cutting-edge kitchen at Oud Sluis, in the Netherlands, and then the opening pastry chef at Werneckhof, in Munich, which landed a Michelin star four months after opening. It was there that she launched her glorious mille-feuille, which, alas, is not yet on the regular menu at Colette. Neither are her more daringly inventive creations—say, chocolate cream with cucumber and aloe vera gel.

But we’ll keep asking until we get them, and so should you.

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