Haute Eating: 10 Questions for Le Bernardin’s Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis

A dessert-only lunch? That was my agenda a few days ago when I skipped a savory lunch so I could taste the sweet—and haute—offerings at Le Bernardin. And was I in for a treat, albeit a sugary one. Though I must say, these desserts were absolutely not sickly sweet, nor did I leave Le Bernardin with a terrible sugar high as one might expect. Pastry chef Michael Laiskonis adds elements to his sweet creations that offer texture and balance, and layers of flavors that, when eaten together, are both surprising and sublime. Take the off-the-menu egg—an actual eggshell with the top carved off. The waiter instructed us to dip our silver spoons to the bottom so as to gather all the layers (see Laiskonis’ Q&A below for the details). This was a dessert so divine it’s at the top of my list of favorites. The Asian-inspired panna cotta was not made in a usual flavor, but rather with black sesame. It came with shiso mandarin sorbet and a sour cherry sphere that bursts in the mouth like a combination of candy and fruit. A chocolate dessert arrived with chicory ice cream and burnt orange meringue while a dark chocolate ganache was served with peanuts, lemon purée ad praline citrus sorbet—very unexpected flavor combinations.

Michael Laiskonis clearly loves experimenting and that, combined with his creativity and skill, adds up to a veritable haute dessert experience—one I highly recommend when dining at Le Bernardin.

Haute Living: What’s new in pastry at Le Bernardin?
Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis: At the moment, we’re at the height of summer, so our dessert menu and tasting menu are reflecting the fact that we have so much great fruit coming in… peaches, cherries, plums, figs, apricots, blackberries, tomatoes. We keep a few standard ‘signatures’ on the menu, but as much as possible, I like to roll with the seasons!

HL: What are some of your favorite creations?
ML: Generally, my favorite is the last thing I’ve added to the menu! At the moment, that’s true; we’ve just recently added a black sesame panna cotta, accented with liquid spheres of sour cherry and mandarin orange sorbet…

But there’s always our ‘off-the-menu’ treat, something we simply refer to as the ‘Egg’. Layered inside an emptied egg shell are a milk chocolate cream, caramel foam, maple syrup, and a final flourish of Maldon sea salt. We produce dozens every day- and it’s a lot of work- but secretly, it’s still my favorite!

HL: Where do you like to dine when you’re not working?
ML: Truth is, I cook at home nearly every night! But on those rare nights I can sneak away from the kitchen, that’s when I try to check out the latest openings, but I also like to return to some old favorites: Aldea, Corton, Spigolo, Fulton, or WD-50.

HL: What’s your ideal meal?
ML: A perfect meal is often dependant on so much more than just the food… the setting, the atmosphere, the company. Though certain factors may be more or less important depending upon the situation, some of my favorite meals of all time have consisted of fairly simple food and humble wines- but lots of both!- and a true sense of conviviality, either with friends and family, or with the best eaters of all, other chefs!

HL: Where do you like to dine for a special occasion?
ML: I’ve been lucky to have dined at most of the other four-star restaurants in town, but it’s too difficult to pick a favorite… Per Se, Daniel, Jean Georges, Eleven Madison. Would it be greedy to wish for a progressive meal, perhaps a course or two at each in one evening? That would be a special occasion indeed!

HL: What’s your favorite NYC neighborhood?
ML: I moved to Manhattan six years ago, and I’m still living in the same apartment, on the Upper East Side, and I love calling that neighborhood home. I have close access to the river, the park, and a short commute to and from work. It’s not the wildest part of town, for sure, but I like that it’s quiet, yet surely enough there to stay well fed and entertained.

HL: What do you like to do in the city on your days off?
ML: Those days off are few and far between! My wife and I will often get together with friends, take in some culture, or take a short day trip out of the city, but sometimes we’ll just sit and cook all day. Even though it’s what I do every other day, at home it’s different- relaxing, almost therapeutic!

HL: Your favorite vacation destination?
ML: I’ve had amazing experiences in Japan and Thailand, so I would love to return to explore more of Asia. It’s been years since I’ve done Paris, so I’d like to return there as well. Yet there are many places I have yet to see- Spain, Italy, Scandinavia. Closer to home, we like sticking to the coast, heading north into Massachusetts and Maine.

HL: What’s your most memorable meal?
ML: That’s a tough one! There have been so many great dining moments in my life, that it’s difficult to pick just one; perhaps my most memorable meal to date might just be a composite of several of them…pig’s ear stew at a street stall in Bangkok… a symphony of some fifteen courses or more at Napa Valley temple, the French Laundry…. a bag-load of Pierre Hermé’s pastries dumped onto a hotel bed in Paris… but one that sticks out in my mind was our fifth wedding anniversary dinner at Fleur de Sel, the restaurant we had chosen for our very intimate wedding for a handful of family and friends- the second was a bittersweet meal, as the restaurant would be closing shortly thereafter, but it helped strengthen the initial memory of the great food and wine the first time around!

HL: What are your five favorite ingredients?
ML: As a pastry chef… chocolate, pistachio, lemon, vanilla, and, believe it or not, salt!

Le Bernardin is located at 155 West 51st St; 212-554-1515

To reach Tracey Ceurvels, visit her blog, The Busy Hedonist, or email her.