Michael Laiskonis plates each of the desserts on his menu for the final time while considering how he got into this business in the first place.
It's the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, a brief sigh in the restaurant world, a sharp contrast to the crescendo of busy-ness of the months preceding it. Today, I leave the apartment a few minutes earlier than normal. I've held down a reliable noon to midnight shift for most of my tenure as pastry chef at Le Bernardin. There were plenty of days that started at 6:00 a.m., and I recall more than a few nights that stretched well into the next day. Cooking at this level easily becomes an on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week way of life. I often joke that my job offers me a great deal of flexibility and freedom to work any 12 hours a day that I choose. I'm padding things this morning because I know it's going to be a full, busy lunch service. Fridays always are. I also expect to stay on to plate the very last dessert of the night, which I'm predicting will spit out of the kitchen printer sometime around 1:00 a.m. It's an otherwise typical day, except for the fact that it's my last -- the last of nearly eight years full of intense New York minutes.
When I first read about Le Bernardin in 1992, I was a young cook hungry for knowledge and eager to climb my way up the ladder. At that time the cool, focused minimalism of Gilbert Le Coze's plates was a revelation to me: a piece of fish, a garnish, and a sauce. Eric Ripert had just joined the team at that point, via Jean Louis Palladin in Washington, D.C., and before that, Joel Robuchon's Jamin in Paris. Eric continues to hum the mantra of the fish as star of the plate, and when I took my post as pastry chef, I immediately subscribed to that sense of simplicity. I also had the benefit of following a long line of talented pastry chefs that informed my style: Florian Bellanger, Herve Poussot, and an early idol of mine, Francois Payard. It will always be my tendency to push at the edges of the envelope, but restraint is probably the most important trait I've gained from Eric, Maquy Le Coze, and my predecessors. I truly came of age at Le Bernardin. Working in a subtractive way, I think I've emerged a far more mature and confident cook.