"The food should be good. If it's not, I should do something else."
Chef Shawn Gawle is surprisingly shy in the spotlight. But with Star Chef's 2011 "New York Rising Star Pastry Chef" nod and taking the Eastern region seat in Food & Wine's first "The People's Best New Pastry Chef," it's a light he may just have to get used to.
Sitting at a table in the quiet, lightly pink-hued dining room of Corton, Chef Gawle is most animated when talking about food. He schooled us on techniques to elevate dairy-free dessert creations and gets intricate when speaking about finding the right sake for a sorbet. We chatted with this savory-turned-sweet chef about his tutelage under acclaimed Chef Laurent Gras, his unique communication with Chef Paul Liebrandt and his staff at Corton, and all those romantic desserts.
You've shifted restaurants a lot in the last few years. Do you have a natural inclination toward movement or was there something specific that called out to you between each restaurant? Sometimes I get antsy but I've learned you need to have a good amount of patience to be able to do pastry as well.
You had no formal pastry training when you took the position at L2o. What made you so brave as to take that on? Laurent [Gras] is one of the few chefs who has a good background in both savory and pastry; he's extremely old school and understands the techniques of both very well. I had worked for him before, briefly, when he was hired to try to turn around Bistro do Vent for the Batali-Bastianich Group, and when we ended there I just knew had I wanted to work with him again: he was so well rounded and was the best chef I'd worked for. So I told myself I should totally immerse myself in pastry while I waited. Two years later when he opened up L2o he said, "we can work together on it and figure it out..."
What do you think you've been doing recently that's elevated you to the spotlight level? I don't know, sometimes I don't get it! I think you try not to think too much about doing something so new or exciting and just do something tasty. I talk with Paul a lot about what we can make better. And I talk to my team; I try to involve them a lot.
Your plates are remarkable in their presentation, with striking lines and curves. Are you a romantic when it comes to food? I'm a bit of a romantic to the respect that I believe in certain things; I'm from Boston and a Red Sox fan, so I believe even when you're down and out you keep going. How does that relate to my desserts? I don't know. I like to keep things tight and contrived, kind of elegant in that respect. I need it to have a fundamental core of some substance and then do a little something that I guess comes across as romantic—it's a romantic restaurant. I also look at the style of what Paul does; I want it to flow and make sense, to tell that it's one restaurant.
In contrast you pack a lot of dynamic, layered flavor. Is that contrast intentional? I don't want to have too much going on. I want it to be about one major thing: if it's passionfruit and rhubarb I want it to taste like passion fruit and rhubarb, and then try to get a couple of things that go well or make that better or highlight it more so that there's a couple of accents.
There's a strong local, farm-to-table leaning in many New York kitchens, but it must be a bit more complicated with pastry. What's your take on local/imported sourcing? When it can be locally sourced, that's great. I still go to the market with the savory sous chef, even if I'm not picking up stuff. It stinks, because right now the season is spring for savory, but not for pastries. They can get ramps and favas and peas... I've got rhubarb, that's it. There's nothing else, so my season is a little bit behind theirs. I get things from New York when they're here, but in general I try to source the best possible products.
I've noticed that many chefs either seem to be hard-drinking, bike-riding adrenaline junkies or shy, just-wanna-be-with-their-plates kind of artists. Which side do you fall on? I like the rush. I like the adrenaline. I used to be shy I guess, but I've become a little more outgoing.
In what way do you balance your time outside the kitchen? It's kind of an ongoing thing to try to find, you know? I'll get off the train much earlier to take a walk and clear my head and listen to music. Or try to read a book that's not about food at all. Laurent would always tell me to do sports, but Laurent is insane; he would bike an hour or two before and after work. I was going to join a hockey league but I have one day off and there was a wait list, so it was like "well, you don't get to do that"!
Do you ever find the schedule to be too much? Some people are made for it and some people aren't. I don't count hours, I don't even notice because I really like what I do. I don't know what I would do if I didn't do this.
And obviously it's paying off for you. How do you feel about all the recent media attention you've been given? It's great to finally get recognition from hard work and it's flattering that people what my team does and that sorta thing. But the food should be good. If it's not, I should do something else.
You've lived in a few different cities for work. Where's home now? New York City. One of the reasons I left Chicago was I didn't feel like I had much else there, and I missed the East coast. Here I have friends and there's camaraderie, and I like the energy, too.
Anything fun you're working with right now? I just realized we're working all with Asian ingredients, which wasn't planned out. My sous chef is working on something with apricots and miso: caramelized white chocolate, apricot, and miso ice cream. I'm doing something with rhubarb, pink peppercorn, and sake. And an Asian pear vacuum packed with yuzu and sake. We've done it a few times and it was good, but I have to get stronger, drier sake to do the sorbet. So I think that's going to be great. We just did a green tea cake, so that's cool. And then the pea macaron...