We Chat With: Pastry Chef Laurie Jon Moran of Le Bernardin
" I really like just very simple, classic desserts done very well."
Laurie Jon Moran speaks subtly and with focus, but has a sharp sense of humor and is quick to laugh. The British-born pastry chef did a stint at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons out of culinary school, followed by positions at Daniel, Picholine and Per Se before landing the executive gig at Le Bernardin, where that same sharpness and humor are applied to modernizing classic French pastries. For plates so polished and lush, his flavors sure do pack a very un-subtle punch.
There are a few traditions you've had to keep from chefs Laiskonis and Belanger before you, including the specialty birthday cake you have at the ready for celebrations. What other things did you inherit? One of the great things about the restaurant is the focus on evolution, so everything is constantly evolving here—I think in the kitchen they maybe have two items that don't really change. And so for us everything is open to evolution, to change. And the chocolate cake is actually one things that's changing. It's going to evolve into more modern cake for today.
So it's not turning into a foam with a candle in it? Definitely not a foam with a candle. I like foams but I don't think a foam replaces a cake. "My mother always used to make me a foam for my birthday..."
You do a lot of deconstruction on your plates, bringing elements together. What does that do for you? I think it allows you to take something which is familiar, that people recognize, but present it to them in a different way. It allows you to have other textures than you'd get in the traditional format.
Why is that more fun for you? I think it allows more creativity. It lets you to lighten the dessert, make it look completely different, give it different textures—but then when you eat it, it's still familiar with the flavor.
Was there one dessert that took more work to get right? I was working on a dessert with apple, bourbon and smoked vanilla. I love apple and bourbon and caramel. But I worked different versions of it in different ways, and I was never quite happy enough. And then it came time not to have apples on the menu!
Apple season's coming up again now... I'm sure there will be a reworked version of it on the menu.
We've got great apples in this part of the country. What's your take on local ingredients? I like using as local products as I can. I use some chocolate from Mast Brothers—not only because it's local but because it's a very good product. We use butter from Ronnybrook, and a lot of the fruit we get is local or as local as we can. There isn't a banner outside advertising that, but it really is at the core and the heart of what we do.
You've credited one meal at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire to opening your eyes to what you could do as a chef. What about that meal was so impressionable? I grew up in a very food-focused family. Both of my parents are really good cooks. My family spent a lot of time traveling, and my father lived in Paris for a short while, so there's definitely a lot of European food culture in my family. When I was growing up my mother would make fresh pasta, and if she made pizza she made fresh pizza dough. So I was very interested in food from a young age, and I think I knew I wanted to be a chef when I was 14.
Were you alongside them in the kitchen? Definitely. We were definitely roped into helping. I really loved it, so I decided to go to culinary school, and my parents took me to Le Manoir for my 18th birthday. I was very used to eating good food, but it was the first Michelin-starred dining experience I had ever had. And while I was aware that that existed, I had just never experienced it for myself. I had famous chef's cookbooks, and I tried cooking things out of them, but there's obviously a different level of execution. And that's when I knew that I realized I only wanted to work in that part of the industry.
What specifically about it? Why fine-dining versus something cultural and rustic? I think it's the artistic nature and just the surroundings and feeling—the atmosphere.
Did it meet those expectations when you returned as a chef a few years later? Le Manoir was the place I had to work in at some point in my career. I really coveted that job. And it was an amazing experience that I wouldn't trade for anything. It's a very serious kitchen, but Raymond Blanc is an incredibly passionate chef and you really feel that there.
What does a restaurant need to do now to inspire the younger generation? A lot of it's down to nurturing and mentoring. And trying to push the boundaries a little bit constantly, working new things, trying new techniques or new flavors. I think that people respond to that. And to being challenged.
A few short ones: If you could only have one sweet on the earth for the rest of your life—and you have to choose one—what gets you going? I really like just very simple, classic desserts done very well. I guess if I could have the absolute, perfect crème brûlée, then, yeah, it would probably be that for the rest of my life.
A plate by another chef you crave? Almost anything on the menu at Mission Chinese food. I think I've been there six times since they opened. [This interview occurred about two weeks after they opened.]
So other than Mission Chinese, what's your favorite part of the city? Is there anything else? New York is just such a special, amazing place. It has such an energy, and a vibe and a feeling that's just very unique. It's very difficult to pinpoint what it is. It's just New York.