"I've completely taken things from every experience that I've had and kind of developed this place that I'm at now. It's kind of who I am."
Pastry Chef Bob Truitt runs six menus for Michael White's Altamarea Group, but his easy laugh and gentle smile don't give away his many responsibilities or lack of sleep. His versatility comes into play daily as he employs classic French and Italian pastry technique, his experience working with Masaharu Morimoto, and his general love of letting memory and emotion inspire a new dish. We chatted with Truitt at Marea, concluding that anyone who can make a hazelnut semifreddo a dessert to dream repeatedly about works well under stress.
You've worked with an interesting variety of chefs and restaurateurs; Masaharu Morimoto, Stephen Starr, Ferran Adrià... I was very fortunate. I was cooking out of high school in random restaurants in Philadelphia and then I got into the Stephen Starr company, where I met Will [Goldfarb]. And he kind of introduced me to the much larger world of chefs.
How so? He had already experienced time in Paris and Spain (at El Bulli), so he opened my mind to what was actually out there. The goal from then on was to do it myself.
Did you have any idea of what kind of chef you wanted to be before that time? No. I always strived to be versatile in the kitchen—I was trained in savory before I was ever trained in pastry. Pastry was always this thing that I wanted to learn and positions were opening while I was pushing really hard at the time, so it kind of fell into place.
What excited you most about food in the earlier days of your career? The balance; the spectrum of what you have to work with and how that plays out when you're plating a dish—having your salty, sweet, sour, and bitter elements that really bring everything together. So for me it was, "oh, you can take a green olive and fill it with caramel sauce!" It's weird—it's really weird—but it's balanced.
Does that work? Yes, it does. It's absolutely insane, but it does. It's something I learned back at Morimoto.
Does anything else stand out as significant in your time with him? The idea of always being aware and constantly refining—seeing the open spaces on a plate and putting things in place for a reason. The Japanese do things for a reason; they don't just make things for the same of making something—everything plays a part.
What stands out about the influence of Chef Adrià? Creativity. The endless possibilities, but at the same time remembering it's still food and it has to taste delicious. So creativity was huge, but it was also about restraint—controlled creativity, I guess.
What excites you now? It still comes back to page one about balance. I love very different styles of food and being able to do different things.
That's fitting, as you have different styles of restaurants. Where do you start when composing a dish for each? I start with the vision of the restaurant. I work with Michael [White] and we talk about "what is this restaurant doing and trying to represent?" And then it's a lot of research.
Does memory or emotion play into your dishes? Yes, it all plays into what we're doing. We did a magazine photo shoot for So Good, a pastry magazine based out of Spain, so immediately my mind went to an homage for El Bulli—all the components of the dish were all things that grow around there wild. Another one was based on a trip back from Mexico with my wife. All of these things inspire me. But it's circumstantial—I'm not going to go make this dessert for my wife who's from Mexico if we just had a meal at Marea. It has to make sense.
Any from further in your past? I dig deep sometimes. I just looked at notes I took ten years ago. They're terrible. But I'm able to take them now and rework them into something that makes sense just through experience. I wasn't experienced and was just writing stuff because I was trying to be creative. But I look at those silly notes now and am like, "I can't believe I wrote that. That's ridiculous."
Like what? I don't know if I want to say it! Ha! I think back then I just wanted to be completely off-the-grid different, you know? Not the traditional pastry chef or the traditional chef for that matter. It was more about visuals and ideas than the eating experience. My visions then were much more radical I guess.
Was there a point your focus shifted? After El Bulli.
How did it change you? I was more focused on controlling my creativity into realistic environments and actual pastry chef jobs.
Years later you're responsible for a set of menus with a healthy resumé. How would you define yourself now? I'm me. I've completely taken things from every experience that I've had and kind of developed this place that I'm at now. It's kind of who I am. I have over 20 cooks with four sous chefs at the moments that I'm working with at four different restaurants. So learning how to be a leader over time too, and being able to lead a team and teach them to make sure that I can get them to the top as well.
Between the variety of dishes you have to produce, jumping between locations and managing this staff, do you ever feel overwhelmed? I don't sleep very much. I wake up thinking about it, and go to bed thinking about it. It's a lot. The setup and the vision of the restaurant being very clear makes it easier to really execute.
How do you organize it all? We document everything—we're breaking 700 recipes now. Everything is backed up—I'm never losing them. I think I'll just move away if I ever lose them. I'm gone—you'll never find me again!