Serious Eats: New York
We Chat With: Pastry Chef Lauren Resler of Empellón
"For me it was always just to make something that, for lack of a better word, sparkles."
Pastry Chef Lauren Resler has an incredible smile—my photographer Brent pointed out that there wasn't one image in her shoot in which she wasn't smiling. As I transcribed our discussion, I could hear that smile in her voice. And, indeed, making someone smile is the reason she went into pastry in the first place.
Chef Resler should be taken seriously, though. Aside from helming the pastry department at Empellón Cocina and Empellón Taqueria, she makes the tortillas and masa for both locations, and often spends much of her daylight hours shuttling supplies between the two locations in her hard-topped '98 silver Mustang. She helps husband/partner Chef Alex Stupak with ordering and is part of the discussion for both menus. While she attributes the restaurants' origin and success to Stupak she is, indeed, a fundamental part of that success.
Not that you'd notice this eating at Empellón, though. What you'd most likely pick up are the whimsical, layered compositions Resler packs with a flow of (somewhat) unfamiliar Mexican flavors. Her plates are personal—to her Mexican roots that inspired Empellón, her love of sweets that sparkle, and the New York clientele she just wants to make smile.
Why is the kind of food you make significant to you personally? I've enjoyed cooking and providing food for people since I was a little girl. It was one of those things where a bake sale would happen at school for my older brothers and my mom hated to cook, so I would make simple things like boxed brownies and cookies. I loved the idea of making someone smile.
Who did little-kid baker Lauren think pastry chef Lauren was going to grow to be? I got a lot of inspiration from my grandmother; she always had persimmon cookies, sweet bread, different cakes, lemon meringue pie or sugar cookies; kind of that homemaker style. I knew that I wanted to pick up on those things. It wasn't about becoming a pastry chef at high-end places—working with Alex in Boston was the first twist where I realized there was a whole other world of pastry. I didn't think I'd be in that place when I was a little girl. For me it was always just to make something that, for lack of a better word, "sparkles."
You went to a full culinary program instead of a pastry program. Why? I'm a very weird, realistic person in my own mind. It was already stated that there weren't many females in the kitchen, so I already knew it was going to be slightly tough. And I had a vision of myself in a kitchen with a chef saying, "go grab some escarole from the fridge." What if I didn't know what that was? What if I grabbed a fish?! I was terrified of the idea of being looked down upon because I was only focused in on one thing.
Opening a restaurant is a big deal, and in New York a very big deal. Was it overwhelming or a comfortable next step in your career? It definitely did feel overwhelming, but that was more so inspired by Alex. When we first met - I think it was even on our first date - he told me, "one of these days I'm going to have my own restaurant." And I said, "well, you know, that sounds really amazing but I don't necessarily need that personally." As long as I can live off of what I get paid and it's still fun and still a passion for me, that's all I need.
So that idea terrified me, but over the years he was constantly talking about it. We've always worked very well together—there's great respect between us. And so I was inspired and of course wanted to help him in every shape and form that I could, and it became this very natural "of course this is going to be us together." But as you read about in every publication it's Alex Stupak's restaurant.
Do you feel like it's Alex Stupak's restaurant? Yeah, absolutely. Even though I've been there and a support to him, the original dream was his.
What makes you excited about pastry sounds different than what makes him excited about pastry; how did you land on the combination of nostalgia and composition for your menu? For the most part you don't get a composed dessert in Mexico, and the ideal textures of Mexico are so far from what we like in America that if I try to duplicate something that I've had out there we wouldn't know what to do with it. But you have to play to your clientele, of course. Here we like the French mentality: something crunchy, something creamy, and something cakey. But I am being true to the flavor profile, 100%—I'm not introducing any flavors you can't find in Mexico.
You've taken a traditional flan a few steps further.... It's flavored with hoja santa and paired with a traditional Mexican candy, which is peanut bound with butter and sugar. It's a very traditional, typical flavor, and I'm just trying to introduce it in a familiar package of flan.
Why do that? Because I can! I enjoy the flavors that I've found that aren't always readily available here.
You and I have discussed the dwindling number of pastry departments and the influx of pastry chefs. Are you worried about the future of pastry departments in New York? Yes, I am definitely worried. Because, unfortunately, with TV shows comes the glamorized idea of what it is to be a chef. When people go to culinary or pastry school I feel like they expect they're going to be the one where raw talent is just sparked and all of a sudden they're going to be thrown into working with Ron Ben-Israel making these elaborate, beautiful cakes, or they're going to go with Dominique Ansel and not just be one of his workers; they're going to work with him and put their spin on things.
What about the restaurants, specifically? One of the biggest things that Alex and I have been discussing lately is that the majority of restaurants don't make money off of desserts—they tend to break even or lose money, but they're okay with that because desserts are an amenity or luxury. I think that it's even more so with the recession, and with diets that are even more insane than they ever used to be; people are realizing they don't need to have dessert when they go out. And I think pastry schools are turning out student after student, but there are fewer places for them to go.
It seems the big names in pastry still today are of the older guard—Alex, Michael Laiskonis, Johnny Iuzzini, Jordan Kahn—who were all heralded for doing something new. I think it's kind of funny that everyone looks to Alex and Michael and Johnny and Jordan; they took ideas from what they'd read of El Bulli, Michel Bras, Pierre Hermé, and Jacques Torres even, then played around on their own and reintroduced it with their own flare. But now people are being judged harsher because they're putting their spin on "Michael Laiskonis desserts" and "Jordan Kahn desserts." I feel like it's just too close to home for our writers, bloggers and journalists who are like, "no wait, they're still here actively doing these things and now you're just basically copying them". Well, not necessarily—you're probably doing a twist on it, just the same as these guys were doing with older chefs.
What do you think it's going to take for the next pastry chef name? I think a new genre starts, and another new genre starts, and then everything kind of falls off and you're back on the cycle of revisiting something that was already done with fresh eyes and with a fresh, completely overall concept of what it could be. The new generation of pastry chefs needs to study in depth the old-school techniques of French and Italian and even Japanese pastry, and then start refining it: take into account the new sciences that we've developed, work on presentation and flavor balancing, and pull from deep within and try to create something uniquely your own.
Speaking of switching things up—you're changing over your dessert menu at both Empellóns soon. Why the change? I'm not just the pastry chef here—I try to take on a few different roles. I'm trying to simplify things a bit more where I can make desserts that I like, but also have a quick turnover period if I need to take a night off. I'm excited to learn how to simplify while keeping things pretty. I hope it works!
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private cook who, thanks to Chef Resler, now knows what iota carrageenan is. She's alternatively baking with it soon at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.