MEET THE TASTEMAKERS
After a relentless scouring of Austin's dessert scene, only five chefs have earned a Tastemaker Award nomination for Pastry Chef. And no, none of them serve cupcakes. Meet the Tastemakers below, and see who will be taking home the title in person at the first annual Tastemaker Awards on April 12 at the Driskill.
To eat one of Philip Speer's desserts is to understand the essence of food. At Uchiko, one of the three Uchi restaurants where he extends his skills, Speer reinvents everyday ingredients that often go unnoticed in the dessert world — corn, milk, tobacco — without serving a banal kernel of corn, a glass of milk or a leaf of tobacco.
Through the wizardry of molecular gastronomy, Speer turns a food as simple as corn into a custard, a crisp, a crumble, a sauce or even a gel. If Speer were a poet, his magnum opus would be Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Corn Kernel.
If you're not exactly sure what a corn gel tastes like, we can't blame you. Speer's desserts are more often fantasized about than described. Simply put, the desserts at Uchi and Uchiko make wonderful use of essential flavor in new and novel forms. By extracting the flavor from a kernel of corn, Speer adds his slight, masterful touch to end up with a unique sweetness that blurs the line between savory and sweet.
Laura Sawicki, recently anointed one of America's Best New Pastry Chefs by Food & Wine Magazine, has the unenviable job of making flan. As the pastry chef of interior-inspired Mexican restaurant La Condesa, Sawicki uses traditional Mexican desserts as her starting point, adding her own refined subtlety and expertly composed pairings that have the ability to bring a flan to life in an unforeseen way (the use of fatty duck eggs helps).
But Sawicki's best desserts are of the classically decadent variety, including a spicy boca negra, a flourless chocolate cake she spices with chilies in order to bring out the cocoa's smoky flavor. Topped with perfectly caramelized bananas and a brown sugar banana ice cream, Sawicki grabs ahold of your sweet tooth and never lets go.
Give the people what they want. Steven Cak, pastry chef at Parkside and one of the final 17 nominees for Food & Wine's Best New Pastry Chef, knows the lesson well. His desserts are playful without being gimmicky and familiar without being forgettable. His re-conceived "s'mores" dish turns the gooey classic on its head by way of an unbelievably light dark chocolate custard, toasted meringue "marshmallows," and a spiced Graham cracker crumble.
By working off of a familiar base, Cak contrasts and surprises with each new element and allows diners to better contextualize each flavor.
But before his fanciful re-inventions whisk themselves away in a haute cuisine haze, Cak is back with doughnuts — and damn good ones at that. Who said dessert couldn't be playful? Stereotypes aside, the dish is fantastic, mixing the cinnamon-sweet indulgence of the doughnut balls with coconut cream cheese, pistachio shortbread and white chocolate lime ice cream.
Each flavor pops, as is also the case with his unforgettable basil ice cream served alongside a frozen goat cheese mousse. Cak knows that desserts are meant to be enjoyed, and he gives you no other choice but to do just that.
Having jet-set his way across the world serving desserts to L.A. superstars and German foodies alike, Javier Franco has refined the simplicity of his sweets. Raised in Guanajuato, Mexico until the age of 16, Franco arrived in Austin in 2010 after working his way through the kitchens of Four Seasons hotels across the country.
His desserts are recognizable but dressed up with a touch of class, much in the manner of a hotel restaurant such as TRIO, where Texan twangs accent a standard menu of American fare.
Franco shines in the details, such as a perfectly executed pumpkin ice cream — part of a frozen trifecta completed by coffee and chocolate-mint scoops that impress with their flavors — or in his light sorbets of pear, green apple and orange.
Plinio Sandalio is the most creative pastry chef in Austin. Having worked both sides of the kitchen, sweet and savory, Sandalio is unafraid to make a dessert out of a hot dog fritter with mustard ice cream and ketchup sauce. Or grapefruit sorbet with Campari Pop Rocks and angostura bitters ice cream.
Sandalio, a James Beard nominee and original pastry chef at Congress, dazzles with his versatility. The laid-back Austinite (by way of Bolivia and Houston) plays with dessert at the Carillon like it ain't no thang, supplying one of Austin's finest restaurants with a maddening array of envelope-pushing dishes.
Not only does Sandalio provide his diners with unmistakably unique flavors that expand their palates, but he creates dishes that are just downright pretty to look at, as well. If there's any young, upstart chef who can swoop in and take this inaugural Tastemaker Award, look for it to be Sandalio.