I, myself, don't like eating desserts. I hate tasting sweet things. But as a pastry chef, I like thinking about how to make a dessert.
Most of my inspiration comes from colors and shapes, and then things evolve from there. Before I wanted to be a cook, I wanted to be a graphic designer. I needed money to go to college and tried to go to school for graphic design, but that didn't really happen. What did take place, though, is the lens in which I look at things creatively. If I see blueberries, I start to lean towards colors that go with them. Purple throws my mind to brown or white tones; we recently created a blueberry and potato dessert at our restaurant, Contra, that stemmed from this very thought. When I told my father that I wanted to be a graphic designer, it didn't sit well, far less than when I told him I wanted to cook for a living. I got a job at a French restaurant while I figured out if college was the right avenue for me, and I thought cooking was easy. When I began working with pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini at Jean-Georges, I quickly realized that this could be more than just an easy job.
Mexico has a very different palate than Europe or the United States. I grew up in the southern part of Mexico City, so when I moved to the US, it was strange for me—it still is. I'm trying to adapt to the flavor profiles of Americans. When I was growing up, my mom didn't cook, so my brother and I did all the cooking. We would create weird combinations, and from that, many of those experiments translate to what I'm doing now. Blueberries and potatoes might sound like a strange pairing, but it makes a lot of sense—in my mind—because it's earthy and very acidic. (Growing up with a Mexican palate, everything has a lot of acid.) When you go to Mexico, you'll discover spicy flavors combined with sweet profiles, which doesn't often happen here in the States. Whenever I bring candies from Mexico, like a typical spicy candy, my friends here are so weirded out. Those candies are completely normal to me.
My impressions of what defines the American palate is that it's still forming and evolving here, but a lot of ethnic foods are making their ways into the popular masses. Cooking at Contra, we're constantly trying to figure out what it means for us to create contemporary food in New York at this moment in time. We often make a roasted buckwheat and amaranth custard that's whipped and served with different kinds of grains that are covered in caramel, chocolate, coffee, and a really tangy yogurt sorbet. It's a dessert that's inspired by the Mexican candy, alegría, an indulgence that pre-Hispanic people used to offer to the gods during ceremonies until Hernan Cortes banned the growth of the grain.
In my opinion, there is sometimes the misconception that pastry is specifically designated to female chefs. Most pastry chefs tend to posses an incredibly organized and precise temperament. We're much less about being spontaneous in our cooking, because pastry has to be exact. It's science. I am part of this description; I am always afraid of not being prepared and not having control over every single outcome. It takes a very calculated mind—like someone who might have OCD—and someone who wants to use formulas to get the same result every time to be a consistent pastry chef.
But the culinary world for pastry chefs has radically changed over the last couple of years. I think many pastry chefs are a lot less interested in deconstructing flavors and making things look very geometrical, very beautiful, or pristine. Most of us are far more interested in discovering and searching for interesting combinations and building layers of flavor in a very simple manner.
Working as a "pastry chef" in a small restaurant—especially now—requires us to be more involved in the kitchen as a whole. There are big restaurants out there where all these pastry cooks have an unlimited budget, separate kitchens, 20 cooks who only do pastry, and all the equipment you could want. But that model is changing. You have to involve yourself in all the aspects of the kitchen. If you need to run the cold section, you do it, and if you have to expedite one night, you will do it. You have to because you need to be able to justify your job as a pastry chef, since you're only creating a small portion of the menu. I see that as a positive thing, the more connected I am to the entire kitchen, the more sense the menu will have as a cohesive unit. The more you are met with limitations, the easier it is to be simple and focused. At least that's what I think.