by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost
Chef Johnny Iuzzini wants people to understand what it is pastry chefs actually do. It’s the main reason he used all of his vacation time from New York‘s Jean Georges to be the head judge on Bravo‘s Top Chef Just Desserts. Past the cool look (the clothes, the tattoos and the perfectly coiffed ‘do) Iuzzini is a master craftsman and innovator. His accolades are endless and his resume impressive to say the least. He’s put in the time, making his bones with such luminaries as Chefs Daniel Boulud and Jean Georges Vongerichten.
Iuzzini is currently the Executive Pastry Chef at Vongerichten’s namesake New York restaurant, Jean Georges, along with its sister cafe Nougatine. Jean Georges has three Michelin stars and four stars from the New York Times. In addition to being awarded “Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation in 2006 and Iuzzini published his first cookbook Dessert Fourplay in 2008.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost recently spoke to Iuzzini about his role at Jean Georges and Nougatine, but especially about his role as head judge Top Chef Just Desserts.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: The season’s ready to wrap up. What was it like to do a TV show like this?
Johnny Iuzzini: I’ve done a lot of TV but never in this sector of television. I’ve done a lot of live stuff, like today alone I did (Live With) Regis & Kelly. It’s always food related where I get to cook. Talk about what I like to cook and my philosophy. This is the first time it’s been a different role for me where I’m on the other side of the table, asking questions and poking and prodding a bit. I gotta be honest, it was a little bit difficult. It was the first time for me to be in that kind of a role and I’m a chef before anything else. I feel I’m very compassionate towards these guys, and I want them to succeed. To be walking around and not being able to be in a kitchen for that period of time straight was different. I’ve never had more than a week out of my kitchen before. To be out of my kitchen for that many days straight was really awkward to be honest. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was getting antsy. I would do my walk through and want to jump in and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?’, but obviously I can’t. I can’t help them in any way. In the end, it was a great experience. Whether it renews into a new season or not, it was an incredible season for me.
So you haven’t heard any news about it being picked up, then?
Johnny Iuzzini: I have no clue.
How did you get approached to do it?
Johnny Iuzzini: I had been on Top Chef a couple of times before as a guest judge. When I heard they were doing Just Desserts I contacted them and said, I’d be interested in any way. Because it was the first time that pastry chefs are really getting a showcase of their own. I wanted to be a part of it because I wanted to make sure it was done right. That they did it in a way that covered a lot of territory, a lot of ground really fast. The way they did it is it’s a bunch of genres of pastry people. There’s all types of pastry chefs in one competition and each challenge would give one of them an advantage and maybe the next challenge a disadvantage. It’s pretty interesting to see how they flip flop all the through the entire competition.
How do you feel the first set of contestants have done overall?
Johnny Iuzzini: I think they did great. This competition is a lot harder for pastry chefs than it is for savory chefs. Savory chefs can have a couple of greens, throw it in the pan or whatever else and keep adjusting their flavor profiles, keep tasting it all the way through and finally plate it. Where pastry chefs, we rely much more on recipes and it’s much more precise. Everything’s about proportions. Especially because we make so much stuff that has to set or has to bake, if you don’t nail that, you can’t fix that later. The two most key things for a pastry chef would be time and recipes. If you take those two away, you have a serious issue on your hands. That, coupled with twelve Type-A personalities running around a kitchen, it’s absolute mayhem. It would be hard even if they had the recipes, just for the time constraints alone.
And you have to come up with forward thinking, new ideas, too. And you have to do that day after day, too.
Johnny Iuzzini: It’s two days per episode. So the first day is the quickfire and the beginning of the elimination. The second day is the finish of the elimination and judges table. It’s back to back every challenge. Can you imagine working that frantically and under that much stress straight for twenty-something days. That’s hard. And working in a kitchen that’s not your own, equipment that’s not your own, being separated from your loved ones. All the things that ground us, anything that provides comfort, you take it away from them. No contact with the outside.
One thing I wanted to touch on because it was such a momentous occasion, not only for the show, but for TV itself…the whole thing with Seth. Obviously, the guy has got some issues of some kind, but it just came off so insanely bizarre on TV…
Johnny Iuzzini: It was bizarre (to witness) in person. No one saw it happening ahead of time. The first challenge, he won. He’s a good cook. The guy’s got strong flavors. I just think that he has some things going on emotionally, maybe at home, where he wasn’t able to focus on the job at hand and he got stressed out. A lot of people can be great chefs, but if you put them in that competition environment, it’s a total different monster. If you’re a great cook in your own kitchen under your own pressures, that’s fine. But to put yourself in that environment? Not everybody can stand up (to it). That’s why everybody can’t compete. Some people thrive on that and others don’t. I don’t think he knew what a competition like this would entail. And maybe he thought he could handle it and in the end he had a lot on his mind and is emotional and it just didn’t work out for him.
The first time they showed him breaking down…words don’t even come to mind to describe it. I’ve never seen anything like it on TV. I’ve shown it to other people who are astonished that someone did that in front of cameras and that it was there for people to see. It was such a strong, emotional and frightening moment and it obviously got worse.
Johnny Iuzzini: Even what the viewers saw wasn’t the whole story. That definitely was tamed down a little bit for his own good.
With regards to working with your fellow judges and with Gail, what was the relationship like in molding a crew from scratch?
Johnny Iuzzini: Gail and I have a long time friendship. Gail and I actually worked together back at Daniel. She was in the marketing/PR department and I was the pastry chef at the time. It was fun to do something together again. I love working with Gail and she’s a sweetheart and knows her food. Hubert‘s (Keller) someone I’ve respected for a long time. The amount of experience he has and the amount of knowledge he brings to the table and just his different perception of food and different styles of food. Dannielle (Kyrillos)provides the people’s choice. She’s not dissecting food like I am. She’s not looking for the technical flaws like I am. She’s good at conveying, in sort of layman terms, getting the point across of what she’s tasting to the viewer.
Right, that’s very necessary.
Johnny Iuzzini: The show definitely has different scopes and different demographics. There are very serious cooks watching this. But there’s also people watching it for entertainment value. So they all should be able to understand everything at every point of the show. That’s why there’s such a diverse judge’s panel.
What would you have to consider should Top Chef Just Desserts become more successful and you’re required to take more time off than you have available?
I’ve been at Jean Georges for eight years. I really love Jean Georges, the man and the restaurant. He’s been very good to me. He’s given me a platform to build on. I’m not in a hurry to leave at all. At some point, everybody has ambition to be an entrepreneur and to open up things. And I have a whole bag full of ideas and things I would love to do in the future.
The show may go into a second season and they may choose to go with a different head judge. And if that was the case I would offer to stay on as a consultant. I would just want the show to do well. It’s not about the judges, it’s about the contestants. It’s about the craft. It’s about showing our country what we do. Showing the abilities and the talents of these contestants. The judges are only there to filter through it a little bit and to show the highlights and the low lights. It should never be about the judges, it should never be about the host. It should be about the contestants and how hard they work and what they bring to the table.
Tell me about what is going on now at the restaurant and if you’ve taken anything from the show to do differently?
Johnny Iuzzini: I don’t see them as parallels at all. It’s like I have a split personality now. There’s the person that people see on TV and it’s very much me and my ideals towards cooking and that’s what I stand for and what I preach to the contestants. But it’s no different from how I am here with my own cooks. We strive to be better than we were yesterday. We try to improve ourselves and learn new techniques and learn from people around us and always, push, push, push. Never be satisfied with being mediocre. Mediocrity has always been the fuel in my life. I’ve always been petrified of being mediocre. I tell my cooks all the time, ‘It’s really easy to be mediocre. It’s really hard to be great.’ No one can ever push you as hard as you push yourself. That’s the best advice I can give anybody. I can teach you everything. I can teach you as far as recipes, techniques, how to work clean, how to work fast. There’s so much I can teach you. The only thing I can’t teach you is passion. Is desire. Is a fire in your heart to make you want to be better than you were yesterday.
I’m excited about the show because it gives us a chance to show what a pastry chef is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out and told people I’m a pastry chef and it’s like, ‘Oh, so you make a great cookie?’ Or you make donuts or brownies or can you make great cannoli or something like that. It was an ex-girlfriend, when I first told her I was a pastry chef, she’s like, ‘Oh, so you make pasta.’ No clue. Some people have no clue what it is and how much detail and how much work goes into what we’re doing. They see, so often, dessert as an afterthought. People have no idea the labor and time that goes into creating these desserts. I think that the show is going to be really great if it continues over the seasons to show people how much work really goes into these desserts.
Is that something that tends to bother you that you do put so much effort, especially at your level, into your things and, even at your level, sometimes not appreciated as much as what comes before it?
Johnny Iuzzini: It does and it doesn’t. There’s always going to be people that don’t have a sweet tooth and (do). It doesn’t matter to our guests if it took me four minutes to make or if it took me four days to make. All that matters to them and all that matters to me is that it’s delicious and that it’s not something they maybe can’t get anywhere else. Or something that, next time they think of the restaurant, they’ll think of that dish or that experience. I always strive to be a part of the experience that we offer at the restaurant and give customers something they can’t get anywhere else. Maybe a combination of flavors or a new texture or whatever it is and push for that. We’re constantly trying to be innovative, and at the same time, tie that into classics, into flavors that people can recognize from their childhood. That’s always the tight rope that I walk. I always want to be part of the modern revolution of food and be thought of as innovative, but at the same time I don’t want people to think that I’m a crazy, mad scientist who just makes food that is interesting and not delicious. So it’s a matter of making interesting food that’s deadly delicious.
Can you talk about working at and for Jean Georges?
Johnny Iuzzini: I’m in charge of two restaurants here. Jean Georges, which is a three star Michelin, four star New York Times restaurant. There’s only a handful of those in the whole country. Then there’s Nougatine, which is our more casual dining room in the hotel as well. The reason the rooms are split is because that one is breakfast, lunch and dinner 365 days a year and it’s always open. We do room service for the hotel, in-room dining as well as small banquets. I have a staff of eight full-time, plus me to man the two restaurants, plus all the other extra stuff. And I have a handful of interns as well from the local culinary schools.
Can you talk about how a typical day goes for you?
Johnny Iuzzini: Usually I come in around 10 or 11, right before lunch, do a walk through, check all the stations, check all the mise-en-place of the morning guys, because they’re in at 7 in the morning. Start spinning all of the ice creams fresh every day. Start making all of the sauces. Everything that needs to be baked fresh for each service, start checking all of that. Then I’ll go and do my ordering at some point in the afternoon. Work on new ideas, new recipes. Get ready for dinner. The night guys will come in, I’ll check their stations, check their food. I’ll assist in services, back and forth. I don’t actually work a service full time. I won’t be the guy plating all of the desserts all night. It’s very different a pastry service from a savory service. Savory cooks do prep in the beginning and at night all of their cooking is essentially done to order, whereas pastry, so much is done in advance. The key is to have a great, organized production. Service is essentially just finishing desserts for service. You’re not making a mousse to order. You’re heating things up, you’re (shaping) ice creams, you’re composing dishes from components that have been made ahead of time. It’s more important to have me in production, making the actual components. I’ll float the services and I have two people that are very strong and plate the same way I do.
There’s two services going on at the same time. I’ll have a service at Jean Georges and a service at Nougatine for lunch and dinner that I’ll have to bounce around and check and watch. Whenever one gets busy I jump on the station with them. When the other gets buys I jump on the station with them. I do a minimum twelve hours a day, depending on what’s going on. Normally five days a week, but in the busier seasons six, maybe seven, plus events and whatever else.
When you do have time off, what do you do with it?
Johnny Iuzzini: The little time I have, I tend to do a lot of extra stuff on the side, outside of my responsibilities at the restaurant, the show being one of them. I’m active in charity events. I’m actually a big (New York) Giants fan, so I tailgate on Sundays sometimes when the Giants are home. I have a cabin in the Catskills, that’s where I grew up. About eight years ago I bought a cabin up there. It’s very secluded. I’m very much a city boy, but I’m very much a country boy at heart. I love to be outdoors. I love to cut my wood for the winter. I love to ride my ATVs. I ride my motorcycle to work every day. I have another motorcycle in the mountains for that kind of riding. I love to be on the motorcycle outside or messing around. My dad has a boat here in Brooklyn and we go fishing all summer long. Anything to be outside and running around. The little time I have, I’m not that guy that’s going to sleep all day.
What I think is cool is your hip look, especially the hair.
Johnny Iuzzini: People are kind of pigeon holing a little bit by the way I look. They’re comparing Tom (Colicchio) and I. Tom’s a bit older than I am and whatever else. He has a couple of restaurants, he has a lot of restaurants. But it shouldn’t take away from the fact that I’ve been a pastry chef in the kitchen for twenty something years. I’m not as young as people think I am. Just because I have a modern haircut or maybe a retro haircut, whatever and tattoos and the way that I look, doesn’t mean that I’m any less of a pastry chef.
Oh yeah, I understand that…
Johnny Iuzzini: It doesn’t mean that I haven’t earned my accolades and haven’t cut my teeth. If people would take the time to read my resume and read my bio and learn about how much I’ve achieved in the short time that I’ve been, comparatively to these older chefs, I’ve done a lot with my career and I’m very proud of it. And the fact that people pigeon hole me based on the way I look really bothers me.
I hope I didn’t offend you…
Johnny Iuzzini: No, no, no. In the beginning of watching the show I stopped reading the blogs and stopped watching the show, because people were so focused on the way I look or the way I talk. Listen to what I’m saying about the food. It’s not about me or the way I’m dressing, it’s about the competitors, it’s about the food, it’s about them challenging themselves and highlighting the craft. I’m there to support them. It gets frustrating.
I’m a pretty vain person. I like the way I look. I dress the way I dress, I do my hair the way I do on purpose, because it’s the way I like it. I just don’t want it to be the only thing.
My only point was that you’re presenting a different image of what perhaps someone would think a pastry chef should look like. Because the savory chefs tend to get the wilder image.
Johnny Iuzzini: Did you watch the video that we did? That’s part of why I opted to do that video on the Bravo website, where I rode a motorcycle around LA and got tattooed. You’ll see me ride around in a tank top and get a tattoo and talk about exactly this, what it is to be a pastry chef and that looks are deceiving. It was definitely in response to people already commenting on how I look.
What restaurants in Chicago do you enjoy going to when you’re in town?
Johnny Iuzzini: I’ve only been to Chicago twice and one of the times was to actually shoot Top Chef. It’s only a good handful of places. I’ve been to avec, Blackbird, Alinea, Tru, Charlie Trotter, the deep dish pizza place…the original one…
Johnny Iuzzini: Yeah, the original guy.
You’ve been to the big ones, then.
Johnny Iuzzini: I always go big or go home. I’m definitely trying to get my way back up there. I’ll probably come up after Grant (Alinea‘s Achatz) opens up his new spot (Aviary). Grant and I are friends and I’m a big fan of what he does. Paul Kahan is a friend of mine. Mike Sheerin, who’s doing his thing now is a good friend. I have lots of people up there I love to see and support their food.