Hiding the extreme complexity of a confection under an apparently simple-looking blanket is as difficult as it is brilliant. This can frequently be seen in the desserts enjoyed at the Eleven Madison Park (EMP) restaurant in New York, with Daniel Humm at the helm of the kitchen and pastry chef Mark Welker as his sweet counterpart. Welker tells us about how carefully each dessert is designed, while adhering to four essential fundamentals: taste, which must be delicious, beauty, creativity and intention. Four pillars with which he builds desserts as elegant and surprisingly complex as the ones he shares with us.
When did you decide to become a pastry chef?
I have always had such fond memories of our family baking while growing up. As I got older it was the time when the Food Network was getting big. Watching chefs on television really made me realize one could make a career out of cooking, so I went in that direction.
Even though I signed up for a baking and pastry degree, while in school I worked as a savory cook and continued to work on both sides of the kitchen for many years. After spending time in kitchens, I realized that I wanted my focus to be in pastry and baking bread. It is just the way my brain works, I guess. In the pastry kitchen there is much more control over what you are doing. There was also a point I remember looking at Charlie Trotter’s Desserts book. I think that when my mind really expanded and realized what could be done in a restaurant. I began studying chefs such as Paco Torreblanca, Pierre Hermé and Claudia Fleming. I feel like working as a savory chef really helped me in being a better pastry chef.
The desserts need to look simple and effortless on the outside. When you eat it though, there needs to be a moment of ‘how’d they do that?’
How would you define your desserts at EMP?
The desserts need to look simple and effortless on the outside. When you eat it though, there needs to be a moment of ‘how’d they do that?’ I know that is easy to say, but it’s probably the most challenging aspect of creating a dish.
While eating a dessert I’m looking for contrasts in textures and temperatures. The flavors need to be balanced and clean, not too sweet, the right amount of acid and salt and a lot of the time we finish a dessert with salt. We often follow the Coco Chanel quote: ‘Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off’. We question everything.
How has your style evolved in the last years?
I’ve grown more mature about my role, and this has influenced my style. Realizing it’s not about my ego, using the pastry team as well as the entirety of the kitchen. Everyone has a voice and it is so important that each chef has a voice that is listened to. My job, now, is to filter all the input and make a decision to do what’s best for the menu. The menu should feel cohesive and have a flow that makes sense. I think we’ve done a really good job at this at EMP. When you look at a menu from any season it flows like a fashion designer’s line would. It’s always disappointing when you go to a restaurant and you feel a disconnect from the desserts and the food.
And why is it disappointing?
I hope more chefs think about this, but I still see it as a problem in many restaurants. I also think it just depends on the level of restaurant you see this as a problem. What I would challenge all pastry chefs to do is work hard at building relationships with the head chef and the entire team. Working to tear the walls that exist in so many places. When I was coming up there was always a divide between savory and pastry. And what I’m asking is not easy, but I can promise you this: your food will feel more cohesive when you open up and learn how to truly work with the entire team. And when it clicks it just feels right, but you also need to learn how to navigate conflicts. This is all very important.
How is the creative process with the desserts at EMP?
At EMP, we have 4 fundamentals we use as a filter while creating a dish. First one is our food must be delicious. This needs to be an immediate reaction when you take your first bite – either it is delicious or it is not. There is no gray area here. We must showcase ingredients that are pure expressions of what they are. Carrots must taste like carrots; Strawberries must taste like Strawberries.
We must push ourselves to be creative and to challenge our ideas and beliefs. Only then can we truly discover and create new things.
What are the other fundamentals to create a dish?
Beautiful, Creative and Intention. When you look at a dish it must be beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for us the allure is in the natural, the organic, and the minimal. The arrangement of the dish must appear almost effortless.
Besides this, we must push ourselves to be creative and to challenge our ideas and beliefs. Only then can we truly discover and create new things. Exploring new techniques, flavors, and ingredients, finding elements of surprise. This is essential. Without creativity, our food will not evolve.
Then, there is Intention. Every dish must have a story or come from a place that makes sense to us. Whether it comes from New York City history, childhood nostalgia, world travels, a local ingredient or farm. These are the things we ask ourselves before even starting on a dish.
What will the desserts of the future be like?
I think we’ll see less to be honest. I see more places focusing on a few signature desserts rather than having a whole pastry team to create these large menus and go through the whole creative process. I think this is smart too. When you look at the profit margins of a restaurant having a pastry team takes up a large amount of that. Pastry chefs in the future will need to position themselves to a place where they are more indispensable. Especially now as we are heading to the post Covid-19 world. If you can wear many hats in a restaurant you will be a valuable asset.
Beautiful, Creative and Intention. When you look at a dish it must be beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for us the allure is in the natural, the organic, and the minimal.
What would you highlight from the 3 desserts you share with recipes?
The desserts I’m sharing are a great reflection of where I am in my career. They all seem very simple and minimal. Then looking at the recipes you’ll see there is a lot more going on.