Tap Into Brooks Headley's Punk Rock Approach to Life and Dessert
All images courtesy W.W. Norton
Brooks Headley heads the dessert program at one of NYC's best and most expensive restaurants, Del Posto. He recently released a cookbook. But if you're imagining a volume that evokes images of rolling vineyards in the Tuscan countryside or strawberries ripening on the bush, think again. The James Beard Award winner is a former punk drummer, and his book, Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts, explores his ascent into culinary stardom through the lens of a young punk.
Headley's book uses ironic photos and images, as well as stories about his life and career, to detail the chef's relaxed yet inspiring approach to pastry, and life.
Headley has been working on bringing this book to life for the better part of a half-decade, and his aim was to turn conventional notions of pastries upside down. He eschews the perfect desserts found in most high-end restaurants and instead focuses on creating straightforward sweet treats that showcase flavor rather than pompous presentation. "There's this idea that things have to be this sort of beautiful, cut-into-a-perfect-square, architectural thing at fancy restaurants," says Headley. "And I don't really buy into that, because I don't think stuff like that tastes good. I like...the grandma desserts, something kind of clunky-looking, as long as it's super-delicious."
That's what landed Headley at Del Posto in the first place. In his early twenties, Headley had no intention of working in a restaurant kitchen; the young musician was more concerned with traveling with his band in their tour van. At nearly 30, Headley had just finished a degree in English. Not really sure what he was going to do with his life, he was perusing a classified section when saw an ad for an assistant pastry chef position in Washington, D.C. He had no idea which restaurant it was, but he wrote the chef an impressive letter, walked up the street to a pharmacy on Mount Pleasant Street, and faxed it over. He got a call back for a trial for Galileo, which was, at the time, the best Italian restaurant in the city. It was trial by fire, and Headley loved every second of it. "Once I was in there, even the first day, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," he says. "Very accidental, also very serendipitous, too. It happens a lot with lots of people. It's not like it's a crazy original thing."
From there, Headley made his way through a series of Italian restaurant kitchens. He went to L.A., where he did a stint under Nancy Silverton at Campanile, a move that deeply inspired his pastry ideology. While Headley was born into an Italian-American family, it wasn't exactly his roots that inspired him to devise Italian-style desserts; he just happened to land in those sorts of restaurants — lucky, because he prefers the simple desserts that pay homage to the ingredients.
Headley is obviously talented, but his outlook is quite personal and specific. Before taking the position at Del Posto seven years ago, he loved to conduct tastings for job interviews. Most of the time, he'd pass with flying colors, though there was one post he attempted to land, in California, that did not go over so well. "It's one of those things that you instantly know if it's going good or it's going bad," says Headley. "It was a different style, and I probably wasn't qualified, and I probably shouldn't have even tried, but I did anyway....They wanted sugar sculptures and chocolate stuff that, even to this day, I can't really do. I think I made these super, super rustic Claudia Fleming–style crepes with, like, a ricotta gelato thing. They ate it all, but they were like, 'Yeah, there's no way we're hiring this dude.' "
His push to work at Del Posto fared better. Long before Mark Ladner landed as executive chef and partner at the restaurant, Headley idolized his work. It's a style and principle of honest yet sophisticated cuisine that Headley wanted to further develop himself. So he got wasted and wrote a letter to Ladner asking for a chance to work in his kitchen. Headley tells the story in the book; he forgot about sending it, and when he received a call back from Ladner, he was slightly shocked. The initial conversations were intimidating, to say the least; Headley had barely worked in NYC, and he had never spent time in a kitchen that produced such a volume of food. Still, Ladner gave him the chance. Headley's been there ever since.
Headley and Ladner discussed making sure the dessert felt like a seamless progression of the meal. They wanted everything to feel like it was created by one chef. They both poke around each other's stations, poaching ingredients and ideas from one another. "It's been a crazy, wild ride, but it's been tons of fun, too," says Headley. "Being able to collaborate with a chef, it's been a great thing. What I wanted to do in the book is have that philosophy. That's such a pretentious word, but we have these ideas of how we got to certain places in this environment."
Before Headley started working on Fancy Desserts, he knew he wanted Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin to help with the look and feel. He was a huge fan of the pair's illustrations for Pete Wells's monthly column, "Cooking With Dexter." Headley wanted that humorous, unorthodox aesthetic to his first book; he did not want the ubiquitous coffee-table-like cookbook.
Headley recruited his friends to tell stories and contribute, including writer-musician Ian Svenonius, essayist Sloane Crosley, and chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and David Kinch. Headley ended up with 97 recipes and more than 100 photographs, with directions ranging from verjus melon candy and red wine plums to Brutally Italian Almond Cake and tiramisu sponge cake.
Reprinted from Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts: The Recipes of Del Posto's James Beard Award–Winning Pastry Chef by Brooks Headley with Chris Cechin-De La Rosa. Copyright © 2014 by Brooks Headley. Photographs © 2014 by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company Inc. All rights reserved.
Brutti ma Buoni The literal translation of this classic cookie from the Piemonte region is "ugly but good." I have been making variations of it since my very first Italian restaurant job, and it really does sum up my philosophy of Italian cooking: Who cares if it's ugly, as long as it tastes great? Ladner once described an especially haggard-looking dish made by the great Italian chef Marc Vetri: "Holy shit, the plate looked like a murder scene — totally sloppy, a complete mess, garbage to look at. But when I tasted it...Jesus! It tasted so incredible, like a three-hundred-year-old Italian grandma had produced it. You could literally taste the years of experience." That is everything as far as I'm concerned.
The key to this cookie is gently toasted, very high quality hazelnuts. The austere goal is a crunchy hazelnut meringue cookie. I should note that this recipe is highly susceptible to humidity. If it is raining outside, or the middle of a muggy summer day, or if it's overcast and old snow is melting into gray curbside slush, you should pick a different recipe. If you live in Las Vegas, you can make this 24-7, 365 days a year. In L.A. there's that one day a year when it rains — don't make these that day.
Yield: Depends on the size of your meringue "splats"
Hazelnuts: 1 pound (454 grams) Egg whites: 7 (210 grams each) Sugar: 2 1/2 cups (500 grams) Ground cinnamon: 1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) Pure vanilla extract: 1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) Salt: 1 1/2 teaspoons (6 grams)
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
2. Place the hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast for 8 minutes, stir, and cook until they darken in color and become golden, another 10 to 12 minutes. Let the nuts cool on the sheet completely.
3. Lower the oven temperature to 300°F. Line a separate baking sheet with parchment or a Silpat and set aside.
4. Place the cooled nuts in a food processor and pulse until you have a fine powder. You don't want the nuts to become pasty, so be sure to watch them carefully as you grind them.
5. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg whites while slowly adding the sugar. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and continue to whisk until the sugar dissolves, the egg whites are hot, and the meringue is smooth and shiny.
6. Add the cinnamon, vanilla, salt, and nut powder and fold gently with a silicone spatula.
7. With a spoon, create splats of meringue batter on the reserved baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly golden, and set.
8. Immediately after you've removed the cookies from the oven, use your index fingers and thumbs to pinch the cookies into ugly little lumps — this will expose the chewy center slightly and turn the edges of meringue into crunchy peaks. Let cool on the pan for at least 5 minutes. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.
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