It was pastry chef Michelle Kogan’s culinary-inclined grandmothers and her stepmother’s “over-the-top” cooking that instilled in her an early admiration for restaurants. “It was as if we were in a restaurant at home, which really made me want to be in a restaurant even more,” she explains.
After graduating from the French Culinary Institute, she staged at a number of highly acclaimed New York restaurants — including Jean Georges, Del Posto, and the Modern — before landing a pastry sous chef position at Nobu 57, where she stayed for four years. It was there, under the guidance of executive pastry chef Gabriele Riva, that Kogan developed a heightened appreciation for Japanese cuisine and ingredients. “He is the person I pretty much owe everything to,” Kogan says. “He hand trained me and invested a lot of his time into the process.”
When Riva left Nobu, Kogan followed, stepping into a six-month stint at Torrisi and Parm before her loyalty to Eastern ingredients propelled her to help open Tao Downtown in June 2013. It was a craving to showcase her refined approach that led her into an executive pastry chef role at Morimoto (88 Tenth Avenue, 212-989-8883), where her dessert menu (which will debut in the next few weeks) will showcase her devotion to clean flavor profiles, Japanese ingredients, and minimal amounts of sugar. We chatted with Kogan about tracking inspiration, the kitchen tool she can’t live without, and how she put her own Asian spin on the black and white cookie.
How would you define your approach in the kitchen?
My style is minimal. I don’t like to use too many flavors when I’m composing a dish. I like the way I was trained in picking and choosing flavors to create a third flavor, an intersection of flavors. In terms of plating, I plate in a more feminine manner. Also, I try to make desserts that don’t have a high amount of sugar and have a minimal amount of fat in them, which really brings out the flavor and helps to change the perception of how people look at dessert. I sometimes see savory dishes that have more sugar in them than a dessert does. For example, right now we’re doing a panna cotta with amazaki, which is a fermented rice drink and has a lot of health benefits. It works really well when you mix it with berries — it’s really beautiful and has a bright flavor.
Would you say you have a preference for using Asian ingredients in your desserts?
Oh — absolutely. I’m obsessed with Japanese culture and Asian ingredients. I tried to step away from it at Torrisi and Parm, but to be honest, I was just using [those ingredients] while I was there. Thankfully, Rich [Torrisi] and Mario [Carbone] were into it, and they were nice about letting me do it. They really let me use a lot of ingredients that were not part of their regular pantry. For instance, Rich wanted to do something that was based on a black and white cookie, and so I ended up putting black and white sesame into macaroons — which was super me and super Japanese.
What sparked your affinity for these ingredients?
I just really love the flavor profile of Asian ingredients, and I love using savory ingredients in pastry, such as soy sauce and mirin. I’ve just always preferred Japanese cuisine. It’s very flavorful without being overpowering, and it consists of super clean flavors — which are flavors I love to cook with.
What are some of your favorite ingredients or flavor combinations?
I’m a big fan of roasted soba, which is usually used in Japanese cuisine to make noodles. I like it on its own, and I love to use it as a texture and flavor in pastry. Also, its nutty quality makes it a good nut alternative, which is great for allergy reasons. I’m also a huge fan of kuromitsu, which is like a Japanese molasses. It has a really beautiful and complex maple flavor to it and even more developed maple flavors than an American maple syrup. Also, I love citrus. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be lime or grapefruit. I tend to use sudachi over yuzu in my desserts because it follows the flavor profile of a lime, whereas yuzu follows that of a lemon.
How have you developed and maintained your knowledge of Asian ingredients and cuisine — from working at restaurants, or from your own research outside of work?
It’s been a bit of both, honestly. I came across a lot of things when I was working under Gabrielle [Riva] at Nobu, but I definitely spent a lot of time reading about and researching all of the ingredients we were using — which then led me to then discover more ingredients. I would look for them, buy them, bring them in, work with them. Gabriele would give me some direction and tell me about the flavors in addition to explaining how you could use a savory application to turn something into a pastry component.
Where do you find inspiration?
I push myself to dine out a lot, especially at different Japanese and Asian restaurants around town — just to see how other chefs are using certain flavors and how they’re inspired by them. I think it’s a good eye-opening experience to see it from somebody else’s perspective. I’m also a big follower of chefs in Japan and in Europe — not necessarily for their flavor profiles, but I love the way they plate, their approach, their technique. Even when looking at what Noma is doing with aging vegetables — it’s very similar to the fermenting that is done in Asian cultures. You can find inspiration anywhere. Reading a book like The Art of Fermentation is great because it gives you an understanding, which then gives you many ideas about how you can apply a similar technique to other things.
What is the tool you depend on most in the kitchen?
I rely heavily on my ice cream machine — it’s the most meaningful piece of equipment to me. I can’t live without it, and it’s my number one request in a kitchen. I would say 90 percent of the time when I’m creating a dessert, ice cream or sorbet is one of my major elements.
What do you hope that diners will remember most about your desserts at Morimoto?
That they’re Japanese. I want guests to leave remembering the desserts for having well-balanced Japanese and Asian flavor profiles to them — not just something that was a good dessert, but something that is true to Japanese cuisine.