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Before Gotham Bar and Grill (12 East 12th Street, 212-620-4020) pastry chef Ron Paprocki was creating desserts, he was designing landscapes. “My job was to meet with new homeowners and then draw up a plant proposal based on what they were looking for,” he explains. A landscaping opportunity took the Rochester native to Germany, and it was there, inspired by the countless pastry shops he stumbled upon, that Paprocki gave serious thought to baking, then still a hobby.
He enrolled in Elisabeth-Knipping Schule in Kassel and landed an apprentice pastry chef role at that city’s Café Alheit before returning to New York in 2004. In the decade that followed, a series of progressive roles at some of the city’s most recognizable venues (Financier, Sascha, The London) led Paprocki to Gotham Bar & Grill, where he plates refined and whimsical desserts, informed by his German training and the artistic vantage point he developed during his landscaping years. Here Paprocki discusses why we’re just days away from the best season of the year, what you’ll always find in his freezer, and the Family Feud answer he feels should be unanimous.
How has your landscaping background played into your work as a pastry chef?
One pastry that Germany is known for is the black forest cake. The one thing that I loved about creating this cake was the ability to really dive into my past — taking those flavors and plating as if it was really a forest. To do so, I offered a similar flavor profile but created something that really looked like a forest floor. I made garnishes to resemble twigs, and I had the floor made up of gently broken chocolate cake and varying textures of other chocolate components. I also incorporated balsamic glazed cherries and a fresh mint ice cream.
How would you define your approach to the menu?
Seasons certainly play a big role, as we are well known for [chef] Alfred’s initiative of tapping the resource of Union Square Greenmarket. We definitely build off of those flavors and what’s available for pastry during the current season. I like to have approachability to the menu. I think every pastry chef goes through a phase of looking through a lot of great Spanish books, whether it’s from El Bulli or Mugaritz. They’re looking at these inspirational photographs and flavor combinations, and you want to replicate that — but I think you really have to understand your customer base, too. We’re in the business of guest satisfaction, so we want to be able to provide them with what they want at the end of the meal.
What is your favorite season to work with?
Spring is my favorite season because it’s really when we start seeing fresh things again. And what I mean by fresh is that after a long winter — especially this year — and after going through a season of cheesecake and chocolate mousse and bread pudding and things that are more approachable in winter, it’s nice to have that immediate impact of rhubarb — then you know it’s spring. It’s the one season where it goes 180 degrees in the other direction. It breathes a whole fresh life through your menu.
It looks like all of your desserts incorporate an ice cream or sorbet. Any reason for the inclusion?
I love ice cream. My analogy is, if you’re playing Family Feud and they say “name a dessert,” I think the answer would have to be “ice cream.” Whenever I think of dessert, I always think of an ice cream element. I think it’s important — whether it’s integrated into the dish or served on the side. I think it can complete the experience.
What goes through your mind when you design a dish?
The very first thing I think of are flavors, and what flavors are available during the season we’re in. I’ll think of three flavors and think of how they will complement each other. Then I’ll figure out in what form each will be, whether it’ll be the main element or a small accompanying component of a dessert, or the ice cream or sorbet.
Do your ice creams ever become the star of a dish?
Generally what I really like to do is take ice cream bases that are neutral in flavor — milk, cream, and sugar — and then infuse herbaceous notes into them, whether it’s fresh mint, or tea. I’m a big fan of doing these neutral-based infusions. Certainly if I have something like lemon verbena in season, I’ll say “yes, that will be the ice cream component, let’s build the rest of the dish around it.”
Can you tell us a little more about your Valrhona Single Estate Chocolate Exploration, the dessert tasting menu (available through April), including its inspiration?
There are two courses: a pre-dessert and a main course, as I like to call them. We’re also making bon-bons to-go that accompany the menu. There is a progression with the courses, but really, it’s to highlight a very special chocolate from Valrhona that is coming from the Dominican Republic, where they’ve actually purchased their own estate there called Loma Sotavento. They’ve built a school for the community there and are really helping to build up this impoverished area. It’s a special story, and also the chocolate is really, really good. We felt it was important enough to highlight a small menu around it.
Is this a new partnership that Valrhona is doing?
This is one of the first harvests that they’ve had out of this plantation. At first, there were only 35 cases available, and I bought five of the 35. The special thing is that it’s single harvest. Normally with chocolate, manufacturers will grab beans from one country or one region in the hemisphere and call it a name — but it’s a bunch of beans from different farms, plantations, or countries. This is actually one chocolate that is coming from one farm. It has a really nice flavor to it.
When you’re not at work, what is your go-to sugar fix?
I’m pretty partial to Ben & Jerry’s Red Velvet Cake ice cream. It’s always in my freezer.