Reunions can be sweet, and Juni (12 East 31st Street, 212-995-8599) pastry chef Mina Pizarro would know. She worked with chef Shaun Hergatt for two years at Michelin starred SHO before the two teamed up again for last August’s opening of Juni, where she plates technique-driven dishes that stop at nothing — including the sporadic savory ingredient cameo — to showcase the pinnacle of the present season. In between her pastry projects with Hergatt, curiosity about the West Coast took her to Northern California, where local cooking instructor Julie Logue Riordan showed her the value of simple, ingredient-focused dishes — an experience that would counterbalance Pizarro’s fine dining experience, which spans the kitchens of db Moderne and Per Se. Here, the communications-major-turned-chef reveals the super hot ingredient she’s working with, her outlook on West Coast versus East Coast kitchen practices, and her secret weapons in the kitchen (hint: you have them, too).
How did your culinary approach change after your time in California?
My experience in California allowed me to really let things flow. It left me boundless, foregoing the need for perfect lines and strict exactness of things. It also showed me that there is no right or wrong — rather, it’s about truly creating an expression of what you feel is beautiful and, in this case, palatable.
What experience has most shaped your style in the kitchen?
It’s natural to say that my experience at Per Se, as part of the opening team, shaped my style in the kitchen. It gave me the foundation to set a standard, be organized, efficient, and, most of all, disciplined. But I really feel that California allowed me to balance the discipline and playfulness in a good chord. That experience showed me how to shoot from the hip with confidence.
What three elements must all of your desserts have?
Texture, beauty, and flavor.
What ingredients are you most excited about as we enter the spring season?
I’m always excited about ramps and morels, which are completely unrelated to pastry — but who knows? Maybe!
Any fun things you’re working on right now?
Jalapeño is something that is on our current dessert menu. I’m pairing it up with Champagne mangoes and housemade ricotta — it has made a really great impression on the guests. I’m also currently working on making silken tofu and incorporating it into our spring tasting menu.
How would you describe your culinary style?
Unpredictable. I think that our plates tend to represent flavor combinations that may not be of the common track. They consist of identifiable ingredients, but as a dessert composition they tend to be offbeat — it works magically.
You’ve had a range of experiences in various kitchens, from those practicing a fine dining approach to those more rustic in style. Which came more naturally for you?
Fine dining feels like a more natural connection with my mind and hands. But I do have a connection with rusticity, in the way that I prefer to make most things in house. For instance, we make our own ricotta cheese to incorporate into an ice cream, and we’re also making use of whey for a dessert.
Do you have any secret weapons in the kitchen?
Just my imagination and hands!
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in all things, but most of all in nature — its movement and its cycles. Nature gives us more than the benefits of what is “seasonal,” because it also gives us the intangible elements: the feelings that come and go with the change of the tides.
If you had to make and eat one dessert for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Cake. I love cake in its simplest form.
What has been the best lesson, so far, throughout this process?
That fear in failure is unnecessary because it’s part of discovery, better understanding, and expanding new horizons.