Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis Makes Christmas Cinnamon Rolls, Sneaks Skittles in the Wee Hours
When Le Bernardin pastry chef Michael Laiskonis is working, he says he eats surprisingly little: "There's a random piece of fruit, the random pastry component," he told us. And other than the occasional piece of bread (and lots of coffee), that's about it. So we knew we wanted him to be the subject of the New York Diet during a week when he'd actually have some time off. Little did we know the city would get blasted with a blizzard, too. As Laiskonis told us, the Christmas holiday and all that snow meant that we got a "true slice of life," since the self-taught chef and former line cook wasn't really able to hit a bunch of fancy restaurants and doctor his diet for us. Read it all in the year's final New York Diet.
Friday, December 24
I love the idea of breakfast, but I almost never indulge myself with it. Coffee, of course, with absolutely nothing in it, but taking the time to prepare actual food in the morning requires a discipline I have yet to summon. I know I’d be much better off if I did something for breakfast every day, so a few weeks back I quietly declared a morning nosh routine as my New Year’s resolution, then I decided to start a week early for Grub Street.
Since nothing would be open Christmas Day, I needed to get my shopping done that morning before work. The greatest thing about my Upper East Side neighborhood is the fact that Agata & Valentina, only a block away, is my default grocery store. I love that place. Then, laden with meat, veg, bread, and snacks, I popped in to East Side Bagel & Appetizing for a poppy-seed bagel with cream cheese. When I moved into the neighborhood six and a half years ago, a bagel and coffee there was my first meal as a Manhattan resident.
Christmas Eve is one of the busiest days of the year for Le Bernardin, right behind Valentine’s Day. Between lunch and dinner, we’re set to do just over 400 covers. Even on slower days, my first priority is to evaluate the entire setup, the mise en place for lunch service and the base items the morning production team has prepared. Between about noon and five, I tasted around 75 different components that make up the twelve desserts on our menus: discs of cake, caramelized nuts, wafers, mousses, not to mention a baker’s dozen of sorbets and ice creams. Before the rush of service I had another cup of coffee, and every hour or so I’ll sneak a warm, crusty sourdough roll from the bread station as a palate cleanser.
Lunch service practically rolled right into dinner. Though we force our cooks to take time out for family meal, for me, personally, it’s often a luxury I skip in favor of catching up on office work, or running a quick errand outside the restaurant. Within minutes of sending our final lunch desserts, we need to begin setting up for dinner.
Around 1 a.m., my team started breaking down the pastry kitchen after dinner service, but I was putting together some special desserts for the staff that was working on Christmas Day. We typically don’t do sweets for family, but they deserved a treat for the holiday: hazelnut mille feuille, vanilla cream-filled profiteroles, and triple-chocolate-chip cookies. I tasted a cookie with my final cup of coffee for the day. I drink way too much coffee, and at incredibly inappropriate times of the day.
I typically cook at home every night — partly out of convenience, but mostly for the normalcy of routine. My wife, Heather, is the general manager at Aldea, and we’ve engineered our lives to have roughly the same work schedule. This means we keep a strict dinner regimen; for us it just happens to fall at 2 a.m. and not 8 p.m., like conventional society. Christmas Eve was the final push in what has been a very busy season for us, so I was home much later than usual, and Heather started work earlier than usual, so she was already asleep. Luckily, our local pizza place, La Mia, was still open for the neighborhood bar crowd, so I ducked in for a slice. Then home, a beer, and a much needed collapse onto the couch.
Saturday, December 25
I’m probably not as sentimental about the holidays as my wife and family wishes, but I do try to maintain one childhood ritual when it comes to Christmas morning, so I baked a tray of cinnamon rolls. Yes, the ones from the can. They’re pretty damn good, sugary white icing and all. I also had a tumbler of grapefruit juice, to redeem the guilty pleasure. Oh, and coffee.
Le Bernardin was open, but I do my best to give my cooks the option of working either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Jose, my No. 2 who runs the show in my absence, requested Friday off, giving me Christmas off. Two days off, in a row, is a rare occurrence. Saturday and Sunday were very much needed to recharge.
Holidays for us typically involve a daylong marathon of sitting around and eating. Though I cook every day in a professional capacity, I somehow manage to separate it from the cooking I do at home. It ceases to be work when it’s done for ourselves. Christmas is an excuse to tackle a project I normally wouldn’t have time for during the week: a long slow braise. I browned some short ribs and a rough mirepoix of carrot, onion, and celery in a cast-iron pot, then threw in rendered bacon, whole cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of thyme, parsley stems, and topped it off with stock and a half a bottle of Minervois. The plan was to let the short ribs work their magic all afternoon, while we did nothing. Before I left the kitchen, I organized all the ingredients for my apps and side dishes, since it turned out we were entertaining that evening.
The apartment started to smell amazing around three-thirty. We were feeling peckish, so as Heather set up the Scrabble board, I cued up Superchunk on the iPod and plated up an afternoon snack of sliced baguette, aged Cheddar, Marcona almonds, and prosciutto. By the time we finished the game around five (I won), Brooks Headley, pastry chef at Del Posto, texted to say that he was slowly making his way uptown. Brooks showed up with a bottle of Champagne, which we sipped as I pulled the short ribs out of the oven to cool. I also prepped another platter of snacks, adding chorizo, olives, a wedge of Maytag blue, and warm pita bread with olive oil and za’atar. After Champagne, we transitioned to the remaining half bottle of Minervois. The short ribs and braising liquid went into the fridge to chill completely and I heated some olive oil to fry a bowlful of shisito peppers, those wrinkly Japanese peppers that are similar to the Spanish padrone peppers popular in tapas bars. In and out of the hot oil for 30 seconds, then a sprinkle of Maldon salt and they’re ready.
I removed myself from the table when Heather and Brooks started to geek out over their mutual love of the B-52s, in order to start the next course: quickly sautéed shrimp and squid in a garlicky stew of tomato, parsley, lemon, and red-pepper flakes. Christmas dinner took on a sort of Spanish flair, but totally by accident. Finally, I trimmed the short ribs, strained out the braising liquid, and sweated more finely diced bacon, carrot, celery, and garlic. Then I heated the whole thing while I made polenta. I was nervous about making polenta for Brooks, but he and Heather seemed to be trying to figure out the whole world-peace issue by then, so he probably wasn't paying close attention to my technique. Alongside the short ribs and polenta, we had some haricots verts, and sautéed cremini mushrooms. By the time dinner was served, there was already a considerable dent in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Brooks and I regressed into beer mode around eleven-thirty, when I scored and roasted some chestnuts. I don’t really do dessert at home, so I unwrapped the Christmas cookies my mom still sends us every year. Any other mother might be intimidated, making their pastry-chef son sugar cookies with red and green colored sprinkles, but I think it’s pretty punk rock of her.
Brooks left around twelve-thirty. For some reason I poured a very unnecessary-at-that-point nip of single malt Scotch.
Sunday, December 26
We didn’t technically sleep in on Christmas, so we afforded ourselves the luxury the next day. For breakfast we had coffee, grapefruit juice, and bagels — the regular poppy seed for me, and a toasted "everything" for the lady.
After catching the Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney, we decided to stay in the neighborhood for lunch because of the snow. We’re longtime fans of Spigolo, so we snagged two seats at the bar and split an order of cavatelli, after a glass of Albarino, and the celery salad.
There was already accumulation on the ground, so much as I wanted to dine out, we decided to spend another night in. Another dish I love to cook, but seldom do, is paella. I like the systematic preparation of first, the sofrito, then the proteins — chicken thighs, shrimp, and squid on Sunday — next sweating the bell peppers and chorizo, gently toasting the rice, and the slow attentive cooking that follows. It really is the perfect one-pan dish. We drank a gifted Gruner Veltliner.
Because I graze on sugary stuff all day in the course of my job, I never really crave sweets. Actually, that’s a lie. I do, but only at about 2 a.m. I have no idea why. Sunday, with the snow falling and an old movie playing on the TV, it was a Snickers bar.
Monday, December 27
I made coffee and turned on the TV to check the news. By the time David, Le Bernardin’s GM has texted me, asking if my staff had made it in, I’d already noted which trains were and weren’t running. I thought I might have to go in to cover for one guy, but I waited out the news with some tangerine juice and a bowl of Greek yogurt, blueberries, and granola. He eventually made it to work, but it turned out we closed for lunch. There was stuff to sort out — late deliveries, deliveries that didn't show up at all, whether or not my afternoon shift would arrive intact. I set out for the restaurant a little early, not knowing how long it would take to get in myself. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to make my way to the restaurant sooner than later. My commute wound up being maybe five minutes longer than usual, and I had a cup of coffee once I got there.
Everyone was in the kitchen, and we surprisingly lost only a handful of reservations. I didn’t even check to see what was put up for family meal, but I had a wedge of apple and a handful of berries and attempted to catch up on a month’s worth of unanswered e-mail. December is always rough.
Every great once in a while, the kitchen prepares a dish by mistake and the pastry kitchen is the lucky recipient of these happy accidents. That night, it was warm lobster carpaccio and hearts of palm in an orange vinaigrette.
I dig the tenacity of New Yorkers, making their way through snow and slush to honor their dinner reservations, giving us a solid, busy Monday night. As first in among the afternoon team, I was the first to leave, once the bulk of our desserts had been sent and the ordering and prep list for the next day were sorted out. The one tricky thing about our nightly dinner hour is the shopping. You’d think by now I’d have learned to shop for the week, but I don’t. Over the years at least two grocery stores between midtown and the Upper East have scaled back their hours, so it’s often a race to buy dinner before they close. Depending upon my departure time, and what I’m inspired by, there’s always some strategy involved. After midnight, I have to travel a dozen blocks out of my way to Gristede's, but that night, even in inclement weather, I had a pick of two or three stores.
I knew Heather would be working later than I that night, so I made something I could start ahead and finish at the last minute: hangar steak, roasted potatoes, and a Caesar salad. I make a pretty mean Caesar salad. I had a beer while I was cooking, and a glass of St. Emilion with the meal proper. Then around two-thirty, I had a half-bag of Skittles. I am such a dork.
Tuesday, December 28
Coffee, and straight to work outlining a writing project that I’ve been putting off for a few weeks, then off to the restaurant around noon. I skipped breakfast.
Family meal was burgers and fries, and I partook that night. After work, I just missed the midtown grocery store on Sixth Avenue that closes at midnight, so that meant a detour to the store that I try to avoid. I ran a mental inventory of our fridge and cupboards, and decided I might be able to pull off my version of a dish I ate a ton of in Thailand two years ago: pad ga prow. Often it’s chicken, but Tuesday it was pork, finely minced and sautéed with garlic and chilies, finished with palm sugar, oyster sauce, soy, and a handful of chopped basil. A little rice, a squeeze of lime — awesome. But I’ve learned that if I don’t use the tiny, super-hot Thai peppers, it just doesn’t have the same authentic nuance to it. I had to use Serrano peppers on Tuesday, which are a reasonable facsimile. And I didn’t have access to Thai basil either, so I made do with conventional. Then I had two beers to extinguish the glorious heat. It turned out fine, but I was slightly disappointed. Then around quarter to two I was looking for the rest of the Skittles I opened the night before. Did I really eat all of them?
Wednesday, December 29 Coffee, but also blueberries-yogurt-granola, an English muffin with butter, and a shot of tangerine juice. I wonder why tangerine juice tastes so much better than plain old orange?
I practiced my normal grazing throughout the day, but skipped family meal because of tentative dinner plans. Before service I did make a point to taste one (well, a few) of our miniature cannelés, my latest obsession, with coffee. I can say, as necessary as the day’s first cup is, I appreciate that 6 p.m. cup the most. It just sort of breaks up the day for me.
Finally, I had a chance to leave around ten. I bolted out of the restaurant and made it down to Aldea to surprise Heather (in part, to expedite her own departure) and just in time, before the kitchen closed. Brian, behind the bar, knows my poison: a Hitachino Nest White Ale, no glass. I’m a sucker for a poached egg in any setting, so I immediately leaned toward George Mendes’s current treatment, in a hen consommé with root vegetables and black truffle. The kitchen is usually trying to foist their newest dish onto me; in particular, I’ve been meaning to try the venison dish for weeks. I resisted, and for a second course I went with the arroz de pato. We couldn’t leave before dessert; pastry chef Shelly Acuna is a former assistant of mine. Her chocolate-chestnut parfait with beets got the thumbs-up. I started thinking about how long it’s been since I’ve worked with beets myself.
At home around midnight, I threw together a sandwich and arugula salad for Heather. I skipped the sandwich but went for the salad. We also polished off the last of the cheeses from the weekend, coming full circle to an empty fridge.