Classical Techniques, Ultramodern Desserts: Talking With Acadia’s Dessert Master, Thomas Raquel

Thomas Raquel's black walnut at Acadia.
Thomas Raquel’s black walnut at Acadia. Photo: Anthony Tahlier Photography

Chocolate crooks through a plate like an old stick, or scatters across it like ants escaping. A doughnut, glazed, might have been carved from mahogany and lacquered. Visually, Thomas Raquel’s desserts for Acadia have the Tim Burton-esque quality that you see in haute desserts these days. But at the same time, Raquel says, “I always try to insert classical techniques”— if dessert is about anything, it’s about what works to leave you happy, and no field within the culinary world has a better handle on what sheer happiness than classical pastry. You saw Raquel’s desserts in our Acadia slideshow on Friday; we asked him to walk us through a few of his desserts and tell us the thinking behind them below.

THOMAS RAQUEL: This winter is the third time we’ve had a complete change in the menu. We try to follow what’s in season, but right now, nothing is— nothing is growing. So that’s why we have a dessert like the “Summer Preserve.” When I first started here we had a farmer bringing us wild strawberries, blueberries, cherries— we couldn’t go through them all fast enough. So we decided to make a bachelor’s jam, which we’ve been aging in the cellar.

Summer Preserve

You do something like that and you don’t know exactly how it will turn out. But that’s what I like about fruit-based desserts— you can’t predict exactly how they will turn out, but if you bought good fruit, they’ll be good. I mix the preserves with mascarpone cheese from Crave Brothers in Wisconsin. You get the acidity and the fermented tang from the jam, and I made a chip with red rooibos tea, which is almost fruity in character. The result is something so pure and delicious, that highlights the fruit with accompaniments that place well with it.

I always try to insert classical techniques into what I’m doing. Right now I’m doing an “ile flottante,” which means floating island— it’s a very traditional French dessert. There’s a meringue with creme anglaise, but then I make it new by using tropical fruits. You get different textures and levels of acid from tropical fruits. So I tossed the passion fruit in espalette pepper, I used olive oil that was cold infused with a vanilla bean— it gives the olive oil a whole different character, very complimentary to the fruit, kind of like the red rooibos chip in the Summer Preserve. I pureed guava to make guava snow, and then there’s a hint of lemongrass tea and Banyuls.

Ile Flottante

What you get from using something like the olive oil or the rooibos is more than just a savory element. You get the juxtaposition of salt and floral flavors, which is dramatic. There’s also a honey custard— I try to use any kind of sweetener I can that isn’t just sugar. At the least I use natural sugar, not refined sugar— I use something like honey so the flavor is pure, it should taste like honey. Not like a sweetness without any backing.

I try to look at the menu as a whole— there’s a dessert for everyone here. I think of the black walnut as a dessert for an older gentleman. It’s dark, like bourbon, the flavors are robust.

Then there are more playful desserts like’s the one I called Atoms— Childhood Memories. It’s a take on nostalgic tastes like cookies and cream, but I made it taste like milk rather than cream because that’s what I grew up eating. I did a take on a Ferraro-Rocher chocolate, with a salted caramel praline. There’s a white sphere milk sorbet, and a peanut butter caramel corn bonbon. Very familiar, comfortable flavors presented in a new way.

Atoms (childhood memories)

I love classical technique for looking back into the past. Everyone has a different palate, and you might not like what I do with a modern dessert. But classical technique gives you a baseline. I might not know anything, but I know macarons and canelés. I know how to achieve the integrity of perfect macarons. And nobody can take that away from a chef.

Photographs by Anthony Tahlier Photography

Classical Techniques, Ultramodern Desserts: Talking With Acadia’s Dessert