Corton’s Shawn Gawle has been on quite a run lately. In September he received the 2011 Rising Star Award from Starchefs.com. In February he was named among Food and Wine’s Best New Pastry Chefs and his “Birch & Chocolate” dessert was called out by Grub Street as one of America’s “most crazy-awesome new desserts“. Hopefully, all this media attention prepared him for the kind of fame that results from a feature in DessertBuzz…
After graduating from culinary school in 1999 Gawle worked on the savory side in a number of well-known kitchens, including the Rittenhouse in Philadelphia under chef Jean-Marie Lacroix, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Veritas in New York and L2o in Chicago before coming to Corton in September 2010. It wasn’t until his time at L20, nearly 8 years after graduating, that Gawle starting doing pastry–unbelievable, considering how evolved some of his desserts are.
I first met Mr. Gawle at Killed by Dessert in January and recently visited him at Corton in Tribecca to try a number of his desserts and petit fours. Even though he was busy preparing for the evening service he graciously took some time to tell me about the different plates.
One of things I have noticed about the very best pastry chefs is that they all have an unbridled enthusiasm for talking about their craft that goes beyond the common and well-practiced stories they give to the media For the extroverts among them this enthusiasm manifests itself exaclty the way you would think–animated descriptions of their creations with lots of hand movements to drive their points home. The introverts require a bit more coaxing to get them to speak about their creations, but when they do, their thoughts and opinions seem to come rushing out.
Gawle is closer to this second group. The level of thoughtfulness about every aspect of his desserts, from procuring ingredients and combining heavy and light elements, to the endless experimentation with ratios of different components, is on a very high–almost extreme–level. This only became apparent after he began to explain the details behind each dish. I got the feeling that if the evening service weren’t hanging over his head he could have spent another hour telling me about the origins of each of his dishes and their ingredients.
The first course out was the very light Rose grapefruit. There were two things about this dish that were memorable. The ginger pieces somehow took on the consistency of plump raisins, while still maintaining their strong ginger flavor; and the meringue, despite being only a small part of dish, had a distinct and pronounced grapefruit flavor.
The next course, the Vol au Vent (hollow puff pastry) was the first of three truly superb desserts, each with enough unique and original components to be a popular dish in any three-Michelin-star restaurant. The puff pastry’s texture was perfect–easy to cut through without too much force. The inside of the puff pastry contained a delicious and flavorful apple crisp. However, as good as the house-made puff pastry and contents were, the star of this show was the white coffee gelato piping and toasted oat crumble.
The white coffee gelato was the most flavorful coffee gelato (or ice cream) I’ve tasted. I have experienced this level of coffee flavor before but the pastry chef used finely ground expresso beans to jack-up flavor at the expense of texture–this gelato was super-smooth. The gelato, along with the chunks of toasted oat crumble–with their satisfying crunch–could have been a dish by itself. Here’s what the chef said about the white coffee gelato:
We use a white coffee from La Colombe. I’ve known the people from La Colombe in Philadelphia for years. Actually, when I worked for chef Jean-Marie Lacroix at the Four Seasons (in Philidelphia) they made us a special blend of coffee just for the restaurant. Chef Lacroix felt very strongly that the coffee and expresso had to be a certain way –if someone has a bitter coffee or expresso and it’s the last thing they have before they leave [that wouldn't be good!]
La Colombe came up with a special formula, a blend specifically for us here [at Corton], that’s very consistent, very reliable. We take the whole beans and do a three-day cold infusion then we strain it–after that we treat it just like a gelato base [at this point the chef went into an intricate description and accounting of the different percentages of gel and emulsifiers used to make the final coffee gelato that was pliable and stable enough to make the beautiful piped ribbons along the "Vol au Vent". After the explanation he made a point to make sure I understood that he "only experiments and goes through (all this trouble) if it adds something to the dish--there's no reason to mess with food unless you have a reason, a purpose , an end result in mind and that the end result must be improved from what you already have or know.]
The Chocolate “Birch” has all the makings of a signature dish (sorry Chef). 1) It’s already been featured on its own in the media 2) it’s strikingly beautiful and 3) it’s a texturally complicated, killer, dark chocolate dessert. It achieves the difficult feat of being a very deep, dark chocolate dessert that is somehow light enough that you don’t feel too full afterwards.
This is achieved with an incredibly smooth tube of dark chocolate referred to as an “amer” made with a Valrhona 66% Manjari and 100% blend to give the requisite depth. I found it to be particularly rich, dark and flavorful. The chef explains “I don’t like rich, heavy, chocolate desserts, so when I do something like [Birch], it’s going to be on the lighter side but very smooth and tasty as well and with depth [of flavor].
Aside from the dark chocolate center there are other great aspects to this dessert, most notably the chestnut ganache, a superb birch sorbet and a mint blossom that balances the dark chocolate. Visit Corton for dinner as soon as possible before he takes this off the menu.
The last main dessert, Banana, was the simplest component-wise, but may have been the coolest and most fun-to-eat pastry of the night. Essentially, you are served a frozen banana sponge that takes up a whole decorative ceramic bowl (think Vermont ceramics studio) then the waiter pours warm rum caramel over the top and the dessert melts and folds into itself. This dessert is all about the unusual textures and hot-cold temperature mix. It’s hard to describe how satisfying this dessert is to consume–it reminds me a little of a cross between cotton candy and large hard meringue–but with much less sweetness. Interestingly, the banana flavor itself is mild.
After the dessert courses there was a selection of chocolates, macarons, pates de fruits, a financier and a canele that was the best I’ve had (look for a future post about the canele). The black olive and gianduja macarons were excellent and struck a nice balance of salty and sweet. At first I thought they were just fine. Then I found myself unable to stop eating them. The bourbon toffee macarons were also quite good and the first macarons I’ve tasted using those flavors. Both macarons were low on the sweetness scale.
It would be a challenge to pick a favorite among the three main desserts I tried–each one was special in its own way. My recommendation is to pick a dessert based on the category you think you would enjoy most: The Vol au Vent is really closest to a “comfort” dessert due to the apples. The “Birch” is a dark chocolate lover’s dream. And the Banana is a fun-to-eat dessert that leans towards molecular gastronomy. Luckily, Gawle says he prefers to change the dishes often enough to keep moving forward–so you probably won’t have too much say.
I didn’t try any of the savory offerings from Corton, but you can learn a bit more about the man behind the food in the documentary “A Matter of Taste” (about Corton Executive Chef Paul Liebrandt) coming soon to theaters in NYC. Still to come from Corton: Gawle’s Canele: The best in NYC?
More fancy pants restaurant dessert reviews from DessertBuzz:
Le Bernardin: Michael Laiskonis
Jean Georges: Johnny Iuzzini
Dovetail: Michal Shelkowitz (& Vera Tong now at Buddakan)
The Four Seasons: Chris Broberg
Catrine Oscarson: Mas La Grillade
Annisa: Anita Lo
Dessertbuzz coverage of the 2011 Top 10 Pastry Chefs in the US.