Milk chocolate dessert

Designing desserts

by Clare Gazzard 18 September 2015

Pastry chef and consultant Daniel Fletcher describes the complex world of restaurant desserts, from clever menu choices to perfect planning and prep, there's a lot more to desserts than meets the eye.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

A lot of us will happily bake a cake at home, or attempt an apple crumble after a Sunday roast, but how many of us really consider what goes into making restaurant-quality desserts on a daily basis? The world of professional pastry is far more involved than I ever imagined, with multiple choices affecting every aspect of creating a single pud; from the design of the dish and the menu choices to the preparation and plating on the day. Luckily, pastry chef and consultant Daniel Fletcher was on hand to talk me through the processes one step at a time.

Considering the restaurant

I’ve only ever looked at desserts as a customer, greedily considering whether I would prefer the sticky toffee pudding or the lemon tart, but Daniel’s perspective has to be much broader: ‘When it comes to planning a dessert for a menu I have to take into consideration many factors. The style of the restaurant, the type of cuisine, the size and level of the team. I need to make sure that any dish I create can be recreated on a daily basis to suit the demands of the restaurant.’

This highlights one of the main issues with restaurants; bulk production but to incredibly high standards, ‘you have to take into consideration the ease at which the dish can be created, how it can be stored, can it be frozen, can it stay out at room temperature for a short period of time.’ Professional chefs can’t get away with a burnt edge or scrambled custard – the customer will simply send it back. ‘For high volume production you need to be able to minimise the stages involved in production but at the same time ensure the quality of the product is not lost.’

Clever prepping

Daniel says that preparation is key to pastry, with chefs spending around 70% of their day on prep, with only 30% on actual service. ‘A lot of the hard work is done before service, this may be churning ice creams, setting mousses, etc. All of this needs to be completed as a restaurant service is fast paced and desserts usually need to be delivered within 10 minutes of an order... so the more prep done in advance, the easier and smoother a service will run.’

It’s fairly common for restaurants to offer two services during each day, a shorter lunch (often a set menu) and a longer dinner service (à la carte). For the restaurant, this means both time and cost implications. ‘[For lunch] you are more likely to use more cost-effective ingredients to keep the cost down as a set lunch menu will be roughly half the price of the full à la carte. For me, I also like to make the dishes simpler when producing them for lunch as the demands tend to be for a quicker service. You might do seventy covers for dinner in 4 hours but at lunch you will be required to do the same number but in 2½ hours.’

This requires clever planning, with dishes that can be flexible and adaptable. One such example is Daniel’s recipe for a mango and passion fruit cheesecake, which makes savvy use of the components. ‘This dish was produced for the current lunch menu at Angler [Tony Fleming’s Michelin-starred restaurant in London], it is quick and easy to produce, a classic dish served in a modern way, yet is easy for the customer to relate to. It also comprises of a couple of elements from the current à la carte menu so the team are not overstretched on the daily preparation.’ This is the clever bit – the classic cheesecake mix can be used as the base of other desserts, the passion fruit curd is an element on the elaborate seven course tasting menu, and the prepped mango can also accompany the lime posset. Precision planning down to a tee.

Creating the perfect menu

When thinking of all these practical considerations, it’s easy to forget that the dessert sits at the end of an overall meal; it’s part of a much larger experience, and has the power to finish a diner’s experience with a flourish, or leave them with an unsatisfied sweet tooth. Offering a balanced choice is the best way to cater to varied tastes – just as starters and mains usually feature meat, fish and vegetarian options, likewise Daniel stresses the importance of balance in a dessert menu.

For à la carte menus, Daniel recommends six options, covering a mix of dishes: both hot and cold, signature and innovative, popular ingredients and dietary requirements. ‘Personally I will always try to have one dish on the menu that is gluten-free and one that is nut-free, as these are the two most common dietary requirements you receive in a restaurant. I will also try if possible to put a dessert that is dairy-free, too, the main reason for this is so that the chefs do not have to make adjustments to a dish to try and suit a customer’s needs. For me there is nothing worse than having to remove elements/components from a dish, as it is then not a true reflection of the original dessert.’

For ingredients, the balance again is needed to ensure both familiar choices and more adventurous options are available. It’ll come as no surprise, that in Daniel’s experience, chocolate desserts are usually the most popular choice on any menu, while classic combinations, such as rhubarb and custard or blackberry and apple, act as familiar flavours that diners are comfortable with, but Daniel likes to challenge the customer too: ‘on the Angler lunch menu we have a classic Breton cake with vanilla custard and apple purée, but I have added an apple and tarragon sorbet to accompany the dish. The combination works really well and the customer feedback is great – it adds a cleanliness to the dish and elevates it to the next level.’

In terms of seasonality, this requires both forward-planning and ‘flexibility’. For example, planning rhubarb recipes for the spring is obviously a must, but being able to guarantee exactly when the first shoots will be available or the continued quality of that product throughout the growing season isn’t possible. Likewise, an unexpected early crop of English strawberries, and it’s worth being one of the first restaurants to have them as a special on the menu. Making the most of this one ingredient requires balance; ‘sometimes less is more… you don’t want to be hiding its flavour under ten other flavours/ingredients’, while showcasing the same ingredient in different forms and techniques can add levels of complexity to the dish.

Personal tastes

Finding the careful balance of all these elements is part and parcel of Daniel’s job as a consultant, helping chefs create their menus that cater not only to their own personal style, but also to the restaurant’s needs and the customers’ wants. Daniel says ‘it is important to see other people’s perspectives’ and is a strong advocate of involving the wider team in tastings and development to gather feedback through every stage of the process. ‘In regards to flavours and ingredients, I think you have to be able to try as much as possible and not let your personal tastes dictate your menu, as ultimately you are cooking for the customer, not for yourself.’

If he had to choose though, what would be his all-time favourite dessert? ‘Apple tarte Tatin with vanilla ice cream. I’m classically trained and am a big fan of well-executed classic dishes. From the skill involved in making the puff pastry, the precision of the apple size, down to the colour of the caramel. This is a simple dish in theory but takes a lot of skill to execute to perfection, but if done well, I don’t think there is anything better!’

A classic apple tarte Tatin