If you've ever watched Top Chef: Just Desserts, you'll know all about Johnny Iuzzini, head judge and self-proclaimed "pastry bad ass". Winner of the James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year in 2006 and regularly included in lists naming America's Top 10 pastry chefs, Iuzzini has a legion of fans that include fellow pastry chefs and swooning sugarholics.
Iuzzini is young. He's charming. He loves racing motorbikes. He's worked with Pierre Herme and Daniel Boulud. Three years into his ten year stint there, Restaurant Jean Georges finally earned three Michelin stars - one of only four restaurants in New York City that year to do so. In 2007, Forbes magazine named him as one of the 10 Most Influential Pastry Chefs in America.
When Tourism Victoria invited me to attend the 2014 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, I jumped at the chance. And I made a special request to attend the two events featuring Johnny Iuzzini. Fan girl revealed.
The Langham, Melbourne
Iuzzini is one of the first cabs off the rank in the weekend schedule of Langham Melbourne MasterClasses. Within seconds of the doors opening, the room is filled with the excited hubbub of eager attendees.
Johnny Iuzzini during his Langham MasterClass
It's not the first time Iuzzini has visited Australia but he confesses that the last time he was here it was as a 22-year-old backpacker on a limited budget.
Iuzzini makes it clear from the outset that although he has a sweet tooth, he doesn't enjoy desserts with cloying sweetness. "Sugar is not a flavour", he declares with steadfast seriousness. "It shouldn't hit you in the palate".
Watermelon with blue cheese and strawberry granita
The first dish he demonstrates reflects his preference to combine sweet with savoury. It's a simple affair of red and yellow watermelons, sliced and plated in a chequerboard pattern with dabs of blue cheese on top. "If you don't like blue cheese," he says, "you can just eat it anyway". A spoonful of strawberry granita offers cleansing refreshment.
Iuzzini explains that he often adds salt to accentuate flavour profiles. He prefers desserts that are unusual. "I like things to challenge my palate as I'm eating them". It's the reason he chose pastry over savoury work. "People are more likely to take risks when they order dessert... I wanted more creative freedom".
Johnny Iuzzini on stage
Of his time as a head judge on Top Chef: Just Desserts, Iuzzini is quick to remind audience members of the gruelling amount of filming involved for each episode. Each 44 minute episode, he points out, was culled from 46 hours of footage.
Bitter chocolate custard with pistachio chocolate crunch and espresso bubbles
His second dish is much more complex. It involves silicone moulds lined with devil's food cake (his secret ingredient is mayonnaise for moistness), a layer of pistachio chocolate crunch (chocolate and praline mixed with feuilletine) and bitter chocolate custard piped on top and refrigerated until set.
Lecithin granules help maintain the bubbles in the aerated espresso, but it's the pistachio tuiles that are the most impressive, made from pulverised praline that's baked in thin layers until it forms a wafer-thin crisp.
Iuzzini's big tip when rehydrating gelatine sheets is to use ice cold water, not room temperature water. This prevents any of it dissolving, and diminishing the intended strength of the gelatine sheet.
Johnny Iuzzini signing autographs
Iuzzini is one of the most approachable and down-to-earth chefs I've ever met. He's happy to chat with apprentice chefs, take photographs, and spends at least two minutes filling the front cover of his cookbook with customised doodles and his signature.
Afternoon tea with Johnny Iuzzini at The Langham, Melbourne $65
Sandwiches, scones, desserts and your choice of leaf tea, coffee or hot chocolate
At his afternoon tea event at The Langham, I was impressed that he personally went around the room and visited individual tables to chat with guests. I'd cynically expected a glib ten-minute speech on stage and a few minutes for photographs, not a chef who'd genuinely ask if people were enjoying their afternoon tea and spending five minutes with each table.
Corn panncotta with madeleine, chocolate peanut cake, chestnut tart and chilli chocolate cake
The Langham Melbourne offers a regular afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, scones, jam and quenelles of clotted cream. Today Iuzzini's creations appear on the top tier, developed after a trip to the markets on the morning he arrived. He was stunned to find corn, apricots and plums at the markets - ingredients he says appear in completely staggered seasons back home.
[Clockwise from bottom left]: Chilli chocolate cake, corn pannacotta with madeleine, chocolate peanut cake, pumpkin and pine nut tart and chestnut tart
Iuzzini says the desserts are a little sweeter than what he'd usually prefer, but they're still relatively restrained to my palate. There's much to explore, from the chilli chocolate cake tingling with heat, to the soft and slightly salty layers of chocolate peanut cake.
The pine nut tart and the chestnut tart waver between sweet and savoury at times, but it's the corn pannacotta that I'm most endeared by, halfway between Asian sweet corn ice cream and American spiced pumpkin pie, presented on a finger of caramelised madeleine cake.
Johnny Iuzzini chatting with fans during the afternoon tea
When Iuzzini sits down with me, he confesses that he often prefers eating fruit to desserts. "There isn't a fruit I don't eat", he declares. What about durian? I ask. "I f*cking hate durian", he says, without skipping a beat. "The first time I ate it, I thought someone was playing a joke on me. It stinks of eggs and sulphur."
He accepts it's a fruit enjoyed by many cultures but it's one he still can't get used to. Other than durian, then, he'll eat every fruit. He'll even eat papaya even though he has a mild allergy to it.
Johnny Iuzzini's cookbook Dessert Fourplay
All the desserts featured in the afternoon tea have been sourced from his first cookbook Dessert Fourplay.
He confesses: "Every chef's first cookbook is about their ego." It's about where a chef has been, where they are, and how they want to portray themselves to their world. By the time you publish your second cookbook, he says, all your priorities change.
"Your second one is built to sell. You realise you could sell 5,000 copies to chefs or you could sell 50,000 to the public."
Iuzzini is serious. His second cookbook, Sugar Rush, has been stripped of all recipes that require any special equipment not easily accessed by the average home cook. It will be 400 pages with an expected US publishing of September 30, 2014.
Chocolate Bar Afternoon Tea at The Langham, Melbourne
On a weekend visit to The Langham, I happened to stumble upon the set-up of the Chocolate Bar Afternoon Tea, held on weekends ($75pp).
It's a bountiful and jaw-dropping set-up of elaborate desserts. The Eiffel Tower tiered stand takes centre stage on the buffet table. To the side, there's a chocolate fountain.
Eiffel Tower tiered stand with desserts
Chocolate desserts with berry injectors
Next time I'm in Melbourne on a weekend, I'm heading straight here. Cavities be damned.
Aria Bar and Lounge
The Langham Melbourne
1 Southgate Avenue, Melbourne
Tel: +61 1800 641 107
The Chocolate Bar Afternoon Tea is available Saturdays and Sundays 12pm-2pm or 2.30pm-4.30pm for $75 per person from November 2013 to March 2014.
>> Read the next Melbourne 2014 post: Melbourne Food & Wine Festival
The Afternoon Tea with Johnny Iuzzini guest appearance was held on March 6, 2014 and cost $65.
The Langham Melbourne MasterClass series was held on March 8-9, 2014 and cost $320 for a day ticket or $595 for the weekend.
Grab Your Fork attended both events as guest of Tourism Victoria for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival 2014. Flights and accommodation were included.
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3/16/2014 12:01:00 a.m.