New York Chefs Go for Gold
by sylvie bigar
The chef leans his cherub face in as close as he can. Pursed, his lips turn fuchsia and stretch almost to the tip of the knife. He inhales and all of a sudden blows softly: A faint cloud of gold particles flies off, coating the dark chocolate macaron he holds delicately in his palm. Satisfied, he stares me down. “Your turn!” he says gravely, passing the small bottle and the knife. I dip it quickly in the powder and just before blowing, catch the twinkle in his eye, but it’s too late—my hand, purse, and half the counter are now covered with gold powder, glittering under the harsh kitchen light....
I am at François Payard’s pastry lab on Houston Street as he preps the new holiday line of macarons; a dreamy mix of dark Valrhona Guanaja chocolate and black Périgord truffles, and semisweet chocolate with truffle honey now on offer at his new stores on the Upper East Side and at The Plaza hotel, both specimens dusted with shimmery gold undertones.
Gold was also a recurring theme in the artwork of Gustav Klimt, the Viennese artist celebrated throughout the Neue Galerie New York this year. To mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, Café Sabarsky’s chef Kurt Gutenbrunner added his own fleck of gold to a chocolate and hazelnut cake called, of course, the Klimt Torte.
Epicureans’ fascination with the flavorless and noncaloric gold has endured for centuries. In his book Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, author Michael Krondl tells of a banquet offered to the young Henry III in Venice, where “sugar-paste figures gilded in gold stood guard over the feast.” “Gold has been used in cuisine since Ancient Greece,” said Francine Segan, culinary historian and author of Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook, “but during the Middle Ages, cooks often dropped gold coins in meat stews, supposedly to ward off the aches of aging.”
The sparkling edible also plays into other fanciful desserts throughout Manhattan. Pastry chef Dominique Ansel reminisces easily about gold-covered éclairs from his Fauchon days, but after six years as executive pastry chef at Daniel, he is now well ensconced in his own Soho pâtisserie, where for New Year’s Eve, he’s planning a 6-inchwide chocolate ball filled with candies and bonbons and covered in 24k gold dust. “I love to mix gold with dark chocolate for maximum contrast,” he says. It seems as though his customers love it, too, as his chocolate “caviar” tart (made of chocolate pearls and topped with a glistening gold leaf) is one of his best-sellers. When I visit him in Soho, I pick up a piece of gold leaf but as soon as it lands on my hands, it seems to melt. “I am lucky,” says Ansel, “my hands are always cold—maybe that’s why I became a pastry chef.”
Ansel’s chocolate spheres may look like caviar but at The Russian Tea Room, where gold fire birds adorn the walls, real caviar (or its close relative, paddlefish eggs) and a gold sparkle find their way onto chocolate parfait. “It’s our number one dessert hit,” says executive chef Mark Taxiera. “It has a triple ‘wow’ factor: gold, chocolate, and caviar.” A bit dubious, I start wondering if these combinations are just for show. “No,” says the chef, “We have a serious caviar program here, and I like the correlation between the nuttiness of the caviar and the Nutella I whip into my chocolate parfait.” In his mind it makes sense, but on my palate? One bite and I am convinced; the saltiness of the caviar plays against the sweetness of the dessert and the texture of the tiny eggs give the creamy parfait both tender crunch and depth.
In search of something more savory than sweet, I asked Koji Kagawa, SushiSamba’s corporate sushi chef, to prepare my next meal. Presenting the bottle of gold flakes he keeps under the restaurant’s wooden counter, the large scintillating flakes flutter under my breath. After the chef places one on top of his most luxurious creation, the Yamato Roll, which piles a few caviar grains on top of seared foie gras, sitting on a perfect square of tuna, he smiles, convinced that the sushi ball cannot be made prettier.
“Japanese gold is the purest,” says celebrity chef and author Suvir Saran, a leading authority on Indian cuisine. “And in the last 10 years as the Indian economy boomed, the country has become the leading consumer of gold. We love gold. We collect it. We put it everywhere: In biryanis, rice dishes, and desserts, of course.” Last year, the chef discovered with awe that the Lucini company had crafted a Gold Reserve extra virgin olive oil shimmering with gold flakes (now available at lucini.com), and while at Dévi, his eatery near Union Square, Saran was known for what he called the “Emperor’s Morsel,” a brioche slice dipped in saffron syrup and wrapped in gold.
“Edible gold adds just the right sparkle to any party food,” says caterer to the stars, Christopher Robbins, vice president of Robbins Wolfe Eventeurs. He and his chef Ian Friedman love to work with gold. “While nothing inspires me more than local ingredients during the winter like duck and Chanterelle mushrooms,” says Friedman, “I use gold layered between the mushroom, foie gras, and duck confit to create magical flavors.”
In David Burke Townhouse’s kitchen, nothing being prepared is tiny and certainly not the ostrich egg that holds his lobster scramble with caviar and crème fraîche topped with, you guessed it, gold leaf. “Gold and silver kill bacteria,” he says, “so putting them on food is similar to placing a sprig of mint on a crème brûlée for fresh breath.” The chef actually uses a whole gold leaf—“If you’re going to rob a bank, you might as well rob a big one”—but he makes sure to handle it delicately with chopsticks, because as he explains, “even the slightest breeze from our ventilation system can suck it up.”
14 Karat Cocktails
However, the use of edible gold leaf is not limited to desserts and entrees alone; Hospitality Holdings CEO Mark Grossich and general manager and beverage director Kenneth McClure cocreated the World Cocktail, a dreamy concoction made of freshly squeezed grape juice and lemon juice, Rémy Martin XO Excellence, Pineau des Charentes, a dash of bitters, Veuve Clicquot and gold, served at the upscale establishment, the World Bar. “We serve it on a gorgeous silver platter,” said McClure. “It’s a whole ritual; customers order it to seal a business deal and even for a marriage proposal.”
I watch the bartender at work, but what shimmers on the surface of the glass isn’t a leaf or powder, it is pure liquid gold. I take a sip and then a second one. A bit dizzy, I step back into the urban reality and start walking away when a child looks up to me and screams, “Mommy, mommy, a fairy!” Puzzled but flattered, I look questioningly at his mother. “Sorry, he got carried away; your lips are golden.” I glance at a mirror and smile. The fairy dust has worked its magic, and now I am hooked, too.
photography by william brinson; food styling by Suzanne lenzer