Chef Johnny Iuzzini, Executive Pastry Chef, Restaurant Jean Georges, New York, NY, Manhattan, Top Chef Desserts, Bravo, TV, Recommendations, Where to eat in New York, Where to eat in Spain, Mugaritz, Brooklyn, Queens, Cocktails, Drinks, Where to drink, bartenders, Bar,


- Recipe: Citrus-Almond Sponge Cake ~ Margarita Semifreddo

- For other Johnny Iuzzini recipes, see his website or buy his book Dessert FourPlay

It’s hard to believe that one of the top pastry chefs in the country didn’t eat sweets for the first part of his life because, he says, he was too hyper. What he did love was milk, drinking quarts at a time. He eventually starting throwing chocolate cookies into his drink, letting them soak until they were gooey on the outside, crunchy in the middle. Perhaps it was this fascination with textures that lead Johnny Iuzzini to pursue a life of pastry.

He started working in kitchens at the age of 17 at The River Cafe in Brooklyn. It didn’t take long for him to end up working with acclaimed pastry chef François Payard at Restaurant Daniel and then at Payard. From there, he went back to work with chef Daniel Boulud at Cafe Boulud and then at Restaurant Daniel, this time being promoted to the executive pastry chef. In 2002, chef/owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten named Johnny the executive pastry chef at his famed four star name-sake. In May 2006, The James Beard Foundation awarded him “Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year.”

Johnny Iuzzini is now moonlighting as the head judge on Bravo’s newest competition series “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”

Q & A with chef Johnny Iuzzini

Q. Congratulations on your new show “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”

A. Thank you. I’m a little nervous about it!

Q. Have you seen much of it?

A. I’ve seen a single episode. That’s it. That’s all they’ve allowed me to see.

Q. How did you like seeing yourself on TV?

A. I’ve done a lot of TV, but it’s never been in the position that I’m in now. I’ve always done a lot of live shows, which is like boom, boom, boom. It’s non-stop and you’re cooking to time.

The thing about taped TV is that it’s hurry up and wait. It’s not normal. So to put me in a room and then tell me to hurry up and wait... it drives me crazy.

Then you take me out of my kitchen for a month. That is the longest, since I’m seventeen, to be out of a kitchen. It was such a surreal experience. So, I’m on the set and there are all these cooks and all these competitions and I have to walk around and ask questions and I’m not allowed to cook!

But, it was great. I got to interact with everyone and they invited me to be a part of the creative process. For the most part, it was an awesome experience.

Q. How hard was it to be a judge and to be critical of the contestants?

A. I try to be very honest and fair. It’s not personal. I’m not about trying to throw one-liners at people, just to look good on TV. I don’t really care. I’m a chef and I’m there to be the head judge and show through my relevance in the industry, as far as my accolades and my pedigree, that I stand for something. I stand for a mark of quality.

So when I talk about their dishes, it’s not about anything but what I’m tasting. I don’t care about the drama in the kitchen. All I care about is did they accomplish their challenge to the best of their ability. How technical did they get? How simple? How well did their flavors mesh? Are there contrasts in temperatures? Are there contrasts in textures? I’m looking for a full experience. I want to be transported by their food.

Q. Did you find that people made rookie moves over and over?

A. These poor guys, I mean already pastry chefs, we’re a sensitive breed. We’re used to being locked in a basement, fighting for recognition on the menu, fighting for our little space in the kitchen, fighting for our tools, for our refrigerator space or whatever else. We always feel like we’re the black sheep of the family, that we’re the least thought of, the least appreciated.

So you take a bunch of people like us and you take away the two things that matter the most to them - time and recipes.

We don’t do anything without a recipe. We work to a tenth of a gram. Cooks can make a sauce and throw something together and taste it as it goes. But you make anything in pastry and you throw it in the oven to bake or in the freezer to set, you’re not going to know what it’s like until an hour from now, or until it cools, and by that time, that challenge is over. So either you nailed it, or you didn’t. There is no fixing it at that point. So it’s super stressful.

Q. With the drama, did you make anyone cry?

A. I don’t ever aim to make anyone cry and I don’t believe I made anyone cry. But just about everybody cried. Usually for their own personal reasons. Everybody is there to win. It’s a competitive spirit and when you’re that passionate about something, passion equals emotion. If they’re crying, it’s not because they’re weak, it’s because they care.

Q. Did you learn anything from them?

A. Yeah, I learned that I never want to compete in a contest like that, that’s for sure! I did see some interesting techniques along the way, some things that I want to apply in my own kitchen.

Q. Like?

A. I can’t really say. But there were some really cool ideas and I was like, I never thought about doing it that way. And you’ll see, I say it on the show. I’ll say what I was blown away by and what I thought was below average. I have no problem being very blunt.

Q. That’s probably why you’re there.

A. Yes, but it’s difficult too because you’re looking at these people and they’re looking at you and it’s hard to separate yourself sometimes, because I don’t have that competitive kind of quality. But to see these guys and see how amped up they get about the competition, how they thrive on it, it just blew me away. It really blew me away.

Q. There was a rumor going around that you’re going to leave Jean Georges, is that true?

A. I know! That was not a good rumor, that got me in a little trouble! I don’t even know where that rumor came from. I’m still in the process of trying to hunt that person down and kill them!

Q. So is it false?

Photo: Johnny Iuzzini

That is just a rumor. I’m very happy at Jean Georges. I’ve been here 8 1/2 years and he’s given me a platform to do what I want, the ability to really put myself on the map. I learned a lot about quality from him, I learned a lot about flavor profiles and flavor pairings from him, and it’s been great. It’s been a wonderful experience and I’m not in a rush to leave.


Q. You were just in Spain, how was your trip?

A. Spain was amaaaazing! We spent a couple of days in Barcelona, a couple of days in San Sebastian, and a day in Roses, where we ate at El Bulli.

Q. What was El Bulli like?

A. It was my second year back-to-back for my birthday. It was great. It was 41 courses, really hyper-thought out food, intellectual food. I wouldn’t say everything was so delicious, but everything made you think about flavors, about textures, about contrast. That experience is not for everybody, but it’s probably better that way.

Q. What places do you love to eat at in Barcelona?

A. Bar Pinotxo in the boqueria, is where we went for my birthday brunch. All the boys - me, [chef] Mike Lata, [chef] George Mendes.

Pinotxo has been there for a long time, he’s right at the front of the market, he’s like this guy who runs marathons. I don’t know how old he is, looks like he’s probably in his 60’s or 70’s, and he’s there everyday and he’s always dressed up and always taking pictures with everybody. They do the most delicious, super simple food that is expertly prepared and it has so much flavor. The chickpeas are awesome. His gambas [shrimp] are awesome.

For the night of my birthday, we went to Alkimia and had a great meal.

Q. You also went to San Sebastian.

A. I never saw the town like I saw it this time. This time, I went from the hotel, to the restaurant, to the beach. And that was all we did - hotel, restaurant, beach.

But we did go to a restaurant called Asador Etxebarri. It was 82 1/2 kilometers outside of San Sebastian. We took a cab each way. The cab cost us 120 euro each way and the tasting menu was 110 euro.

Q. What did you think of their food?

A. It’s been built up to me for awhile now. I thought everything was delicious, but there was definitely a disconnect between what they’re doing in the kitchen and how special it could be if they just translated it to the dining room.

They use all these different hand-made grills and techniques. They make all their own charcoals everyday fresh, they make their own butter everyday by smoking the cream first, separating the curds and whey, whipping the fat into butter - so they do all these great things and they make such a delicious product and then it’s on a plate and it just arrives. You kinda wish there was something that arrived on charcoal or something that was smoldering, or pipe some of that wood burning smell into the dining room.

Outside, it’s like a little castle and it’s all this stone work and medieval looking and you walk in the door and it’s like this little bar and you think, this is kinda weird, it looks like someone’s basement in the 70’s, like their home bar. Almost a little Brady Bunch looking!

Q. And Mugaritz?

A. Mugaritz was the hands down best meal of the trip. Oh my god! It’s like a 25 minute ride out of town and it’s just beautiful. It’s attached to an old farm house and when they greet you, they bring you out to the terrace and they give you soda made with figs from the property.

So you’re drinking this beautifully carbonated thing and you’re looking around and you’re thinking where the hell am I? It’s about the total experience. In New York, you get out of a cab and you walk right into the restaurant. Whereas here, you get out and you see all the herbs that they grow, and you see the cooks out there picking the herbs that they’re going to use in your dishes. Across the hill, you see their dairy farm. It’s amazing. We’re so lucky to be able to go there.

Q. Any other good finds?

A. There is another restaurant called Rafa, in the town of Roses. It was Ferran [Adria of El Bulli] who actually told me to go there.

It’s one guy and he’s got a grill and that’s it. It’s all on la plancha. It’s just him and his server. He only cooks whatever the fisherman bring him that day. There are no real menus.

When I went, he brought out razor clams, and then he brought out a big thing of mussels, and then he brought out these beautiful gambas [shrimp], and then a lobster. It’s so simple and perfectly cooked. There is salt, pepper, some lemon juice, maybe a little fresh herb, and that’s it!

Q. Where do you love to eat in New York City?

A. Obviously, I don’t get out the door to dinner at normal hours, so I tend to eat late a lot.

I go for Vietnamese pho probably once a week. There is a place called Pho 32. It’s so bare bones. You go in and everyone is just coming out of the karaoke bars. Usually, I’m the only white guy in there and that says something. It’s a small chain now, but I think this is the best location. I always get the Pho number 6, the raw beef pho. I don’t like the meatball ones, I don’t like the brisket ones, I don’t like tendon, I like the raw beef.

Q. What do you love about it?

A. I’m a noodle freak. All that meatiness and unctuousness and saltiness in a broth is full of flavor and I just love noodles. I’m not Vietnamese, but it kind of reminds me of mom’s chicken soup! It’s delicious and hearty, and they cook it with all the bones, so it’s just full of flavor.

Q. What other places are on your radar?

A. I’ve been going to Bon Chon Chicken. It’s Korean fried chicken. They have a technique where they fry the chicken twice, I think they do it at two different temperatures, where the first frying separates the meat from the skin, and the second frying crisps up the skin, so it stays super crispy and the meat is super tender and moist underneath.

Q. Any others?

A. Peasant is my favorite place in New York, hands down. Every time I go to Peasant it almost brings me to my knees, because it is so damn delicious. Frankie DeCarlo is such a talented chef and probably the most humble person I’ve ever met in my life, as far as a chef whose really created something special. He built that restaurant from the ground up by himself and he’s in his kitchen every night. I love bringing new people there and I tell them ‘you’re not gonna believe this.’ It’s just rustic Italian food and dish after dish you’re like ‘how could it get better?’ For me it is so special, so awesome.

Q. When you go for pastry, in your heart of hearts, are you going for a chocolate chip cookie or something more fancy?

A. It depends, but I tend to make appointments to always go to Bouchon, because I love the coffee cakes that they do. Or I’ll get a pain au chocolat. But I’m also just as comfortable with a box of Famous Amos cookies.

Q. Who else in New York do you think has a great pastry program, besides your own?

A. Two of the most talented pastry chefs in New York are Alex Stupak at WD-50 and Michael Laiskonis at Le Bernardin. Those guys are both awesome.

Q. What do you love about them?

A. I love their approach. We all have different approaches, different techniques, different backgrounds. Alex and Michael were both savory cooks first, before they were pastry chefs. So their approach is very different from mine. They both have a tremendous hold on balance, on technique, on refinement - there is never anything cloyingly sweet, you’re always interested by what you’re eating and it’s always delicious. There is always a punctuation point of pure flavor. Something is always going to pop.

Q. What chocolates would you recommend for home cooks to bake with?

A. - I use a lot of Valrhona for most of what I do here. For my bon bon program, it’s almost all Valrhona.

Photo: Johnny Iuzzini

- Cluizel is a great chocolate.

- Scharffen Berger is also a good chocolate.

- And there is a new chocolate called Tcho, that’s comes out of San Francisco. I think they’re coming up. It’s American made and hopefully in the next couple of years they’re able to really refine it and get it to where it really needs to be, but for the first run of what they brought me, I thought it was really delicious.

Q. What makes a chocolate delicious and how does someone determine that?

A. You put it in your mouth and you let it melt and make notes. Does it have a smooth flavor, a smooth finish? Is it too bitter? Is it too sweet? Is it too acidic? It’s all about personal preference. What may be a great chocolate for me, may be the worst of five for you.

I think of it like wine. Like I just tasted the Valrhona 64% Manjari. I taste red fruit, it’s a little bit acidic, it’s not that sweet. So the next time you want to create something, you go back to the note cards. If you’re creating something with maybe red fruit, you can say ‘oh that chocolate had those same kind of notes, this is a chocolate I should use in that application.’

Q. You’re also really getting in the whole cocktail world, aren’t you?

A. I love making cocktails. My goal is actually to apply everything I am as a pastry chef to the world of cocktails.

Q. Where are some places that you recommend for great cocktails?

A. My favorite right now in New York is Pegu Club.

I love cocktails that are refreshing, I don’t like overly sweet cocktails. They make very fresh cocktails, so at all times throughout the service you’ll see someone making fresh juice.

I love to go to bars where everything is measured out, just like I cook. They actually measure out every drink and if I come back next week, it’s going to be exactly the same.

Q. What drink do you order there?

A. They have one called ‘Red Pepper, Red Pepper.’ It’s insane. They cut the red peppers to order, muddle fresh red pepper, and then make the cocktail from there.

Q. Other places?

A. Dutch Kills in Long Island City. It’s owned by Sasha Petraske of Milk and Honey.

There are two major families of the cocktail bars [in New York]. You can trace just about every major player in the cocktail world back to two people. One is Sasha Petraske, who has Milk and Honey, and then his people have gone on to do Little Branch, Weather Up, Cuff and Buttons, and all these other places. And then you have Audrey Saunders, who learned from Dale DeGroff, but she is really the one who brought it to a forefront. She is just a bad ass.

So from her you have Pegu Club and the guys who do Mayahuel, and PDT [Jim Meehan] - they all learned from Audrey.

They are all very conscious of fresh ingredients and precision, with a respect to tradition and building upon the classics.

PDT did an exchange with me. They had me behind the bar and I was able to develop a couple of drinks while I was there. I learned a lot from Jimmy [Meehan]. The menu is constantly changing and evolving.

Q. Any other cool finds?

A. I met these guys from Okamoto Studios. They are world class champion ice carvers. There is such an artisanship to ice. It’s something people don’t think about. You want clean ice. Why would you use tap water with flavors of fluoride and chlorine and all these other things that change your drink, when you could have the cleanest, purist ice, and clean ice will melt at a much slower rate.

Q. Do you see yourself doing more with cocktails?

A. My buddy and one of my closest friends, David Arnold from the French Culinary Institute, is actually going to do a bar with me. He is a mad scientist genius and I’ve learned so much from him about carbonation.

Why not apply the technology that we use in everyday kitchens to a modern day bar? Using vacuum technology and do instant infusions, instant pickling.

Q. When will you be opening this?

A. Who knows. We’ve been talking about it for five years. We’re both very busy boys. When it happens, it happens.



Bespoke Chocolates in New York


Dessert Fourplay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef


Chef Johnny Iuzzini’s recommendations on where to eat and drink in New York (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens) and Spain (Barcelona, Roses, Basque Country).



Details of chef Johnny Iuzzini’s recommendations on where to eat and drink in New York (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens) and Spain (Barcelona, Roses, Basque Country).


Dessert Fourplay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef

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Q & A


Photograph by Travis Huggett


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