As we cascade rapidly into October (perhaps my favorite month!), I thought it would be a nice time to highlight our executive pastry chef, Johana Langi. She started with us this past April, and as Fall approaches, is beginning to really put her mark on the dessert menu. I sourced a 6L of Château Climens Barsac 1er Cru, as Sauternes (though great year-round) particularly shines for me when paired with fall flavors and produce. I decided this was a perfect opportunity to sit down with Johana and chat a little about how she’s gotten to us here at 64th Street.
Johana’s love of pastries, baked goods and desserts in general comes from early exploration into baking at home. She lived in Indonesia until age 6, the daughter of a Chinese father and an Indonesian/Dutch mother. Her mother’s parents were big early influences on her savory diet: her earliest memories of cuisine come from this part of her life. There were little sweets, however, a trend that continued when she and her mother moved to Queens. Her stepfather was Greek, and Johana became very close to his mother, learning to love the robust Mediterranean cuisine that Greece has to offer. She reflected: “perhaps growing up eating all that Greek food is why I was drawn to Boulud Sud.” This said, the food was certainly elaborate and distinct, yet very savory. Most “dessert” ended up being store-bought sweets, packaged and generally unexciting.
This is not to say that Johana wasn’t already exploring balance in her tastes: I asked her to think of an early flavor combination, and her first response was “Ritz cracker with cream cheese and Welch’s jelly.” While certainly evoking some of my own after-school treats when I was younger, I was struck by the ease of the natural harmony here: crisp saline grainsweet base covered with robust lactic savor and sappysweet grape fruitiness. In essence, her first distinct memory was a precise intermarriage of each necessary palate-point, of an even-layered experience of the sense of taste.
Intrigued, I pressed further, and asked her how this memory might contribute to her love of sweets and desserts. She looked at me quizzically and said: “I don’t like sweet desserts though, do you?” This, to me, says everything. Johana carries with her what she was taught by her first pastry mentor (Björn Boettcher of Ciano): Dessert is “all about balance.” Whether “too sweet [and] you can’t fully taste it” or generally out-of-sync, Johana believes satisfaction only comes when acid, salinity, sweet, savor are all blended together carefully. If one of these components dominates, then “you’re masking something.”
The fact that we spent a good amount of time discussing the earlier years really drove home her path for me: her lifelong love of baking and creating sweets drove her to want to attend Culinary School right out of high school; she was instead made to go toward a business degree at Baruch. She changed this major to English Literature, but by the tail end of college interned at Good Housekeeping in the Test Kitchen and then at Bouchon Bakery. From there, her self-described “nurturing” job at Ciano, to a variety of Pastry kitchens, continuing to learn, work, absorb, grow.
She still has that same spark when it comes to her work. I asked her what her favorite part of creating was, and she told me, “I just love physically making everything that I do…at the end of the day [pastry] is about consumption… about wanting to elicit a positive response.” This drive to satisfy can be traced from the large feasts of her youth, to baked goods and elaborate picnics in high school, to years of hard work throughout many great NYC restaurants.
For this upcoming week, she’s created a wonderful Smoked Vanilla Parfait—served over a savory, nutty hazelnut brown butter cake, it is complimented by the fresh sweetspice of figs and a scoop of caramel-balsamic ice cream: high-toned dark fruit meets earthtoned creaminess. Truly a model of the balance she so carefully strives for.
This dessert will be fabulous with the robust honeysuckle and lifted fruit of the Climens 2012. Sauternes is so texturally dense that it will welcome the hazelnut base just as much as the lifted smokiness of the vanilla. We’ll pour 3 ounce dessert pours all week long until the 6L is gone! I’m very excited to work alongside Johana and honored she created this pairing. Hope to see you this week!
ALL WEEK LONG (09/30 – 10/6)
Barsac 1er Cru Classé, Sauternes 2012 6L
(3 oz. pour)
UPCOMING WINE CLASS
Saturday, October 5th: RHÔNE WHITES