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Sweet Endings

Dessert master Alain Roby salutes American classics, and the purchasing 'detectives' that help keep his kitchens stocked.

Monday, February 08, 2010
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Chef Alain Roby holds two Guinness World Records: World’s Tallest Cooked Sugar Sculpture and World’s Tallest Chocolate Building.

Yet Roby, Hyatt Regency Chicago’s Executive Pastry Chef and the Senior Corporate Pastry Chef for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, also understands the dessert needs of both hotel catering operations and the home cook, as he shows in the new cookbook, Alain Roby's American Classics: Casual and Elegant Desserts. The book, his first, features his twist on recipes such as caramel pumpkin flan, Key lime pie with a chocolate cookie crust, and coconut cracker pudding.

A portion of the book’s proceeds benefit the Saving Tiny Hearts Organization, which raises money for congenital heart defect research. The cause is personal for Roby: When his son was 16, doctors discovered a problem with his heart. His son is doing well now, and Roby wanted to use the occasion of his first cookbook to not only promote great pastry, but a great cause as well.

Roby spoke with Buyer Interactive last week.

Tell me about the book.
I started the American classic pastries when I was in Windows on the World, the hotel between the two towers. With my Parisian background, I had to learn the history of American pastry, what it's all about. I really fell in love with that type of dessert. As the years went by I created my own twists on some American desserts. I decided to make a book about what I love so much now.

Dessert and pastry creations are not immune to trends. What's the hottest concept right now?
When times are tough, comfort food always comes up. I mentioned one time that food is like music. You have classical and you have the song that is trying for a couple of months and disappears. A Mozart or a Beethoven is a good double fudge cake, a wonderful brownie or strawberry shortcake; it's always there. You have different ways of presenting it, and this could be a trend.

Are there regions or flavor combinations that chefs seem to be discovering now?
What was very hot before was all the spices, the fusion of Asian and all these things. Now what is really the trend is organic, using local growers, everything fresh. You can decide what is your own trend as long as it’s fresh. People want to know it's locally grown, organic. That's the big trend in dessert and really in food.

Tell me more about the choice to use local and fresh ingredients.
[People want] fresh ingredients, especially in the summer. A lot of desserts can be infused with fresh herbs and local berries. For dessert, if you use an organic protein that's also upscale, people feel it's something upscale and we really take good care of them. You have the vision of something that's healthy for you because it's organic, and even festive and different. The mind plays a lot in that, too. You try an organic strawberry and a regular strawberry, but if you find out one is organic, maybe it will change the flavor.

I've also seen a mix of sweet and salty. For example, in your book, there is a chocolate mousse truffle with sea salt and olive oil.
The salt brings out flavors not only in food but also in sweets. If you take a pretzel and dip it in chocolate, it's a great combination because of the salt. You can have a raspberry coulis and throw a pinch of salt, and it will bring out the sweetness and flavor of raspberries. I'm thinking of my grandmother, who was a big influence on me. We would have a melon, and she would sprinkle some salt and it would be sweet. Salt, even in my childhood, was with sweet.

Do you have purchasing responsibilities?
Yes. Whatever vendor we have has to be approved by our corporate office. From there, we as chefs can choose. We have a lot of freedom, which is great. We have a vast array of different chocolate, cocoa powder or whatever. Depending on the recipe and the look that [the chef] wants, that's the product we get.

How do you evaluate a potential supplier? What do you look for when deciding what to buy?
The flavors, the look, the freshness. The reputation of the grower is also very important. Then for chocolate, you have some top-brand chocolate you know if you go with them about the process, how much passion and care go into the product. As a chef, you want to have the final say by testing it.

What are the toughest ingredients to source?
Sometimes you have a shortage of raspberries or peaches because there was bad weather in Florida. Simple things like a peach or a raspberry, especially in winter, can be an issue. The purchasing we have in this hotel is phenomenal. If one source doesn't have it, they will find another. I've never had an experience where we haven't been able to find something. Those guys, I salute them. They are doing detective work.
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