At Marea, the celebrated New York Italian restaurant, every course is special, including dessert. The showstopping final plates are the work of Pastry Chef Francis Joven and his team. Chef Joven’s spin on classic American and Italian flavors are one of the reasons Marea is perennially one of the best restaurants in New York, earning two Michelin Stars in 2017.
Murray’s is lucky enough to have Chef Joven provide us with not one, but two Great Taste recipes, so we wanted to sit down for a moment with the chef to talk dessert inspiration, his advice for anyone ordering dessert at a restaurant, team camaraderie, and more.
What motivated you to become a pastry chef at this level? Have you always enjoyed baking, or did something click later in life?
I actually became a pastry chef by accident. At one of my first kitchen jobs in LA (the now closed Ortolan), I was a commis and they needed help in pastry. I was lucky to have an incredible pastry chef in Ron Mendoza who really got me into “haute patisserie”. He gave me my first fancy cookbook (paco torreblanca, amazing book) and showed me that in pastry food had more freedom. You can play more with color and texture. He also helped me get my next job at Sona (also closed now) where I really learned how to function in a fine dining kitchen.
You worked at Chef Paul Liebrandt’s Corton, which was known for being a high pressure and very creative kitchen, what influence did this have on your approach to pastry and your approach to leading a team?
Working at Corton was another formative time in my culinary career. I worked under Chef Bob Truitt (another AMAZING chef) where I took away two things that I try to pass down to my staff:
1) Food should be delicious and bring you joy. Everything you make should be worth eating over and over.
2) Work/life balance. Both sides should influence and add value to each other. My work is personal and I like to share it with my staff and with people outside of the restaurant. I like to encourage my staff to approach it the same way. Be themselves. It’ll translate in the food in a positive way.
When you come up with a dessert, what is your process and what flavors do you start with?
Inspiration comes from anywhere. I have a list ideas floating (that may never materialize) that really come out of nowhere. A fall dessert “cornucopia” because of that scene in the Hunger Games. A “mont blanc” that resembles the actual mountain peak in Europe to scale.
I have no formula but specifically at Marea I try to make sure all the desserts are familiar and balanced. But also being in New York, you’ll see a lot of American influence.
The team you have with your sous chefs Michelle (Catarata) and Kat (Escobar) is very close, and the whole pastry team at Marea seems to really love working together. You all work in such a fast paced, highly successful kitchen, how do you keep things fun and maintain your great team dynamic?
One thing I make clear with my staff is that everyone is responsible for every item that comes off our station regardless of which shift you’re in. Everyone is treated as an equal. It definitely promotes teamwork when they’re forced to communicate and are accountable for one another.
I encourage everyone to find their own ways to be more efficient, faster, etc. I also encourage my staff to contribute to the menu. Whether it’s a new bon bon or ice cream flavor, or family meal, all I ask is they make something that excites them. It takes a lot of hard work to maintain but we do it together. The lone wolf dies but the pack survives.
You’re from California, and you’ve got a lot of West Coast folks, and others who have moved to NYC, on your team; what is it about the food and restaurant scene in NYC that attracted you all?
NY has it all. We have easy access to variety in not only the type of cuisine, but the decor/ambiance/crowd that comes with every neighborhood. Everyone in this city is an eater. 8 million food stories.
With these desserts that you’ve created in collaboration with Murray’s Cheese, what were you looking to show folks that want to make a special dessert at home? How did the ingredients available to you allow you to express your creativity?
I wanted to show that you can take any base recipe and adjust the ingredients to fit the flavor profile you’re after. The panna cotta, for instance, is a nice medium for the other flavors: cherry, almond, mandarin. Those three can easily be replaced with three other Murray’s ingredients to create an entirely different dessert.
You’ve recently gotten engaged (Congratulations!) and your fiancée doesn’t work in the restaurant industry; what’s something that you made for her when you were dating to try and impress her?
I made her a bday cake our first year dating. Simple chocolate with ganache and mousse. I actually asked one of my cooks to write happy birthday on a chocolate plaque for me! I trust my writing but it had to be on point!
What’s one thing you’d like diners to know about ordering dessert at a restaurant, and for folks who have never dined at Marea, what would you like them to know about your dessert program specifically (other than ‘save room for dessert’)?
Take a chance and trust the chef. I feel there are too many people out there who completely dismiss this course because they’re not a “dessert person”. I personally don’t have a sweet tooth but I make it a point to at least try one or two desserts at the end of a meal. You might miss out on something revelatory.
If you liked what you saw and heard from Francis, follow him on Instagram @bakesohard, and for more Marea pastry goodness and a look behind the scenes in the pastry kitchen, follow his sous chefs Michelle @meeshystreats and Kat’s @chefkatterson.