Chefs do some things outside of the kitchen. Some of these things are interesting. To chronicle what some of these things are, here's Out of the Kitchen, wherein we'll hang out with chefs (and other interesting food people) outside of their kitchens. Here now, Le Bernardin's executive pastry chef Michael Laiskonis.
Michael Laiskonis has Jeff Van Gundy eyes. It's something I've noticed before, and in his case, the physical characteristic's implications are spot-on: this guy works hard and he gets minimal sleep. But on his one day off, Monday, he suggested we meet at The Strand.
On one level, a visit to the iconic Union Square bookstore serves a simple purpose: "I've never been able to experience New York as a tourist," he confesses. "So excursions to Chinatown and places like this let me have a taste of that experience."
He starts off in the cookbook section, not simply because it's most related to what he does for a living, but because books, more than any other force, gave him that vocation. As those familiar with his story will recall, Laiskonis did not attend culinary school ("I couldn't afford it back in Detroit, when I was living a pretty hand-to-mouth existence") but rather started out working in various kitchens to pay the bills. While performing these gigs, consulting texts became the catalyst that turned a job into a compulsion and viable career path.
Leading up to that realization, which he ballparks as having taken place in 1994, Laiskonis was enmeshed in the Detroit punk scene. He had an apartment in the Cass Corridor neighborhood and booked shows at 404 Willis, a space run by what he describes as a "loose collective of artist and anarchist types." Hardcore band Universal Order of Armageddon, which back then included Del Posto pastry chef Brooks Headley, played 404 a year after Laiskonis' departure.
We continue to walk through the store, stopping often and for good periods of time. Laiskonis has to explain himself fully. He speaks clearly, deliberately, thoughtfully, making sure I know exactly what he's trying to get at. It feels a bit strange at first that within the maddeningly packed shop within the maddeningly packed city, he can just stand there for as long as it takes for us to have an engaging conversation. And it's not didactic, either. It's an aspect of his personality that indicates that the inquisitive pastry chef was once an inquisitive visual arts student. And punk.
He catches sight of a Hugh Selby, Jr. book and recalls having given a Chilean — who didn't speak particularly good English — some of the author's short fiction. "It was funny giving a guy with poor English skills a book from someone who basically took it upon himself to destroy the English language. But he ended up loving it!" A few more paces and it's John Fante: "Reading this makes me nostalgic for the 30s and 40s." Soon after, the art section, where he starts talking Hopper and Caravaggio. Of the former, he admires the palette, the mood, and the sense of space, and of the latter, of course, the use of chiaroscuro, something he tries to consider when applying flavor and texture contrasts in dishes.
It's hard to think that for Laiskonis the most compelling aspect of these visits is getting the sense that he's a tourist. Towards the end of our meeting, he discussed the poetry in the story of a chef friend who's left it all to become a glassblower. A few minutes before that, he lamented the fact that he's probably never going be able to read a book on Lars von Trier. More than anything, stopping at The Strand is a way to plug back into those worlds.
Try his food and you'll know all of them are still very much there.