Anyone who’s ever tried and failed to get a creative endeavor off the ground might find watching the Will Goldfarb episode of Chef’s Table: Pastry to be an inspiring and/or cathartic experience.
The episode begins with the James Beard-nominated dessert virtuoso ruminating on how demanding and frustrating the life of a pastry chef can be. He was warned about this as a young chef, and the prophecy essentially came true. “There’s only so many times you can hear you’re the worst and not at least have it in your mind that maybe everyone’s right,” he remarks. “And that continued for years, so it wasn’t like, a fluke. That theme would keep coming up.”
Goldfarb, a native of Long Island, was a pretty straight-laced student who got involved in the restaurant world after his senior year in college. “I went to Paris to do pastry as an excuse not do start law school right away,” he explains. Goldfarb started working for a chef named Gérard Mulot, who he describes as “the ultimate gentleman,” and that’s when he really fell in love with making pastries.
As he started to plot his next moves, Goldfarb became fascinated with El Bulli, which had just received three Michelin stars and represented “the next generation of cooking” in his eyes. He faxed his resume to Ferran Adrià’s restaurant and got a rejection note. But in the midst of an immigration raid at the Italian restaurant where he was working, Goldfarb decided to call up El Bulli on a lark and ask for a job. Much to his surprise, they invited him to come and work in the kitchen for a year or two. “Getting that invitation made me feel I belonged at the big dance,” he says.
When he got to Spain, Goldfarb started working for Ferran’s brother, Albert Adrià, who he says was “behind a lot of the amazing things that came out of Ell Bulli” at the time. The experience opened his eyes to avant-garde cooking in a fine-dining setting. “When you work somewhere like that you think you’re special; you’re the center of the universe,” he remarks. “Your confidence was high. After that for me, the new minimum standard was to be the best in the world.”
Goldfarb’s El Bulli experience made him a hot commodity when he returned to New York. The chef started working for young gun Paul Liebrandt at a restaurant called Papillon. He started serving elaborate interactive desserts that incorporated blindfolds, syringes full of sweets, and even handcuffs. The chef also says he served onion ice cubes and other things that were “straight-up, indisputably, not delicious.” After too many slow nights at the restaurant, Goldfarb got fired from Papillon. “It was an experimental catastrophe,” he recalls.
He next landed at job at Cru, a trendy and well-regarded fine dining restaurant in Manhattan, where he decided to play it straight. “I basically took all of that edgy shit out,” Goldfarb explains. But one day, the owner told Goldfarb that he should indulge his creative side and do whatever he wanted. This lead to high-concept desserts like “Day at the Beach,” a box that included saffron syrup, salt water spray, pastry cream soda with crispy ham, grapefruit gel with beer, and a tiny beach towel. The critics were savage with their takes on Goldfarb’s new desserts. As the chef points out, the New York Post said that hiring him was “the worst decision in New York” that year. To no one’s surprise, Goldfarb wasfired after that bad bit of press.
Crestfallen, the chef retreated from the spotlight for a bit to spend time with his family, but then a group approached him out of the blue with plans for an all-dessert restaurant. “I was terrified about what would happen,” Goldfarb explains. “I was coming off a string of failures and departures and bad reviews. I was toxic. I thought there was no way it was going to work. So, I turned it down.” His wife eventually persuaded him to take the job, and the result of this collaboration was Room 4 Dessert, a 20-seat counter that served a dessert tasting menu.
“This wasn’t some abstract high art thing,” Goldfarb says. “This was a bunch of dudes in New York getting the food in front of you and really caring about your happiness.” Much to his surprise, the restaurant got a great review in the Times, followed by more praise from the New Yorker. The accolades kept rolling in, and Goldfarb and his crew got used to the attention. “We expected to be in the paper every day,” he says.
But something about Goldfarb’s rise to stardom didn’t sit well with his partners. “The guys that I opened with and I had sort of gotten to the point where neither one of us was handling the attention I was getting particularly well,” he says. “So they just decided to close the restaurant.” The closure, in 2007, was arguably the toughest setback of Will’s career.
His wife decided that it was time for them to leave the city, so the Goldfarb family decamped to Bali, Indonesia, half the world away from NYC. After a few years of kicking around his new hometown, Goldfarb got the idea to revive his old tasting menu restaurant and settle some “unfinished business.”
The chef believes that moving to a new locale helped him recalibrate and focus on his craft, and now he was working with some of the best possible fresh ingredients for pastry making. “That got me out of the cycle of New York bullshit,” he says. The revival of Room 4 Dessert proved to be a big success, one that he couldn’t have achieved on the same level in Manhattan. “Now, I think it’s much more charming to take care of actual people,” Goldfarb explains, “than to like make something in an abstract vacuum for your own ego.”