When Alex Levin first arrived at Johnny Iuzzini's kitchen at Jean-Georges, the renowned pastry chef noticed his distinct determination and seriousness. "There was no question that he was there for business," says Iuzzini of Levin's tenure as a pastry extern from the Culinary Institute of America. "During his time with me he was one of my secret weapons and an amazing asset in the kitchen."
Levin, who currently works as Executive Pastry Chef at Osteria Morini in Washington D.C., creates desserts with the same focus he used to crank out spreadsheets in his former finance career. "All of my recipes are formulas in Excel that reflect key ratios that I see very mathematically," he explains.
All my recipes are formulas in Excel that I see very mathematically
When the market crashed in 2008, Levin grew reflective as colleagues lost their jobs. "I started thinking about what was going to be the next chapter in my life," he explains. He recalled growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side and baking with his grandmother, a rabbi's wife. "She would have these elaborate Friday night shabbat meals. She was the best entertainer you could possibly envision and created the most delicious stuff." She often picked him up from school and they baked together. "When I was five years old, I was braiding challah bread and making desserts," he says.
Baking and cooking became Levin's primary hobbies. "That's just where my heart was," he says. While his peers were waiting for the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, he was checking the mailbox for Gourmet. At age 16, he even contributed to a large wedding anniversary dinner for family friends. "I had become so interested in baking that I volunteered to spend three days in my parents kitchen, cooking up a storm and making pastries for them."
When the Yale graduate decided to pursue a culinary career at age 32, he wanted to attend one of the best pastry programs in the country — the Culinary Institute of America. Yet he was cautious about his chances for acceptance, "I really didn't think I would get in because I had no food experience except for a genuine love of pastry," he explains. To his surprise, he was accepted. After completing the program and his externship with Iuzzini at Jean-Georges, Levin landed his first official job as a pastry cook at Cafe Boulud. He stayed for a year.
I'd heard so much about the development of DC in terms of its cuisine
A job offer at Osteria Morini's new D.C. location moved him outside of the New York Tri-state area for the first time. "I had heard so much about the development of the city in terms of its cuisine. It seemed like an opportunity that would be a very good fit for me."
Although Levin didn't have a strong background in Italian desserts, he approached the challenge with his trademark intensity. He consulted a fellow pastry chef in the Altamarea Group, Bob Truitt of Marea, for advice and immersed himself in books on the subject. "It's been part of my self-education to figure it out and make sure the desserts are consistent with the restaurant's theme," he says.
Osteria Morini specializes in the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, so Levin drizzles his fragile fragole with the region's famous aged balsamic vinegar. The dessert arrives at the table looking like a strawberry "Stonehenge" — an architectural ring of sliced fruit, angel food cake, lemon semifreddo, and strawberry sorbet. The geometric components all rest against each other in an intentional placement.
That playful contrast of layers and textures is a signature of Levin's desserts, but it was ingrained at Cafe Boulud. "A requirement of any dessert leaving that kitchen was that it had multiple flavors and textures," he remembers. His peanut butter and chocolate budino with crunchy peanuts follows this tenant, too.
But the peanut butter cups served with the budino bear the stamp of another mentor. Levin acquired chocolate work skills at that first externship under Johnny Iuzzini. "I learned so much that I don't know where I would be today without that experience," he remarks. "I always hear his voice in my head when I think about how something needs to be."