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In Defense of the ‘Boring’ Restaurant Sundae

From the Editor: I’ll take all the sundaes Pete Wells doesn’t want

Soft serve at Martina
Jean Schwarzwalder/Eater NY

This post originally appeared on April 14, 2018, in Amanda Kludt’s newsletter “From the Editor,” a roundup of the most vital news and stories in the food world each week. Read the archives and subscribe now.

Last week, a number of friends and colleagues sent me New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells’s rant about the proliferation of ice cream sundaes (dramatically headlined: “The Ice Cream Sundae Must Be Stopped”) because I am known in certain circles as a brazen and diehard ice cream sundae aficionado and defender.

TL;DR of Pete’s column is: He thinks there are fewer dessert choices than there were a few years ago at New York restaurants; he sees ice cream sundaes “everywhere,” often as the only option on a menu; many of them are disappointing (although he also praises… a number of them… and doesn’t namecheck any of the bad ones); and he thinks the rise of sundaes is related to a decline in the state of pastry arts as a profession.

My take!

1. Sundaes are rarely ever bad. I am biased as a New Englander who worked at Friendly’s throughout my teenage years, but also… ice cream and a topping is never worse than the molten chocolate cakes and creme brulees that restaurants without pastry chefs used to serve. And oftentimes, they are complex and satisfying and do everything you want a dessert to do.

Gelato soft-serve at Lilia
Photo by Paul Crispin Quitoriano/Eater NY

2. I think the more specific and interesting but related take is the rise of soft serve, which we chronicled last fall. With the fast casualization of the restaurant world (hi Martina, Made Nice, Souvla) and rising labor costs, adding a soft serve machine is an affordable alternative to a pastry chef. Please see: Robin, Cote, Alta, Tartine Manufactory, Olmsted, Lilia, Tusk, etc.

An early adopter, of course, is Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi, who added a soft serve to Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2007. “I had to figure out how to make magic — how to create a thoughtful, inventive dessert; how to prep it all myself in the middle of the night; how to sell a cuss ton of it; how to feed a lot of customers day and night with no pastry kitchen/station or cook; [and] how to get folks to eat dessert quick,” she told us in the fall.

Of course, the best is when you have a restaurant with a soft serve machine and a pastry chef.

3. If this was a roundabout way of Pete discussing the state of pastry chef positions in the restaurant world, great! I think it’s important to talk about. From what I can tell, in New York specifically, we’re at a better place than we were — in terms of respect and opportunities for pastry chefs — than we were at the start of the recession or even five years ago. And as the cost of dessert has risen for higher-end restaurants, desserts act as a high-profit-margin item on the menu. Hospitality included could help protect even more pastry positions.

But it’s always going to be one of the first positions that gets cut in hard times. And I believe Shuna Lydon when she says pastry pros used to make more money. That’s why it’s SUPER SUPER important to whenever you dine at a place with a pastry chef, as our own Daniela Galarza often advocates. (Fast forward to 14:57 to hear her discuss this on the Eater Upsell.)

4. Agree about the desserts at Prune being phenomenal.

5. “Dessert was put on this planet in order to surprise us.” Hard disagree.

Openings of the week

Adding these to my travel agenda:

Spoken English in D.C.

A family-style meal of roasted duck at Spoken English
Photo by Rey Lopez/Eater DC

Dyafa in San Francisco

A mezze plate at Dyafa
Photo: Dyafa/Instagram

On Eater

Last week on the Upsell

Dan and I spoke to two restaurateurs about how to raise money to start their businesses. Portland chef and Eater Young Gun Maya Lovelace is using a combination of Kickstarter and sweetheart loans to fund her new counter service meat ‘n’ three, Yonder. New York chef (and Eater video host) Esther Choi raised money for her restaurants Mokbar and Ms. Yoo in a few different ways to varying success. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Off Eater

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