Award winning Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini honed his craft at some of the finest dining establishments in New York, including The River Café in Brooklyn, Daniel, Payard, Café Boulud and Jean Georges. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. the Catskills native has, over the years, been bestowed with a host of accolades including, in 2006, “Pastry Chef of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation (2006), “Best New Pastry Chef” by New York Magazine (2002), one of the “Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America” two years in a row by Pastry Arts and Design (2003 and 2004) as well as one of the “10 Most Influential Pastry Chefs in America” by Forbes.
Chef Iuzzini also served as the head judge of Bravo’s culinary competition series “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” for two seasons and, most recently, has been a co-judge with Mary Berry in ABC's “Great American Baking Show.”
The 25+ year pastry veteran is also the author of two books: Dessert Fourplay: Sweet Quartets From A Four-Star Pastry Chef and Sugar Rush: Master Tips, Techniques and Recipes for Sweet Baking. Since leaving the restaurant business, he’s started his own pastry and culinary arts consulting company, aptly named Sugar Fueled Inc. Chef Iuzzini is also a big supporter of various charities and is an ambassador of Family Reach, Cookies For Kids Cancer, and No Kid Hungry. An avid motorcyclist, he’s also partnered with Le Méridien Hotels to travel to iconic Le Méridien destinations in search of inspiration, then posting his recipes and thoughts at "Éclair Diaries." (Go to www.lemeridieneclair.com to view.)
His big push, however, is his new venture “Chocolate by Johnny Iuzzini,” where he plans to market – both to online consumers as well as professional chefs – his straight-from-the-source chocolate bars. His goal is to start with six origins namely those from Tanzania, Peru, Vietnam, Venezuela, Jamaica and Ecuador and then branch into other products using his own homemade chocolate and cocoa powder.
As with everything he’s done before, he’s all about authenticity and staying true to cacao’s roots. If it rains a lot in Peru one year, for example, that might change the composition of the chocolate that comes out of there, or if there’s a dry spell in Ecuador, he’s fine with having a slightly different product. “Every year the seasons change and affect the ingredients,” he explains, “Which changes the final flavor profile. Industrial chocolate is made to be consistent – they blend, blend, blend so they can maintain those finite flavors that don’t have much variance. For me, I want to pronounce those variants, to highlight why they taste different.”
His goal? “World chocolate dominance,” he says, joking. Or maybe not? Known for his passion as well as his risk-taking and “failure-isn’t-an-option” modus operandi, it’s hard not to believe he won’t get there. But first - some explanation on why. Chocolate, he says, has been a lifelong love. It’s what got him to switch from savory to sweet. And it’s where he was first introduced to the “crazy fantastical” things Eric Gouteyron, the pastry chef at River Café, created. “Every night, after I’d work a full shift I’d visit him and work for another five hours for free where he’d yell at me and give me lessons about chocolate,” says Chef Iuzzini. “And my reward for all that hard work would be another night getting tested and learning under his belt.”
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Chocolate continued to be his focus when he apprenticed at some of France’s finest pâtisseries, including the famed Ladurée in Paris. Chef Iuzzini also completed an intensive two week chocolate course at L’Ecole DGF du Chocolat et Patisserie. And then, at Jean Georges, he was the one behind the building of the chocolate room. “It’s been an evolution since then,” he explains. “It’s one of those products where we as chefs have the least amount of control, yet it’s so important to our pantry.”
“When Daniel changed locations, the new Pastry Chef Thomas Haas and I built a chocolate room from a small office in the basement of the restaurant where we pumped out thousands and thousands of chocolates for our guests as well as showpieces for VIP celebrations. Then when I left Daniel and went to Jean Georges, I did the same thing. I built a chocolate room out of a former storage closet and continued to push the chocolate envelope and build a serious chocolate bon bon program making and serving in excess of 15,000 monthly.”
It’s why he wants to dive deeper into the chocolate world and bring awareness and something new to consumers. He doesn’t want to do this just at the retail level, but to work with fellow chefs and help them create their own proprietary beans to give them a sense of ownership, as well as their own special restaurant (or hotel) chocolate.
“I’m super into collaboration and know a lot of people so it’s easy for me to pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s work together on this,’” he says. Ideally, he’d love to use ingredients from a chef’s specific destination and do limited editions.
Also on the agenda: Mixing chocolate with coffee. The two, after all, are grown and harvested much the same way. “Where coffee is done at roasting, chocolate goes onto another 10 steps,” he says. “For me it makes sense to incorporate coffee into what I’m doing now and create product lines that mix chocolate into coffee and coffee into chocolate.”
Mostly, he wants to stir interest in the bean to bar movement and keep it pure. “Being a pastry chef I know what it’s like to work with chocolate that is only two ingredients and chocolate that has more. I want to create products that are both personal and made just for eating and those that are made for working with and manipulating.”
Another goal: To highlight the Catskills/Hudson Valley where he grew up and help bring more buzz to the area. That means using milk from local cows or maple syrup from area trees or grown-on-the-farm Concord grapes.
At the end of the day, no pastry (or chocolate) works if it’s not delicious, he says. “The customer doesn’t care if it took you four hours or four days or four months to create a dessert. If it doesn’t taste good, it’s not a success.” It’s why, when asked, he says he doesn’t have a favorite ingredient. “I will apply myself to anything and everything – if it makes sense,” he says. “You need to ask: ‘Is it craveable? Does it pop?’”
Talking and sharing with other chefs and seeing what they’re working with is one way he gets inspiration. The other is through travel and the different cultures and flavors he finds along the way. Barcelona ranks among one of his favorite places “for the passion and the excitement, the energy and the open mindedness.”
“They are not afraid to break down traditions and I see them as pioneers in a lot of ways,” he says. Being half Italian and half French, he also loves visiting Italy and France as both have strong roots in gastronomy.
Surprisingly, with all of his travels and fine dinging experience, he says his food guilty pleasures are Pocky Sticks and Kit Kat bars. “I always have at least a bag of Kit Kats in my freezer,” he says. “And for whatever reason I have a strange addiction to Pocky Sticks.” He credits his Kit Kat obsession to the childhood memories associated with them. Which is why tapping into people’s emotions and those memory flavor banks is something he, as a chocolate maker hopes to do.
As for the best career advice he’s ever gotten? He says it came from Daniel Boulud who told him to never forget where he came from. “Make time for the people who come up behind you,” he says he was told, “And always try to give opportunities to those following in your footsteps.”
He says he’s stayed true to that mantra, even trying to personally answer the many messages he gets through social media. “I love now, that when I look at my family tree, I see a lot of the young chefs I worked with who’ve gone on to have their own restaurants. It’s heartwarming and I’m so proud and so humbled to have played a small role in their success,” he says. “It was always my greatest wish that those guys would slingshot past me.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s all about the food and putting out the best product. Which is why, when he’s not clearing his head scuba diving or riding one of his five motorcycles, he’ll head to Peasant on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan. “Not only is the food always delicious, it’s not pretentious,” he says.
“It’s where I go when I need to put my life in perspective. Frank DeCarlo, the chef, is someone who’s never sought the spotlight, and never comes out of his kitchen. He’s always back there, working the pasta station and working his kitchen. It’s not about anything else but the food. And that always brings me down to earth. This guy does it for all the right reasons. And his food speaks for itself.”