From dish descriptions alone, it would have been hard to identify some of the desserts at the 2018 StarChefs International Chefs Congress. Keeping in line with the theme Cooking with Respect: Better People, Better Food, many plates on display illustrated chefs’ collective desire to reduce food waste and honor non-meat ingredients in ways above and beyond just passable vegetarian entrees.

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Joey Ward of Gunshow taught attendees how to incorporate cauliflower into mousse and crème brûle base. At the Valrhona C3 Competition, chefs incorporated celery sorbet, seaweed chocolate, and Sancho chili powder into their fanciful plates. And at the daily Congress Eats, a focus on onions and peppercorn didn’t stop pastry chefs from getting in on the action.

Yes, earthy desserts are everywhere, trumping last year’s nod toward nostalgia. Or rather, herbs, vegetables, and flowers hit our sweet spot in entirely novel ways.

“I'm in love with cured black olives—I could shout about them from the rooftop,” said Chef Erin Kagany-Loux, who expressed an overall interest in incorporating the savory foods she loves to eat into the final courses she serves. Kanagy-Loux pushes boundaries with black olive ice cream—she describes the olives as expelling a molasses-like sweetness that also satiate a salty, briny craving when incorporated into ice cream. But in teaching her hands-on workshop on how to infuse standard pastry ingredients with fresh flavors, she stressed the virtues of olive oil: “A lot of people don't realize that it can be amazing in dessert, from olive oil ice cream to olive oil cakes, to cremeux and chocolate,” she said.

Chef Juliann Stoddart of Parkside Projects in Austin, TX, who attended the workshop, applied a similar technique when infusing peppercorns into the pastry cream and meringue sitting atop her Spanish Almond Cake at Congress Eats. “I love to put little hints of spice in unexpected ways,” she said.

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Florals, roots, bark, and herbs were most apparent at the Valrhona C3 Competition, where 8 international finalists presented refined plates with Opalys 33% white or Nyangbo 68% dark chocolate. Chef Libertad Santiago from Dos Palillos in Spain offered a “light, refreshing, natural, and delicate” gelled water infused with flowers and herbs. Chef Paula Stakelum from Ashford Castle in Mayo, Ireland incorporated pine-oil sorbet. From The Four Seasons Bali, Chef Yasuke Aoki’s winning dish incorporated fragrant Thai makrut limes and Japanese shiso leaf.

At Congress Eats, Stoddart topped her cake with a marigold. And Chef Vince Nyguen of Berlu Portland, Oregon, who made sweet onion ice cream, expressed that “herbs are more amenable to sweet applications” overall.

“People were scared of salted chocolate chip cookies and salted brownies,” Kanagy-Loux reminds us of a simple, savory touch on classic sweets. But savory, earthy, herbaceous, and floral sweets? “We’re moving into that trend.”

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