How a Dessert Menu Is Built: Pastry Chef David Collier on Sweetening Up John Tesar's Knife
Collier's Cheesecake and Pretzel desserts at soon-to-open Knife
There's certainly a lot of talk about meat, and rightly so, when it comes to Chef John Tesar's Knife Modern Steak, opening soon in the Hotel Palomar.
But what about the hotel guest with a sweet tooth, or the film geek who wants to break down the third act after a night across the street at the Angelika? How do you set up a dessert menu from scratch that complements a menu of meat-meat-meat? We sat down with Spoon pastry chef David Collier, who's been busy designing the desserts for Knife.
When you start to build a dessert menu, what's your process? Normally for me, and especially working with John, he'll just come to me and say, "I need a menu." Okay. So I ask him to send me the savory menu. That gives me an idea of what he's looking for. After seven years, I kind of know where his head's at, so he doesn't have to be incredibly specific.
How does that process differ for a seafood restaurant like Spoon versus a meat-heavy restaurant like Knife? With the seafood, we agreed it would be best to focus on as much fruit and keeping it as light as possible. Nobody should need a defibrillator or a stomach pump after those eight courses. At Spoon, for example, when people have the tasting menu, they'll get six courses before they get to me. Then they get a pre-dessert, dessert, Madelines, maître d and a take-home. That's five more courses, so you've got to keep that in mind. That's why we focus on fruit.
At Knife, since it's meat, well, you tried that 240-day dry-aged ribeye. Finger limes and mandarin oranges don't go too well with something that tastes like blue cheese with a side of gym sock. It's a stronger flavor. If you look at the Knife menu, all the flavors are strong and pronounced. There's charcuterie, which is fatty and can be pungent. Mac 'n cheese, a wedge salad ... it's more classic but refined and modernized. [Tesar] pointed in the direction the restaurant was going, and I gave him the menu. I looked at things you'd normally have at a steakhouse. You're gonna have a molten cake, you're gonna have a cheesecake, some kind of pie, a crème brûlee, an apple tart. And it just went from there. How do we change these things around a little bit? How can we refine this and modernize it?
What's your favorite thing on the menu at Knife? I like ribeyes. I like steak. Maybe not the $100/inch variety, though. And John makes this signature item, hand-rolled truffle penne pasta. If I can have a ribeye with a side of truffle pasta I'm a happy guy. Maybe throw some broccoli in there so I look healthy.
And what's your favorite dessert on your menu at Knife? It's a tossup on the dessert; I really like the cheesecake. It came out just how it was in my head, which is cool. And the caramel pretzel dessert. I thought about what the guys in the old steakhouses with their cigars and suits - what do they like to eat? It's a roasted Valrhona white chocolate panna cotta, a molten caramel cake (there's that molten cake) with pretzel ice cream and pretzel soil. It's fairly simple. I like it. People ask, "We're seeing more salt with caramel; is that something new?" No, it's a Snickers bar. The pretzel is just another play on salty and sweet.
I'm sold. How will you be sharing your time between Spoon and Knife? I'm at Palomar at night full-time, six days a week, sometimes seven. Whatever other time I have is spent at Spoon. I even brought one of my staff from Spoon over here. Someone who already "speaks Dave," sort of like I "speak John." At Spoon, we just added a dessert to the menu, and we will again when cherries come in. So I'm still doing everything over there, and I'll be bouncing back and forth. We'll see how it works out with all the other locations coming up. More frequent flier miles or something. We'll figure it out.
What's your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to eating off-the-clock? When I'm working, admittedly, I try to eat fairly healthy during the week. I cook everything, throw stuff in Tupperware and fill the fridge up. When I'm not working, I'm kind of a fast food head. I like Steak 'n Shake, I like Culver's. I had to try out Taco Bell's new breakfast when it came out. But my favorite dessert is ice cream. There's a custard place called Double Dip in Frisco which is really tasty.
What other local pastry chefs do you admire and why? I think anybody who is going to devote their lives to feeding somebody dessert deserves admiration. There are so many. Kate Weiser does great stuff with her chocolate. He's retired, but Dorian Eisenberg of the now-closed J. Dorian Chocolatier in Addison. I really admired him. Nicholas [Blouin] at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. This is the only question I'm awkward about. There are just so many.
What's it like working with THE John Tesar? John and I have always gotten along, from the time I started at The Mansion before the restaurant reopened. He's very direct with what he wants and if you're okay with that, then fine. I haven't had a problem working with a chef, except for back in the day, when they were meaner. He's just John. He's Captain Kirk and I'm Spock. Meaning, we have a good working relationship, we're just very different people. He's cool, and I'm the quirky Beakman in the back.
If he asks you for something like, "Hey I need Asian steamed buns for this pork belly dish." Well, the next time he sees you he wants to know that you're either working on it or you're done and 'here, you can eat one.'
If I come up with a new dessert, he lets me have autonomous control. I'll plate one and have him taste it for feedback. Most of the time it's fine and great! Yes! When I was working on the apple dessert, he said to maybe add a little salt on the pastry to pick up the apple. Nothing personal, no ego.
Anything else you want the people of Dallas to know before the reservations start pouring in? We are eager and looking forward to it. You get that rush when everything's changing, and then the construction phase always drags out, we're ready to go.
I asked for a preview of the dessert menu for Knife. My wish was granted, though it's not quite final yet:
Chocolate Textures Flourless sponge, white, milk, dark chocolate, choice of three ice creams
Cheesecake Graham cracker macaroon, cheesecake mousse & ice cream
Brûlée 2.0 Brûlée ice cream, sable, raspberry
Carmel Coulant Warm caramel cake, pretzel ice cream
Apple Creme fraiche, arlette, apple in three forms
Chef's selection of sorbet
Assortment of Cheeses
Knife opens May 15 and is already taking reservations. Don't skip dessert.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.