Sitting at one of the vacant tables in the bar Mezzanine at Eleven Madison Park—a grand, Art Deco dining hall in New York’s Flatiron District serving American Nouveau—executive pastry chef Angela Pinkerton exudes a kinetic enthusiasm while considering the dessert program she crafts for the four-star restaurant each season.
“We’re always looking to reach the next level of excellence,” says Pinkerton. “But you also want to make things that are familiar and touch people inside. So much about a dish is the memory and the emotion behind it. So, you don’t want it to consist of crazy ingredients, say it’s an egg cream and then it’s not an egg cream. But once you have that basic familiarity, you gain someone’s trust—and then you can build off of that.”
And Pinkerton is nothing if not an architect of pleasure. A former biology major at Kent State University and later graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine, she approaches her sweets with a scientist’s precision and an artist’s sensibility. At their most intensive, her creations can require as many as 48 hours of preparation before being plated.
“All the desserts here are rather technical and have a lot of elements,” she says, citing her riff on Milk & Chocolate as an example. “And if you’re really busy one night and you sell a lot, you’re kind of in the shits,” she laughs.
With her amber hair swept into a bun, Pinkerton’s large hazel eyes catch the light as they flit from the main dining room back to our conversation. The becoming shade of moss green can be found in the spectrum of her current favorite dessert, a meditation on pistachio: two perfect quenelles of creamy pistachio ice cream and pucker-tart grape sorbet sit atop crushed candied pistachios like the eggs of an exotic bird. Nearby, miniature pistachio cheesecakes are nestled among whole and shaved slices of market grapes. A swoosh of raisin yogurt provides contrast, while caramelized tuiles balance delicately on top of the sculpture, waiting to be shattered with a spoon. It’s beyond.
While attempting to actually recreate such a chef d’eouvre at home may seem like an exercise in futility, the pistachio dessert is one of the many recipes included in Eleven Madison Park’s eponymous cookbook, released this November.
“What’s nice about the book is that the recipes inside aren’t one-time things,” says Pinkerton. “If you’ve eaten here, you can get the book to remember it afterward—like a keepsake. Or if you get the book first, then you can come here and have what you’ve admired in the pages. We’re very aware that going to a restaurant is not just about the food. It’s a tie between the food and your experience here, and how it makes you feel afterwards—and sometimes even before you arrive. So it’s a process that we really cherish.”
Also an experience worth reliving: the sweet-potato dauphine with chestnut-honey ganache and side of brown butter ice cream. “It’s one of my winter dishes,” she says. “Brown butter ice cream is delicious and nutty. Just thinking about it, I’m like, ‘Ooh!’ But then, y’know, we use sweet potatoes in it, so it’s a little bit different. I get a lot of my inspiration from the market.”
What fails to inspire are stunt dishes. “Everybody’s always trying to get me to do foie or bacon,” she goes on. “We’ve done some things with bacon and we do a lot of savory ice creams as hors d’oeuvres, but it’s not something that I gravitate to.”
Pinkerton is reluctant to judge other chefs, however, and is even less inclined to dictate taste to her diners. I bring up the contentious topic of drinking coffee with dessert. “I think for Americans it’s very natural to have coffee with dessert,” says Pinkerton. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I don’t want to be the person who says, ‘You shouldn’t drink that.’ This is your time. I don’t think we are here to tell you what to do. If anything, we are here for you to tell us what to do.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that she won’t share her own preference. “I don’t think I ever drink coffee with dessert,” she says. “But maybe I’m just trying to get in that last glass of wine with my meal—‘Yeah, dessert wine? Sure! Bring it!’”