Bonjour chers lecteurs! Yes, you are on the Aphotic blog and not on your daily French Duolingo struggle. I felt like I wouldn’t truly be myself if I hadn’t greeted you in my native language! Deirdre here or as my colleagues call me, “Chef D.” I’ve gone by many names in my time working in kitchens -some know me as Didi, Deeds, Princess (shoutout to the 2013 Jean Georges pastry team for that nickname) and even muñeca (doll in Spanish, and a good indication as to why I left the a Florida food scene… also,no one wants to be that close to Disney at all times.) Though I’ve gone through many different iterations of my name, I’ve always remained the same - your token French employee that you send out to tables of French tourists who don’t speak English. I arrived on a transatlantic boat to the US - beret, French onions and baguette in hand in 2013 to continue my pastry studies at the CIA after my intense pastry course at a Lenôtre in Paris. I kid. I showed up on a United flight in Newark with 4 suitcases of mostly French pastry books… the onions part is true, it was my mother’s idea I swear!
Just to confuse you even more, I flew in from the Netherlands, where I was born and grew up. I’m also a quarter Vietnamese, went to a British school and spent a lot of time in Portugal. Basically a walking United Nations, third culture kid.
Since then, I have completed two degrees, the second one being at Cornell University (proud napkin folding Hotelie here), worked in New York, Miami and even Paris for the French president for a summer because no-one in the US wanted me for a short internship so I casually slid into Francois Hollande’s DMs. I have settled in SF since 2016 and have been at Aphotic (formerly Palette) since 2021. If that’s not enough of an introduction for you are welcome to watch Chopped Sweets to watch me make an embarrassment of myself on national TV. However, I can’t say it’s a super accurate representation of how I work (I’m not a villain in real life!) but it’s a hilarious watch if you want to see me make a “Snaked Alaska.” They edited out the Lord of the Rings reference I made when I created the spider/Shelob dessert but kept the amazing snake pun. Huge Tolkien nerd here too - I bless my colleagues with my Gollum voice quite a bit
In hindsight, I guess Chopped was my first foray into “unconventional” desserts. When you get tarantulas in your mystery box you’re kind of thrown into it. Which is kind of what Chef Peter did to me when he asked the pastry team to shift to “fishy” desserts. I straight up laughed at him at first thinking he was joking. I come from a classic French pastry background of croquembouche, millefeuilles and éclairs. Fish belongs on the savory side of food for us pastry people. For a couple days I had an internal “Sméagol/Gollum” conflict about how I would incoporate fish into desserts. So, when I first incorporated bonito flakes in a caramelized white chocolate ganache, I couldn’t help but think of the scene where Samwise ruins the fish by cooking it causing Gollum to exclaim “IT RUINS IT!”
Little did I know, I was onto something relatively tasty… or should I say, precious. The Smeagol in me was winning and was convinced seafood desserts could work.
Breaking boundaries and defying expectations has never been easy. While savory chefs are often applauded for their wild flavor combinations, us sugar elves (the lord of the rings kind, not Santa’s) are met with raised eyebrows, strong questioning of sanity and harsh critique. *cue the Boromir’s of the world* - “one does not simply make weird non vanilla chocolate desserts.”
As the media picked up on Aphotic’s fully sea-centric restaurant they of course were incredibly intrigued by the oyster ice cream and the seafood desserts the team was putting out. At first I was stoked. After years of being a pastry chef and being considered an after-thought in restaurants I was previously at, desserts were shining as bright as the savory courses. This probably stems from the culture we have created at Aphotic - we all see each other as equals and no dish is more important than the other. Seeing your team’s desserts mentioned in local and national news is a big deal - until you read the comment’s section.
I’m a firm believer in “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all” so you can imagine the gut wrenching feeling I got when I was working the service station plating what I thought were fun desserts and found out the cave-trolls of the internet were hard at work.
The critique that will stay with me the rest of my life is a full grown adult straight up just commenting “YUCK”, like a spoiled 4 year child. Although, even as a 4 year old I was instilled with a French education that taught me to never say “Berk” before having tasted a food. It sounds more romantic in French “On dit pas berk avant d’avoir goûté.” Call me a French snob but I think these people could benefit deeply from an “a la française” education.
I had two options. Either believe in our product and not listen to the criticism or remove it from the menu entirely.
I seriously considered the latter- I could easily create something safe with seaweed and seasonal fruit. It would be a “fine” pre dessert. However, negative criticism can often make you narrow minded. A couple years ago I would have probably cried in the walk-in fridge, been mad for a month about it, stubbornly removed it from the menu and ranted about it to my mom for months. I still vent about it (sorry mom) but I have since adopted the Ted Lasso goldfish mentality. The happiest animal on earth is a goldfish because it has a ten second memory. I chose to be a goldfish and focus on the abundant positive critique we were receiving on the oyster ice cream as it quickly became some people’s favorite course on the menu. One guest even ignored his severe dairy allergy just to be able to eat it! Those people are the ones we should be creating for and keep pushing boundaries for, and not the “yuckers” of the world.
The cherry on top of the cake is Michelin recognized the oyster ice cream as one of their favorite desserts in California in 2023. It’s a huge honor that makes it so much easier to read the negative critique about it now.
As pastry chef’s, I feel like we sometimes put ourselves in a box that is self created. I’m definitely not the first person to make fishy desserts, it’s not a crazy idea and there’s people out there who really want to try creations you may think are “too weird.”
While our team works on the next desserts, we always keep in mind what people may think but never restrict ourselves. There will always be negative critique but in the words of the great philosopher, Taylor Swift, I’m just gonna "shake it off".