At Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, the current dessert menu includes flavors and textures such as frozen papaya, Champagne mango pudding and smoked yogurt—and that’s all in one dish. Maybe because pastry chef Sean Yan got his start in savory cooking, or maybe because he’s obsessed with creating a balance of flavors in every dessert (think: sweet to salt, acid to fat, crunch to cream, etc.), but he never puts out a standard desert course. He likes to play with texture, flavor, acid, even vegetables.
Like everything else, when the coronavirus brought the restaurant industry to a near-halt in March, Yan’s role as creative pastry chef was put on hold. After a brief shut-down, Heirloom came back with a to-go prix fixe menu that serves four people. But as restaurants sought to answer the seeming nationwide call for affordable comfort food, Yan’s ability to experiment became limited. We asked for nostalgia, and chef Yan answered with the prettiest to-go tray of s’mores we’ve ever seen.
Of course when when you contrast that to-go s’mores with Yan’s plated, fully conceptualized dish, you realize just how much the Covid-19 crisis is asking a deeply creative industry to put its passions on the back burner. We caught up with Yan, who grew up in Princeton and now lives in New Brunswick, to ask him how he adapted as Covid-19 hit and what he sees for sophisticated pastry in an uncertain future.
Table Hopping: Did you always know you wanted to work in restaurants?
Sean Yan: Oh no, I definitely took the scenic route! I graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor’s in psychology. In college I worked in some restaurants and after college I started helping manage a Thai restaurant of a family friend of mine and I slowly started to realize I really wanted to get into cooking. So I went to ICE in Manhattan, same as chef [David] Viana. Out of culinary school I went to Mistral in Princeton. That was my first cooking job.
TH: You say “cooking.” Did you not start in pastry?
SY: I didn’t do pastry at all, actually! I was at Mistral as a line cook for 1½ to 2 years. I really didn’t have any interest in pastry at the time. Once I was looking to move on, though, my good friend at Mistral [had] moved to Heirloom, so I got a stage there. I staged there maybe two or three times. But Heirloom was a small team. They really weren’t looking for anyone. But then the pastry chef suddenly had to leave, so a position opened up and I was like “I really want to work here.”
TH: What was the attraction?
SY: It’s just a cool space with cool people, an awesome concept. So I thought “I’ll give it a shot—try my hand at pastry!” David was like “Come do a tasting, make three desserts.” I didn’t know what to do. I read a lot of books, researched flavor combinations, asked some people for help. Then I went into the tasting and they offered me the job. I’ve been there for three years now.
TH: What about pastry appealed to you?
SY: Coming from a savory side actually helped me out a lot. It creates more balance. I love creating desserts with vastly different ingredient combinations. I love using vegetables in desserts. People don’t expect it. Corn, for instance, I love using corn. Because we live in New Jersey, there are so many things to use. It’s not technically a vegetable, but tomato is a fun one to use in dessert. Even shishito—I made a shishito pepper romesco, slathered that between layers of lemon cake, it was a huge hit… I learned it from my previous chef at Mistral, Ben Nerenhausen. He loved to play with stuff like asparagus and sunchokes in desserts.
TH: It sounds like savory elements really play into your desserts, not as a gimmick so much as a source of balance and flavor?
SY: It’s practicality, too. I think what a lot of pastry classically-trained pastry chefs lack is restraint in sugar. A lot of places, you’ll get a dessert that’s very sweet and rich, heavy on chocolate, heavy on fat, and very, very sugary. Especially within the format of Heirloom, where it’s coursed-out tastings and prix fixe menus, you’re getting a lot of food before your dessert. My approach is something more balanced, something you can finish at the end of that long meal.
TH: Your plating style is so beautiful. How did you develop it/how would you describe it?
SY: My plating is mostly influenced by David [Viana]. His style is very whimsical and not rigid. He doesn’t like to follow standard plating rules you see French chefs doing all around the world. I took that and kind of made it my own. I like to think it’s a little bit less intentionally chaotic but still with a lot of whimsy.
TH: With Covid-19, restaurants had to simplify in general. That must have been jarring?
SY: Around March, when they announced the shutdowns, we took a good amount of time and came back, started doing to-go meals, which was very difficult at first… We’re a casual fine dining restaurant with a five-course tasting menu and three-course prix fixe. How do you translate that into “to go”? So we came up with doing these three-course to go menu options to feed a family of four, done in a large-format style.
TH: Your presentation obviously would have had to pivot. What was that like?
SY: It’s hard because you have to put [desserts] in this tin box, which goes into a car and rattles around the back of a trunk. You have to think about how you’ll make it look presentable but also travel well. The plating is definitely simpler, more rustic-looking.
TH: You’re still offering takeout even with outdoor dining. Do you plate all of those s’mores tins by yourself?
SY: It’s just me! When we first opened up the to-gos, we were doing a lot more—maybe 30 to 40 of those four-person-sized s’mores to go. Nowadays, with outdoor dining, it’s slowed a bit. We’re probably still selling close to 15 trays, though. That’s a lot of trays of s’mores.
TH: Going from plated presentation to dessert trays and back can be dizzying. Has the Covid era at all made you reevaluate the role of a pastry chef?
SY: It’s sort of a strange place to navigate right now. People want both very refined food so they can feel like they’re having a dining experience, not trapped at home. But they also want something comforting, something to relieve stress and deal with the whole situation. There’s a whole sense of nostalgia there as well. It can be a little hard to navigate. It’s a fine line, to make diners happy in both ways.
TH: I’d have to wonder if there isn’t also a certain amount of frustration, albeit low-key?
SY: It’s sort of a moment of stasis. I’m not trying to speak for all chefs, but many of us feel like we’re stuck in a mode. We can’t really be as creative as we want to be. At the same time we still strive, we have that creative hunger.
But through the struggle of the coronavirus, we have to do the best we can to make guests happy. That might come at the cost of creativity, but we’re working through it as time goes on. We’re more and more hopeful, more and more creative, and we put out better dishes over time.
TH: If there anything you can tell us about your desserts menu going forward?
SY: Actually, I’ve sort of preserved some of summer. We fermented some fruits, pickled some peaches. I think my approach to fall is actually going to be to preserve summer as long as we can… A lot of people have missed out on it because of Covid, so we’ll give them a little bit of a longer summer so they can enjoy it. Playing with combinations of pickled peaches, mint, and white chocolate. It’s homey but has this interesting feel.
TH: It sounds like you’re keeping one plate very lively, sort of treating dessert as a revival of the senses, not some over-sweet denouement.
SY: Absolutely, yeah. I think about acid balance, sweet balance, fat balance a lot, as well as textural balance. You want something creamy, something crunchy. You want it to be interesting enough to finish the entire dish. Finish strong!
Heirloom Kitchen is still serving to-go prix fixe for four people. Place your to-go order by 5pm the day before. They’re also doing outdoor dining (weather permitting) four-course prix fixe for $89, from Wednesday through Saturday, 5pm to 10pm, and Sunday 4pm to 8pm. 3853 County Road 516, Old Bridge; 732-727-9444Click here to leave a comment