Brooks Headley, Smasher of Cookies and Clichés

Close your eyes. Think back over your last year of eating out. What dishes were most memorable?

Do you remember all the components of one dish or the overall sensation you had moving your fork through it? Do you recall innovative flavor combinations or intriguing texture contrasts?

We are eating out at a time when many chefs are clambering over one another to find and locate and hoard The Next It. What will It be? Towering and toppling used to be It. Thirty tiny tidbits have been It. Right now, fearlessly foraging fronds is It.

While It is being hunted tirelessly, many of us clear a less trampled path. We choose flavor above all else. We seek to find, eat, and create deliciousness.

Some might call us old-fashioned. We prefer old-school. We prefer O.G., Original Grandma. We call it punk rock, no bullshit, the real deal — food, as it is supposed to taste. Brooks Headley proudly stands in the “Flavor First” camp.

I met Brooks at an event in January 2012 called Killed by Dessert (KBD, as it’s known). KBD is a reverse dinner of mostly dessert courses with a sprinkling of savory ones, put on by six pastry chefs. Bold enough to have offered to help, I documented the affair, taking more than eight hundred photos, and bonded with chefs I had always wanted to meet.

Brooks Headley’s Stracciatella gelato, in action, on frozen marble. Photo by Shuna Lydon

By modern-technology and social-media standards, Brooks is elusive. He doesn’t tweet or use Facebook, and when I googled his name, his life as a drummer in various punk bands showed up but, until he won the James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef award this May, little else that was current presented itself.

I’d heard about the “dessert experience” he performs at Del Posto, but didn’t know when I’d have enough Benjamins to eat there.

Born and raised in Towson, a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, Brooks began cooking in Washington, DC, pastry specifically, in 1999. I asked him, why pastry?

His response: “I was a staunch vegetarian when I started cooking professionally (obviously ‘90s-punk-rock related) and had no desire to cook meat. It felt just like crafting 1-2-1-2-end punk songs. So I fell into pastry because there was no meat butchery involved. It was all very accidental. I had no deep dessert feelings at all.

Laurie Alleman-Weber was my first boss. She fucking taught me everything. She taught me how to make crème anglaise, on the meat line, between two gnarly dudes with bubbling cauldrons of veal stock, bones sticking out past the surface tension. She taught me to love and respect green-market fruit. She taught me how to make pâte choux, whipping your wrist in a C motion to avoid a super lame spike on top.”

After a series of stints working in small houses (generally, restaurants with less than fifty seats), Brooks tried out for the pastry job at Del Posto.

“When [chef Mark Ladner] hired me, he told me, flat out, ‘Dude, hiring you is a fucking total risk.’ It has been my goal not to disappoint him for the past five-plus years.

“I was coming from Komi in DC (thirty-two seats, five dinners a week). Del Posto is 350 covers a day, not including three private party rooms. He loved my food, but I wasn’t really qualified to run that kind of operation. Also, I’d never worked in NYC before! I’d worked for Nancy Silverton at [the late] Campanile in Los Angeles, as pastry sous, and [had been] pastry chef at Komi, but never in New York City.”

Although there are thousands of restaurants to choose from in the Big Apple, many of them have dessert menus that are similar or identical. If an establishment can afford a pastry chef, most work alone, as a team of one; if you’re lucky, perhaps there will be two people. We’re considered a luxury in an industry paid for by people with more than enough expendable income. If the economy tanks, if diners don’t order enough dessert, if numbers inflate in the kitchen but deflate in the dining room, the pastry chef is the first to go.

Because pastry chefs walk this tightrope, most owners want last courses to be familiar, easy, staid, and stuck in the past. Most houses play it safe. Those of us who want the ubiquitous mint-leaf garnish, molten chocolate cakes, out-of-season fruit, and sauce squeezed out of plastic bottles to be banished forever can have a hard time finding a job.

The ideal menu — and meal — is one in which what you eat as your last course references each course that preceded it. If a meal is a sentence, the sweet course is its full stop.

That contiguous meal is born from a strong relationship between the savory and pastry chefs. Finding one’s kitchen partner is a formidable journey. And, as is the case with romance, finding said person doesn’t guarantee you’ll be with him always. Restaurants close. People move. Chefs have kids. Ownership changes.

Brooks definitely feels as though he has found a comrade in Mark Ladner.

“I feel totally blessed to have accidentally found Ladner. He is one of my best friends in the world at this point, and has had my back since my early days at Del Posto, where I fucked up a lot.

“He is a genius of Italian food and has taught me much about hospitality, humility, and grace.… All while we were (and are) getting our asses kicked by insane numbers. Del Posto is a big, crazy resto! And that guy works service almost every day, studies shit and reads constantly, is a fucking total comedian, and a force of inspiration for me daily. Should I stop gushing here? Yeah, I do not really know of another pastry chef who has found a savory-chef soul mate like that. I kinda won the fucking lottery.”

Sfera di Caprina. Goat cheese cake rolled in irregular olive oil fried breadcrumbs, shaved celery and celery sorbet, torn balsamic-soaked black mission figs 

The first time I heard Brooks speak about his work, recipes, and outlook, I was struck most by his humor and candid deference to the canon of pastry, much of which he admitted he couldn’t understand, and didn’t adhere to.

He said he knew that in order to be considered a real pastry chef, he needed to develop his own perfect chocolate sauce. But after much trial and frustrating error, he gave up and instead created something he called the Fuck You, Chocolate Sauce. To make chocolate liquid, he whisked in extra virgin olive oil and called it a wrap.

Last October I received an e-mail from Brooks. In Pete Wells’s New York Times review of Calliope, where until recently I was the pastry chef, one of my desserts, a stone-fruit tart, was featured and photographed.

Brooks wrote:

“Those desserts looked so good. The baba and the fruit crostata… So rad, totally punk. I liked how the tart was sort of irregularly shaped and had plums with skin! You are speaking my language! That’s real food!! I swear if I see another fucking overgelatinized mousse cut into a perfect bar with a curlicue perfectly tempered chocolate thing and a perfect quenelle of ice cream and a sprinkle of some dumb-ass powder and perfect cube of some gelée, I am going on a killing spree! Watch me. Ha-ha-ha.

“I just can’t help getting psyched when real desserts get props. Ah. Don’t get me started on the MC Hammer-pantsness of NYC desserts. Not so anti-”modernist,” as I am anti-crummygelatinladenconformistcrap. Flavor first!”

Plating Eggplant Crostata with Stracciatella Gelato at KBD 2012

I showed my sous-chef the e-mail note from Brooks and he said, “Brooks worked for Nancy [Silverton], so, yeah, he likes real food.”

When Brooks talks about his work and the chefs who inspired the direction he’s taking, he sounds like a Californian.

“I’m all about: presenting simply, very little manipulation, inserting myself as little as possible — the ego of the chef is taken away. Sometimes I’ll cook fruit a certain way, even though there’s only one-tenth of a percent of the population that cares about any of that stuff. But those people are other cooks.”

Given Brooks’s ascension to fame, you might expect him or his work to be lofty. When queried about winning the James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef award, (only one of which is given each year), he responded:

Butterscotch Semifreddo Tony Style. Butterscotch semifreddo, sour apricot sorbet, olive oil croutons, sbrisalona crumbs, tangerine zest, extra virgin olive oil, maldon sea salt. Served in a SOLO cup with biodegradable spoon

“Holy shit! I am still completely fucking stunned, and it has been several weeks. My staff at Del Posto deserves it. They bust their asses every day: Kim, Rosa, Roger, Paco, Aurora, Diana, Annie, Sooji, Rosanne. I love them all so much; without them, I am nothing. Nothing. I come up with the stuff (of course, with their collaboration), but they make it work.

“I’m working on a cookbook. I really should be working on it right now, as my deadline is looming. I want it to be funny and informative. A cross between my two favorite cookbooks of all time: Eat Me, by Kenny Shopsin, and The Last Course, by Claudia Fleming. With a little In The Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak, sprinkled on top.”

If you can’t afford to eat dinner at Del Posto, go there for lunch. An industrial, bustling West Side disappears once you are inside the restaurant’s grand dining room. Settle in, turn your technology off, and eat a meal that’s sublime and well-spoken without taking itself too seriously.

Save room for dessert. And not just what you order from the menu. Just when you think you’ve eaten enough deliciousness for the day, The Box will come.

The Box will give you the final paragraph to a novel you wish would never end — a book both entertaining and honest, silly and sexy; its prose satisfyingly sumptuous, humor minus hubris. Sentences crafted from words well chosen and unearthed from under a pile of phrasings you’d long since forgotten for shorter, tweetable tidbits.

This is the work of Brooks Headley. His flavors are as familiar as home, but not humdrum. You can trust him to introduce your parents to eggplant domestically partnered with chocolate. If you’re lucky, he’ll turn your white tablecloth into a mess of personally shattered heirloom Bastianich cookie, cocoa nibs, and tiny sweet treasures. (Brooks: “The cookie is called Fregolotta. It’s an old-school Lidia recipe. She’s been smashing cookies all over tables in New York City for decades now. Lidia loves having the table erupt into complete chaos at the end of the meal. So, yeah, Lidia is pretty punk rock.”)

While you might not remember every detail of every component on every plate of every dessert, you will remember your dessert experience with Brooks. If you close your eyes, you will see the delicious wreckage of your table when all was done and said, eaten, understood, and heard.