Francisco Migoya, A Studious Chef Becomes a Master
Exacting Pastry Chef, Instructor, and Chocolatier
Less than an hour north of New York City, in the Hudson Valley, Francisco Migoya, one of the most formidable pastry chefs in the United States, is making an indelible mark on the present and future careers of many bakers and pastry chefs to-be.
Migoya has been a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), in Hyde Park, New York, since 2005, overseeing the school’s much praised Apple Pie Bakery; writing museum-quality tomes; quietly winning international awards; documenting complex pastry techniques on his blog, The Quenelle; and, as of February this year, opening the avant-garde Hudson Chocolates. This autumn he will be one of the lead instructors for the CIA’s first-ever Culinary Science Bachelor of Professional Studies degree program.
I met Migoya in 2007, at a one-of-a-kind, invitation-only pastry-chef conference held at the institute’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, California. For three days and nights, we listened, learned, explored, created, argued, tasted, dished, laughed, blogged, fronted, collaborated, adventured, and schmoozed. We forged personal and professional relationships nearly impossible to build in a profession in which every pastry chef is a desert island adrift in a vast sea of hundred-hour workweeks; cutthroat, unfriendly competition; closely guarded recipes; and few jobs even for those with ten-plus-years’ experience on their résumés.
Migoya moved to Brooklyn from Mexico City in 1998. After working on the savory side, he replied to an ad in the New York Times for a position at The River Cafe, landing him in the pastry department, where he learned how to organize mise en place for a busy night of plating. As pastry sous to Patrick Coston at ILO in the Bryant Park Hotel, Migoya sharpened his technique before making the jump to be pastry chef at the critically acclaimed Veritas with chef Scott Bryan. In 2003, Migoya replaced Sebastien Rouxel as pastry chef for the French Laundry.
“Working at the French Laundry was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Nothing prepares you for working there.”
Speaking to what came next in his career, Migoya says,
“When I was working at the French Laundry, my daughter was born, and I realized I saw more of my staff than her. It didn’t make sense, but I didn’t know what the alternative would be.”
Three months after hearing about a teaching job at CIA, Migoya and his family moved to Poughkeepsie, New York.
“Teaching is an integral part of every chef’s job. Of course there are marked differences between teaching on the line and in a classroom, but the essence is the same.”
While some restaurant chefs turned chef-instructors might disappear behind the walls of a venerable culinary school, losing their edge, appeal, and relevance, Migoya has achieved the opposite.
Between 2006 and 2012 he wrote, in conjunction with the CIA, three of the most comprehensive cookbooks on the subjects of baking and dessert making. “Each book,” he said, “is at least two years of work; the writing and shooting occurs outside of work time, so there’s that. But what’s great is the CIA provided resources to make it happen — a place to produce and store product, ingredients, staff, photographer, etc. I could not have done it without this kind of support. I don’t know if they will stop printing them, I hope not. They seem to be selling well. They’ve just sent Elements of Dessert to press for a third time, so that’s good, considering it just came out November of last year.”
A few months later, after three years of planning, Migoya and his wife, Kris, opened Hudson Chocolates to critical acclaim: “I’m at CIA until two p.m., and then drive straight to the shop, where I work until I’m done. Originally, we were going to open a bakery-café in Portland, Oregon, where she’s from, but the logistics of that (cost, mostly), seemed out of our league. Chocolates seemed to be the wisest decision, not only because of my love for them, but it was the sort of thing I could do while still working at the school. With Hudson, I’m able to satisfy a creative need — the need to produce and make things—and at the CIA, I appease the desire to share what I know and teach. It’s a very long day, but I put myself in this position.”
The company’s tagline says it all: “Superior Craft. Exceptional Design.”
Migoya admits that some customers at Hudson Chocolates blanch at the prices. Experiencing this reminds him of what he feels is a sad state of current American values, in food as well as craft. When it comes to deeming a product’s worth, he believes, “We have to learn to value the craft behind what we see.”
I asked Migoya which chocolatiers he admires most, and he told me, “Enric Rovira is amazing. It’s beyond comprehension how he does certain things. His sun-melted egg is what I pinpoint as a paradigm shift for me in regard to how to treat chocolate. You are not supposed to put it in the sun. But he did, and the results are beyond reproach. It makes me think, ‘What else can we do with chocolate?’
“Rovira’s flavors are also very well-conceived — sometimes a bit out there, but his technique and execution are on point. Pierre Herme does great work with chocolate, among other things; his work is consistent and delicious, he doesn’t outsource anything, and he stays in business!
“Sure, much of the chocolates you see are the same in Europe and in the States — whether it be garnishes, molds, or bars—but these masters of technique? They are the chefs who are elevating the craft to an almost unattainable plane.”
And where does Migoya derive the inspiration for his work?
“Big question. It varies from one moment to the next. Currently I’m fixated with a Japanese viewpoint, wabi-sabi. In a nutshell, it’s observing and learning to see the beauty of imperfection. I’ve started making many bars at Hudson Chocolates freeform or do not utilize a mold; they are each hand shaped, so, while they may be similar, each has marked characteristics, creating unique pieces.”
You can go for the Doughnut Bar, with its beguilingly delicious doughnut ganache and center ring of raspberry pâte de fruit; the brave and guilty Chicharrón, which is unapologetically itself; simple-seeming Candied Hazelnuts, a truly serious, eat-them-by-the-handful-until-they’re-all-gone Bridge mix; or a mossy, quiet Hudson Valley Mountain Range, meant for a group of people unafraid to nibble without a guided chocolate-box map. Either way, you’ll taste what most chocolate wishes it could be: confections as delicious as they are gorgeous.
Hudson Chocolates is more of an open studio than is your average downtown tourist sweets boutique. Located in an old redbrick factory, a former bookbindery, on a dead-end street in a residential area of Poughkeepsie, Migoya’s shop is for the dedicated to find. It’s open to the public Saturdays from one p.m. to six p.m., or by appointment. A person also may order his creations online, but I strongly recommend a visit if you live anywhere in or near New York State. It’s the closest you will get to tasting, seeing, and understanding mastery.
“A few years ago, I posted on the Quenelle about the importance of ‘sameness’ — how everything we do (in pastry) should be identical,” he says, “I think this is still true for me with regards to certain things, like macarons, éclairs, etc., but mostly, with some of my bars, I feel strongly that each should be its own version of the original idea.”
Simply by talking to him, one quickly realizes that this tireless, meticulous, deferential approach to chocolate is applied to every aspect of his trade.
“Out in the field, I noticed a lot of people complaining about having to do the same thing every day. But there’s real power in repetition; craft is honed, and mastered, in repetition.
“If you learn to love repetition, not merely to tolerate it, you’ll succeed in this profession.”
I asked him if he believes his exacting nature would have surfaced if his career had not followed a culinary path:
“I haven’t always been this way. It was really a need more than anything. It began when chef [Thomas] Keller would tell me what he wanted the croissants at Bouchon to taste/look/smell like, but little else in the form of guidance. To get there, the only way was to learn and understand ingredient functionality,” meaning, the role each ingredient plays and how the ingredients work with one another, he explained.
“Due to the nature of my job at CIA, heading the Apple Pie Bakery Café (which as of July, I am no longer part of, after seven years), I had to ensure that the students would have bulletproof execution of their products. I developed methods, techniques, and systems that could be passed on from student to student every three weeks, to avoid product mistakes that would negatively affect their education and the customers’ experience.
“I needed to smooth out the constant and inevitable transition with impeccable consistency. It was of the utmost importance that our customers didn’t notice we had brand-new people making macarons, croissants, and baguettes. Students taught in this way understood and saw that they’re capable of doing great things if given the right tools.
“We couldn’t use the excuse ‘But they’re learning, give them a break…. Give us money for burned doughnuts.’ The only way to get there was with a scientific approach. And hey, it works.”
Migoya credits his role at CIA with continuing his own education: “I learned so much of what I know from teaching. Not only have I needed to make sure students learned but that they baked well. Keeping students, the school’s administration, and the customers happy is a full-time job.”
CIA students aren’t the only ones benefiting from Migoya’s extensive knowledge base. Migoya is the definition of a sharing chef — one who is unafraid to give—the opposite of a chef who believes his reputation or name would be diminished by giving credit to the pioneers before him.
I’m only one of many pastry chefs and journalists who have asked him questions and received in return extensive responses, often with explanations and helpful hints, recipes and methods, historical references, comparisons and metaphors.
Recently, I was employed by a company that put stabilizers in its gelato and sorbetto. I had never used stabilizers. I don’t believe in them, in the same way tried-and-true Seattleites don’t carry umbrellas. I started researching the particular makeup of stabilizers and their current role in most frozen desserts by reaching out to colleagues more familiar with them. Migoya answered, “Many stabilizers are less processed than ingredients we consider ‘natural,’ such as sugar.”
When preparing to have a serious conversation with the owner who insisted I use the mysterious powder, I went back to Migoya. He sent me a series of questions I could pose to get to the root of why or why not to add such an ingredient. My ensuing conversation was more thoughtful, informed, and informative because of my friend’s advice.
Many months before a pastry frenzy recently hit Manhattan, the writer Francis Lam asked a rhetorical question, by way of Twitter, about whether the integrity of a laminated dough — the kind used for croissant dough or puff pastry — would hold up if fried. These doughs employ constant folding and layering of a base dough over butter to achieve much of their delicate, flaky, aerated texture. Bakers usually cook these doughs in very hot ovens, making Lam’s question an interesting one.
Migoya was one of many pastry chefs who responded with hypotheses and stories of trials, but it was his tweet with a micro-photograph from a recent experiment of his that sealed the deal. Yes, frying croissant dough worked; the layers of lamination held steadfastly and the result was a bit oily—but it was possible.
Jen Yee, pastry chef of the new restaurant-bakery Lafayette, in downtown Manhattan, was at her wit’s end testing pâté a choux dough for éclairs just weeks before the opening, when she contacted me. I sent her to Migoya, who saved the day by sharing a recipe and a years-in-the-making method for the perfectly straight pastry.
His unwavering methodical, detail-oriented dedication to the craft extends to his personality, which is always even keeled, straightforward, and diplomatic. Even speaking off-the-record about difficult kitchens, chefs, and the sad state of the American palate, he has never made disparaging remarks just for the sake of doing so. I know I am not alone in considering Migoya a moral compass in this tumultuous, scoundrel-ridden profession.
Known among his peers as an indefatigable seeker of technical perfection, focusing the smallest aperture on individual pastries and their methods, Migoya has become our craft’s unofficial in-house scientist, and the single most trusted and sought-after living resource for the whys and wherefores of pastry, sweet and savory alike.
“What we’re doing is slowly but surely,” as he says.
There is no “top of the mountain, I can rest now that I’ve made it” view. There is no standing still. Craft is a lifelong study, a verb. At a time when so many people are in a hurry to become chefs, Migoya’s success shows us that the opposite approach is better.