I’ve eaten a lot of desserts in my career. Esoteric dishes of disparate shapes, colors and textures; recognizable wedges of pie and cake galore; sweet fried dough wrapped around air and critters; tall tuile-topped, spun sugar garnished sixty-component plate installations; austere, single fruit statements in one-of-a-kind porcelain bowls; à la minute table-side productions presented by tuxedoed waiters; shaved ice from clear melting blocks, drowned in anonymous, sticky, brightly colored syrup bottles on the Lower East Side; chocolate — baked, sifted, slurped, frozen, roasted, considered, candied, tempered, molded, broken, melted, extruded, fried, grated, evaporated, chopped, and dropped; magnificent meringue clouds; technicolor cotton candy; sugar in its every possible incarnation — from the refined cane or beet varieties to a world of jaggeries handled by thousands of pairs of hands. I have been savoring all of it since before I could speak the word "want." I was destined to be a pastry chef.
In a lifetime of eating sweet things, a few stand out as benchmarks — game-changers,and eye-openers. Many are filed in the nostalgia research library. Stacks and carts of memory books, dog-eared and smeared, used but never discarded. In ensuing columns I plan on bringing some of these discoveries out into the light, for all to see, remember and compare.
One such eye-opening dessert experience was delivered by Ben Spungin, then the pastry chef of Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Calif. I had taken my mother there for a birthday weekend, perks compliments of Ben, whom I had barely seen since our time together at the French Laundry, where I had been the pastry sous chef and he had interned and then, for a few months, become a pastry assistant.
In the short time Ben worked with us, pastry chef Stephen Durfee roped him into the once-a-week overnight chocolate-making. That planted the seed, which Ben then cultivated into a full-blown forest as he set out on his own.
In the world of pastry, one has a choice of specialty to pursue. The spectrum covers wedding cakes to bread, chocolate to sugar, ice cream to pastry, showpieces to competitions, candy to plated desserts, and that doesn’t address the kind of pastry chef you become, your stylistic signatures — your brand.
In restaurants, called upon to know and create product, pastry chefs must cull from each specialty, but clear areas of expertise often emerge. Ben had the patience and intuition for chocolate, and set about teaching himself the intricacies of candy making.
Not content to focus on one specialty alone, he developed a repertoire and honed a style by focusing on his immediate natural surroundings. Ben foraged before foraging was a thing; he discovered, isolated and highlighted both the obvious and subtle flavors of his environs.
The eye-opening, revelatory dessert he quietly delivered me that fateful November many years ago was simple, straightforward, humble and beige.
Oak ice cream.
Sitting in a small dish melting quietly. After my first bite I could barely believe my tongue and took another spoonful. There it was: a tree in my mouth. I was bewildered, beguiled, and besotted, all.
After Ben had the idea of transmitting his love of forest scents through the tasting vehicle of ice cream, he contacted a local arborist and wine barrel maker. It turns out Oak wood has to go through a number of processes before it can be edible enough to be infused into milk that’s subsequently churned into ice cream. The essence of Ben Spungin’s work is just this: he’s looking inward, at his roots. He knows he doesn’t have to go far to find flavor and inspiration, but he’s not afraid to do the homework necessary to bring his ideas to fruition.
Ben Spungin might not be a name you know or have ever heard of, even if you live in Northern California, where he has been the pastry chef at the Bernardus Lodge with savory Chef Cal Stamenov since 2005. But, New Yorkers, at least, get their lucky little delicious break this Saturday April 13 at Brooklyn’s eclectic Smorgasburg where he will be sharing a table with Big Sur Bakery’s Michelle Rizzolo.
Ben plans on creating a chocolate landscape conjuring his local ‘terroir’ with whimsical offerings such as Carmel Valley chocolate dirt, herbaceous chocolate candies and carrot caramels.
Everywhere you turn, chefs are climbing over each other to wow you with tall, strange or space-age; with super-salty or tweezered into submission; with the new-old-fashioned all-American. But there are a few who might surprise you with the obvious delicious, the sublime. Ben Spungin is one such chef — he might just bring you happily back down to earth.