Johnny Iuzzini, now considered one of the most innovative pastry chefs in the country, was just 15 years old when he started on his culinary path.
He credits his father for instilling in him an "incredible work ethic."
"I come from a middle class family, where we didn't have a lot of money," Iuzzini said. "And my dad was like, 'Get a job, if you want money, if you want to do things, if you want to go out with your friends. Get money and go work for it.' He taught us that work ethic at an early age."
So, he got a job. Working in a kitchen at a local country club in New York's Catskill Mountains, Iuzzini was motivated by a typical teenager's set of priorities -- washing dishes with hopes of earning enough money to impress the ladies, yet still have some change left for himself. Unbeknownst to him, those youthful incentives changed his life forever.
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"I loved it so much, even though it was just washing dishes, it was like once in a while I got to peel carrots or I got to use a deli slicer," Iuzzini said. "I thought it was cool because the chefs -- the intensity of the kitchen was something I had never been exposed to."
Today, he's worked his way up to become the executive pastry chef at Jean Georges in New York City. And in December he published his first cookbok, "Dessert Fourplay." But the 34-year-old's path to success was a 20-year journey in the making.
A self-described latch-key kid, Iuzzini said he usually had to fend for himself at home.
"It was a lot of cookies and ice cream and TV dinner kind of things to get us through until dinnertime," he recalled. "When I was a kid I would come home from school, and my mom would buy the industrial size Famous Amos cookies or Chips Ahoy when I was lucky. And I would sit in front of the TV set with a glass of milk ... and I would dump cookies in there, smash them with my spoon and eat cookies and milk with a spoon watching 'The Dukes of Hazzard.' I loved it. I loved it."
But his sweet tooth didn't just end at cookies and milk. "Mint chocolate chip ice cream. She would buy the gallon-size containers. And I would make lines and I knew how much I was allowed to eat because she would only buy it every few days or once a week. So I would have to divide it up into seven days or six days. So I would make lines in there and I would only eat up to the line, and I would eat mint chocolate chip ice cream watching my cartoons or after-school specials."
His older and younger brothers, however, were immune to the cooking bug -- their relationship with food borders on what he remembers as bizarre.
Iuzzini said neither one of his brothers have come to any of his restaurants he's worked at over the years. His older brother "won't even eat food that touches itself. He's got meat and potatoes -- so he'll eat things one at a time in order. But he won't eat like a fork of steak and then potatoes and peas. He'll eat all his steak and then he'll eat all his potatoes. He's completely strange," Iuzzini said.
He describes his younger brother as "a bit of a redneck" who "likes what he likes."
Iuzzini says he'll eat anything, though there are two caveats: "For me, some things, like I just don't want to know what they are before I eat them. Like if you're going to start feeding me, like sexual organs of animals, or, like a monkey's brain or something -- I'll eat it. Just don't tell me what it is until after I've finished it."
The second no-no? Papaya. "It makes me vomit almost immediately," he said. "I just have a reaction to it. It's not -- I don't know if it's an allergy or just an enzyme reaction, but it just, automatically, it just tastes like vomit to me, so it makes me want to vomit."
Iuzzini's professional career took a turn at the young age of 17 when, with a referral from a friend, he started working at the River Café in Brooklyn, N.Y.
He learned to kill and butcher animals, an experience that didn't mesh with his upbringing. Iuzzini's mother was a wildlife rehabilitator who encouraged her sons to nurse sick animals back to health.
"If [the animal] couldn't be re-released, we kept it and took care of it the rest of its life. So it would never be put down," he said. "So for me to kill an animal to eat it was hard. I mean, I have no problem eating anything, but I don't have to kill it myself."
At the River Café Iuzzini observed the pastry chef making unique chocolate candies and began to think he could excel in that field rather than as a cook. At that point, he decided to make the transition to pastry.
"One of the biggest drives for me in my career is the fact that I refuse to be mediocre. If I can't do something and excel at it and do it well, I have a tendency to give up on it really easy," he said. "This year marks for me 20 years in the kitchen. And I'm going to be 35 years old, and I think that's a pretty big accomplishment. And I trace back along my path and I'm so proud of where I've worked and the opportunities that were given to me that I can never say enough thanks to the people that were involved in my career up to this point."
The Transforming World of Pastry
His connection to the River Café led Iuzzini to the famous New York restaurant Daniel, where he worked under acclaimed pastry chef Francois Payard. He was only 19 at the time.
"I've had a lot of great door openings along the way, but I think -- I feel really lucky to be where I am now and to have met the people I've met throughout my career and I give them a lot of credit for who I am today," he said, referring not only to Payard, but other famous chefs who he worked under, such as Daniel Boulud and presently under Jean Georges Vongerichten.
"Daniel Boulud told me at a young age, whatever happens to you in your career, you're going to be great -- be humble. Just be humble. And I think about that daily. Like whatever happens to me, whatever awards we win as a team or whatever else, just be humble," Iuzzini said.
Iuzzini credits his "strong classic French foundation" with developing a good baseline from which to experiment in the kitchen.
"Because I'm a pastry chef, I enjoy the scientific aspect of what I do. You know, the precision. So we're working with more and more ingredients, more and more technical ingredients that allow us to change the texture of something, to manipulate an ingredient in a way it hasn't been manipulated before -- almost in a way of stripping down all the extras to isolate those single flavor profiles. And we're able to make things that are just completely different than anywhere along the path from before."
In the process of testing out different flavor and texture combinations, Iuzzini says, "Everything about what I focus on now is all about contrast.
"I want everything to kind of pop and always keep the people interested in what they're eating, as well as being delicious, of course."
Dessert is the ideal time to experiment, the "jewel at the end" of a meal. Sated from good food, restaurant patrons are open to a bit of experimentation, Iuzzini said.
"I think people have a more open mind when it comes to a flavor combination or an idea in a dessert, versus a savory course," he said.
Now that Iuzzini has conquered the pastry world, he's considering new ventures. He and Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, are developing a cocktail bar and even pitching a TV show.
"I said, what can I do to keep me interested, to keep me excited about what I'm doing? And the cocktail, the bar world, is such a similar platform," Iuzzini said. "The layer of flavors and working with flavor profiles in a different way, and it's just a different medium when you think about it. So yeah, I'd like to kind of make a transition maybe into the cocktail world and try my hand at that next."
Advice to Young Chefs
Cautioning against the lure of celebrity chefdom, Iuzzini says it's important for kids coming out of culinary school to realize that they're chefs first.
"They assume that they're going to make a lot of money, they're going to get book deals, TV shows or whatever else. And they don't understand that when you come out of school, you have a basic foundation. You have something now that you can build on. It's up to you to build on that. It's up to you to make yourself a better chef," he said.
Iuzzini considers himself his biggest competitor.
"I pushed myself harder than anyone else could, and I think that's what allowed me to get to where I am at the age I was at. And so, what I tell young chefs is the same as Daniel told me: (A), Be humble. You should keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, because if you're talking you're not listening," he said. "So that's my advice to young chefs. Put your time in. Work with the best. Dedicate yourself to the craft. And then in the end it will pay off."
Iuzzini's drive to succeed isn't for everyone -- he's willing to make his career a No. 1 priority, at the risk of everything else.
"For me, the fire has always been just -- I don't know, just if I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it. If I'm going to compromise everything I am as a person, as far as my family time, my time off. I'm never able to go out to dinner with my friends. I'm never home for the holidays," he said. "I sacrifice just about every relationship I'm in for my job. So if I'm going to give up all those things, then I'm going to do it for a reason, and I'm going to make it count. That's always been my fire, my energy."