Bill Corbett is becoming known as one of the country’s most skilled and respected pastry chefs.
After honing his skills at New York City hot spots like wd~50, he moved to California, where he joined The Absinthe Group as executive pastry chef in 2011. In his position, Corbett oversees the pastry menus at popular San Francisco restaurants Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, Arlequin Cafe & Food to Go, Boxing Room and Comstock Saloon, where he incorporates international influences in his organic presentations.
Corbett is also a founding member of Killed By Dessert, a multi-course dessert pop-up event that took place in Brooklyn and Austin, Texas, last month and raised more than $20,000 for childhood hunger nonprofit Share Our Strength.
He recently spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about not following trends and letting ingredients dictate presentation.
How do the menus at Absinthe, Arlequin Cafe, Boxing Room and Comstock Saloon differ? How you approach them?
Well, each restaurant definitely has its own personality and cuisine. I try to tap into what each restaurant is supposed to be, which includes what the guest expects it to be. At Absinthe, we're doing food that's a little more refined, without being pretentious, so we try to tap into the guest's sense of nostalgia while serving them something a little more adventurous than your average dessert. At Boxing Room, we tend to tap into desserts that you might expect at home, but we try to elevate them beyond your average homestyle dessert. At Arlequin, we try to keep it simple with desserts you can eat while on the go, but made with the same technique that goes into our high-end desserts. Comstock Saloon has a great way of tapping into Americana, so we try to follow that lead. Above all else we try to stay in tune with what's going on at the farmers' markets.
I would say my style is organic but intentional. As far as flavors go, I like to give the guest food they can relate to, with a surprise, usually by introducing them to an ingredient they're not expecting in dessert. Although I don't do crazy flavor combinations for shock value or for the sake of being the renegade, the flavors really need to work together. As far as presentation goes, I try not to force a lot of shapes into my desserts. I feel that the ingredients will dictate the shape for you.
What desserts seem to be most popular with your customers?
Desserts that really touch on childhood seem to do the best. My biggest hit so far has probably been the different iterations of German Chocolate Cake that I've done.
Summer flavors and ignoring trends
Do you have a favorite ingredient?
I wouldn't say I have a favorite ingredient so much as ingredient combinations — roasted white chocolate with higher acid berries and cocoa nibs, for example. Actually, I would say any herbs with a hint of anise, like tarragon, anise hyssop or basil.
With the hot summer months upon us, how do you incorporate ice creams, sorbets and other frozen ingredients at your restaurants?
I tend not to plan my menus too far in advance, so I haven't really thought about what I'll be doing over the summer, aside from making ice cream sandwiches. I'll probably do tarragon chip ice cream sandwiched in a dark cocoa cookie.
Do you help select and pair after-dinner spirits and wine?
No. I let the sommeliers work that magic. We usually taste together, but they have a good handle on what works.
I'm most excited about a dish we just put on [the menu]. It's roasted strawberries with ricotta mousse and celery sorbet. It's just a really fresh, bright dish, and my sous chef Becky Broeske is making an amazing ricotta that we use in the dish.
What current dessert and pastry trends have you noticed?
I'm not really interested in trends. I'm more focused on what's in season. Nature is the ultimate trend predictor. I get more influence and inspiration by talking with colleagues and friends than by looking at magazines.
The recent Killed By Dessert event sounded like it was a huge success. How did that come together? Why was it important to you?
Killed by Dessert came together through an online conversation between the founding chefs. We're all friends and we wanted to do an event that showcased what the pastry department can do. We're often an afterthought when it comes to most events and we wanted to showcase the pastry chef. I find a lot of importance in this event as it has and continues to strengthen the pastry community. Not many events bring us together, and this has really tightened the pastry community on a national level. Since the first one, there have been several pastry-focused events across the country, and I hope we've had some part in inspiring that to happen. There are also pastry chefs in Belgium and South Africa who have reached out to let us know that they've been inspired to start their own dessert-focused events.
Contact Charlie Duerr at [email protected].