Last weekend, I took a trip to NYC for a very special interview with James “Jimmy” Distefano, Executive Pastry Chef at Rouge Tomate, a Michelin starred member of the Green Restaurant Association. I had first became acquainted with the restaurant last year during New York Fashion Week – their delightfully refreshing and natural Cucumber Cooler drinks proved to be a lifesaver from my near caffeine overdose (with all the Diet Coke and McCafe coffees littering the Tents).
Since I was uber impressed by Rouge Tomate’s Cucumber Coolers and eco-friendly philosophy (they source all of their ingredients from local farms that employ sustainable practices), I was curious to see how these practices are utilized on – dessert (my favorite part of any meal)! Over a trio of fresh fruit sorbet and Saffron Pineapple, Chef Distefano, who joined the Rouge Tomate team in 2008 after a stint as the Executive Pastry Chef at david burke & donatella, and I chatted about pastry, baking, and how to make dessert delicious but nutritious!
Finance Foodie: Can you please give us brief bio and what made you decide to become a chef.
Jimmy Distefano: I’d always been interested in cooking since I always been around cooking – growing up in an Italian household, everyone cooked. I started out making simple things like basic snacks but then gradually moved up to making real food by high school and was helping to prepare dinner. During senior year of high school, my mom asked me what I wanted to do. I thought about becoming a teacher since both my mom and sister are teachers, but decided on culinary school [Ed Note: Jimmy attended the Hudson Country Community College Culinary Arts program]. Eighteen years later - here I am!
FF: What made you specialize in pastry?
JD: I just feel really comfortable doing it – there’s not a lot of second guessing. I spent 5 years as a line cook and although I enjoyed it – pastry was just more my style – a little more methodical and not to mention, in a cooler climate section in the kitchen.
FF: There is the common saying that “cooking is more of an art and baking is more of a science.” Thoughts on this statement?
JD: Baking is like a science in a sense that you have structured recipes to follow and that you have to understand the structure in order to reinterpret [into new dishes]. What we do at Rouge Tomate, I always say it’s like a sweet garde manger station, with the amount of fruit we use and the garnishes and the presentation – pastry is just a small component of the finished dish. I apply a lot of the cooking principles in my desserts, given my background, so I would say our desserts are a hybrid of art and science.
FF: Speaking of the desserts at Rouge Tomate, I know the restaurant follows the principles of SPE, which uses seasonal and local ingredients in ways that are nutritionally sound and balanced [with a nutritionist on staff to keep the chefs in check!]. What are some ways that you apply SPE in your desserts – without sacrificing the inherent richness and indulgent quality of a dessert?
JD: We usually make little tweeks - like we will use nonfat yogurts in place of sour cream to lighten up and cut back on the fat and calories in the end product. We also pick and choose our ingredients carefully. For example, if wanted to use both coconut and candied macadamia nut in a dessert – which are both naturally high in fat – I’ll use both but make, say a pineapple, the focus of the dish. I’ll then use the coconut as a garnish, perhaps in a tapioca and lightly sprinkle the macadamia nuts on the dish. So you will still get the crunchy nuttiness of the nut and the creaminess of the coconut, but it becomes a balanced dish. In fact, each dessert on our menu (excluding the one chocolate dessert we are allowed) must contain 80g of fruit – which is a lot! [Chocolate dessert must have 40g]. Other ways we substitute include, using honey or sugar in the raw in place of white sugar and cutting back on general portion size.
FF: For those of us (i.e. me) who are easing into the joy of baking and pastry, what are some key items to have in the kitchen?
JD:Definitely a good KitchenAid mixer, cause mixing cookie dough by hand is exhausting and could send you to burnout zone fast. Also a complete set of measuring spoons, a rolling pin, and some quality ingredients – you should be good to go!
FF: So what’s next for you?
JD:Eventually I would like to open an ice cream parlor – I really enjoy making ice cream sorbet and coming up with different flavor combinations. The dulce de leche ice cream in the Saffron Pineapple dessert is cut with marzipan so it gives it a nice carmel almond flavor. I mean, who doesn’t love ice cream and sorbet?!?
FF: Terrific! Good luck to that and thanks for your time!
Rouge Tomate10 E 60th St
New York, 10022