Girish Nayak, the pastry chef behind the inventive desserts at Bengaluru’s Toast & Tonic, talks of his favourite dessert, and the things in his kitchen that are exciting him at the moment. Edited excerpts:
The one new ingredient that you’re working with right now?
Finger millet aka ragi. Grown in Karnataka and one of the most important ingredients used in staple diet in the state but most under-used ingredient in restaurants these days. We use ragi flour in our daily bread production and also for our gluten-free cookies and tart dough and in our chocolate cake batters. We also soak finger millet grains overnight, puree it and use it in custards, ice-cream or in waffle pancake batters. The flavour is very earthy and goes really well with chocolate, banana, hazelnuts almonds and also caramel.
The cooking method that’s got you all excited.
Fermentation. It intensifies flavour and adds great texture to a finished product. As a kid, I was exposed to this without any understanding – in fish curries, dosa batters, chicken curries, yogurt, juices and sweets. But for the past year, we have been cultivating our own wild yeast and use it mostly to bake our breads. What’s got me all interested is the kind of flavour you can develop from just using time (how long the batter/dough is allowed to sit before baking), temperature (was the dough/batter kept in the fridge or outside), humidity, amount of yeast used, handling the product etc. We use this wild yeast primarily in making our sourdough bread, which we leave to ferment for 36 hours. We use the same culture to make pound cakes, ice cream flavour, pancakes, waffles, puddings and cakes batters, all over different durations of time, and the results are just unbelievably exciting.
Who’s the most important person in your kitchen?
Biplab Jamai and his team. He runs the dishwashing and housekeeping team in the kitchen. He makes sure that every thing is clean from the work space to the utensils, plates, trays etc. are clean and organized, ensuring the day runs smooth. Plus, he also makes a really good fish curry rice and tea.
The cuisine that inspires/intrigues you the most.
Indian mithai. Every time I walk into an Indian sweet shop I get super-excited just seeing the display counter, the different colours, shapes, flavours, variety of products. Their techniques appear simple but they are more complicated than western confectionary. Plus they don’t use candy thermometers or dough mixers or even weighing scales or specific recipes – just solid experience, using your finger to check the consistency of the sugar, using a cloth to pipe out batters etc. I am always trying to replicate some shape and texture of these mithai in my kitchen. I was very lucky to have got a chance to work in a south Indian sweet shop in Mangalore, but I now really want to go work in Bhopal, Kolkata and learn milk and sugar-based Indian mithai.
Your favourite city for food. And a memory.
New York City. The food scene is truly unique because it takes its energies from the immigrants who have come here from all over the world with their culture, food and ingredients. Also, the upstate farms produce some amazing fruits, berries, vegetables, meats, chocolates.
While I started of working in NYC as a pastry cook, we used to close the bakery anytime between 2.30am and 4am. I used to work with a bunch of cooks from Mexico and they used to take me to their Taqueria, where the food was just so simple yet delicious and comforting. The usual order was 2 Modelo Light Beer and all the tacos.
Starter, main course or dessert? Which do you prefer cooking – and eating, and why?
I prefer cooking desserts because I know what I am doing there. I love to eat starters because I can try out many dishes!
The most overrated food trend today?
The use of molecular gastronomy, gimmicky stuff, props in food, when used without any meaning.
Your favourite ingredient to cook with – and how would you do it? (As in, please explain how to cook the perfectly aerated mousse or the spot-on choux, or whatever.)
Making Éclairs. I’ve been working on it for years. I love making it. At the bakery we been trying bunch of techniques and recipes to get it almost right. A perfect éclair to me should be tubular, hollow inside, a crisp shell with a bite and a nice glaze on top.
To make this we bring water, sugar, salt, milk powder, butter to a boil. Once boiled we add flour and cook it for about 2 minutes until it forms a dough. We let this rest a bit and then mix in the eggs to form a batter. This batter is now let to sit in the fridge overnight. The next day we pipe them on trays and the wrap it and freeze the éclairs until its solid hard. Once this is done we bake it at 150C for 30 min and then open the door of the oven and cook it for about 20 minutes to let it dry out.
The best thing about being a pastry chef?
You get to start and finish a person’s meal at the restaurant.
The worst thing about being a pastry chef?
It’s probably the most overlooked department in the kitchen! We literally get a small caved out area and with a table to work with. And the expectations are also extremely high from your kitchen. But then again that’s what makes it exciting and fun as well.
Top tip for a pastry chef aspirant?
Work hard and clean. Keep your head down, mouth shut, ear and eyes open and learn fast. Try mastering all the techniques before running behind recipes in the kitchen. Keep reading and ask as many as questions to your chef. Don’t forget to also go out and have fun.
What’s in your fridge? And what’s for dinner?
Butter, eggs, cheese, coffee powder, Sourdough bread, 3 beers, moon shine from Assam and chocolates.
Dinner was Grilled chicken with grilled vegetables. A piece of brownie, chocolate sorbet with almonds, a warm cookie and black coffee.
Girish Nayak is the pastry chef, Toast & Tonic and Olive Beach, Bengaluru.