They’re the cherry on top of the meal, serving as the grand finale. Desserts are an opportunity for pastry chefs to express their creativity with what they plate up, and they’re also an opportunity for operators and chefs to encourage and entice diners go spend that extra dollar to indulge their sweet tooth. Alexandra Petri talks pastry and desserts with six leading chefs about their tips on what sells, how they make dessert a more engaging experience and how to increase dessert sales in your venue.
Andrew McConnell, owner of Cumulus Inc, Cutler & Co, Golden Fields, and Moon Under Water.
What is the most popular dessert at each of your venues?
Cutler & Co. : Earl Grey ice cream, chocolate, Pedro Ximenez prunes & honey
Golden Fields : Peanut Butter parfait, salted caramel & soft chocolate
Cumulus Inc. :Rum Baba, aged rum
Moon Under Water: Raspberry, almond, meringue & rose
How often do you change the desserts on your menu?
We change the dessert weekly at Moon Under Water and on average we will alter the dessert menu every 2-3 weeks in my other restaurants.
What’s your approach to creating a dessert menu?
AM: The season usually dictates what fruit we use, or often we plan a dessert based around quality pastry or chocolate. I definitely don't enjoy desserts that are too sweet or overly rich. Ideally I like a dessert to complement the preceding meal without making the guest roll out the door. There is a really fine line separating over indulgence and balance.
Andrew McConnell's Earl Grey ice cream, chocolate, Pedro Ximénez prunes & honey dessert.
Why do you think customers are sometimes reluctant to buy desserts when dining out?
In my restaurants up to 80 per cent of our customers eat dessert. If they don’t, often it’s because people are full, or they may not have a sweet tooth or perhaps they may be watching their weight. One's dining out budget is also a consideration.
How can the staff be a part of promoting the dessert experience?
Obviously the wait staff are there to to suggest and guide a guests evening. My staff are knowledgeable and provide advice as to how many dishes should be ordered from my sharing menus according to the number of guests attending, this approach means ours guests often order dessert.
How can you make desserts part of the experience?
I believe that the first and last thing you eat at dinner are usually the ones you remember. A well balanced dessert, both in flavour and texture and well cooked, contributes to the overall dining experience.
What advice would you give to other chefs and operators who are looking to promote desserts at their venues?
Ensure the same amount of finesse and attention is put into the preparation and execution of the dessert as you would any part of the menu.
Anna Polyviou is among Australia’s most renowned pastry chefs. An award winning dessert chef who recently joined the Shangri Hotel in Sydney, Polyviou talks about her dessert degustation course and other tasty topics.
What inspired you to launch a dessert degustation course?
When I applied for the position as the Executive Pastry chef, and I had the tour within the pastry kitchen I knew straight away magic was going to come out of that kitchen. I fell in love with it. I wanted a different cutting edge and to stand out from the rest of the hotels and pastry kitchens: a place people want to work and place people talk about.
I put together a [degustation menu] with my favourite flavours and techniques, from caramelizing white chocolate, doing verrines or soufflés from the oven. I wanted to show off my kitchen and introduce people into my team’s world and into my world, a world where we learn, we have fun and we listen to music pumping out Justin Bieber songs.
Did the degustation menu serve as a benchmark to figure out which desserts work best or which desserts are most popular?
I made sure visually that the dishes were exciting, as we also eat with our eyes and our palettes go crazy when we like what we see. I designed it around what people knew with a twist and fun to it. The dishes start light and become a little heavier at the end.
What's the most popular dessert on the menu?
Caramelise Me Casey. I thought, “I’ll be romantic and create a dessert after my girlfriend”. I designed this dish with her favourite flavours: candied popcorn ice-cream, milk chocolate, passion fruit delice with a grue cacao crunch, white chocolate powder, banana puree and baby micro herbs to bring out the freshness, served up with passionfruit sorbet. I think the guests loved the story behind it - they thought it was romantic and had a laugh about it.
What’s your approach to creating a dessert menu?
Making sure it’s well balanced, fresh, and that there are different plates for different courses. Most importantly, I make sure from the first course to the last it looks completely different and that includes the flavour, too. I look at technique but also a fun menu and flavours that people get excited about.
How can you make desserts part of the experience?
The last course is what the guest remembers; they walk away and tell their friends. Excite the guests and allow them to experience the love and care of the creation.
Guy Holder is the co-owner of Melbourne’s Epocha restaurant, where he and his team use a dessert trolley as part of the dining experience.
The chocolate gâteaux (far right) is the best selling dessert at Epocha and a trolley staple.
How long have you had the dessert trolley at your venue?
We opened in September, and the dessert trolley was one of the things we had right from the beginning. It was always a part of our concept. The idea is that the trolley is a great tool for the wait staff to be able to build rapport with guests and also be able to take an active role in determining the end of their dining experience. People love that old world charm of having the trolley wheeled through the restaurant. It creates a bit of excitement and anticipation....I think obviously there is a benefit to sales without a doubt; seeing the goods in front of them lends itself to people earmarking and leaving a little bit more room for dessert.
Do you have a best selling dessert that you have kept on the trolley since you opened?
We have a bit of a signature, which is the little chocolate gâteaux, and it’s been very hard to replace. It’s layered with chocolate brownie at the bottom, which is flourless, then a little chocolate ganache over the top and a little honeycomb and brandy schnapps to finish it....Usually throughout the night time we have will just four desserts, and that would be just a little selection. We might have a little trifle, a little tart, the chocolate gâteaux, and then we’ve been doing salted caramel profiteroles as well. They work out really well because you can sell them each or sell them in a group of three. It’s another little quick thing for them to finish off with a coffee. They’re a nice touch.
What's the key when it comes to dessert sales?
We have downsized our desserts a little bit from the size that would be an ala carte dessert. I don’t think people are necessarily price conscious, but I think you have to make it easy for them. I think that’s the key. I think that when the desserts are there in front of them, there is then that willingness to take part, especially if they are small. I think that people often get to the end of the main course and quite often wouldn’t be swayed into desserts by a waiter unless the waiter really does the hard sell. With the hard sell, you really have to sow the seed early and it needs to be something really special for them to want to go for it. I think that a written dessert menu is more challenging to get dessert sales. Here we are probably averaging out from 50 percent to 60 percent of people getting desserts.
What would you say to those interested in increasing dessert sales in their venues? Would you suggest a dessert trolley?
Obviously there are challenges in having a good dessert trolley. I think you have to have desserts that are happy to stand out for a couple of hours, and that presents a few issues. We have to make sure that they will hold up. The idea with the dessert trolleys is that they have to look good, and you always have to constantly keep maintenance of it. What we are tending to find is that we will replenish the trolley during service...I think you need to be really committed to a dessert trolley. It really does add another element to service, but it does take a bit of an extra focus. You have to get behind it and give it a really good go. By the end of the night, we will be aware of how much is on the trolley and try and use it as much as we can through the sharing menu and try and minimise our wastage. At the same time, it’s also nice if you’ve got a couple of people at the end and you’ve got a couple of desserts on the trolley – just throw them down on the table and be generous. It’s something that takes careful management and a bit of commitment. There is definitely an element of the trolley being time consuming in the middle of service, but we believe in the opportunity to give the staff another outlet to express themselves.
Andrew Bowden is the head pastry chef at Sydney’s Hartsyard Restaurant in Newton. Their peanut butter sundae is their best selling dessert and was on Terry Durack’s list of top desserts.
The peanutbutter and banana sundae was on Terry Durack's list of top desserts. Tell us about that one.
I had a peanut butter and banana smoothie when I was in New York…so I decided to order it. I thought, “Wow, this would make a great sundae”. I chucked some pretzel ice cream in there for great measure, along with some chocolate fudge. It’s a very rich dessert and has everything good about America. The one that never comes off the menu; it’s been there since the start, and it’s developed a cult following. It’s not allowed to go.
Peanutbutter and Banana Sundae. Image: hartsyard.com.au
What’s your general approach to desserts?
I like to be a little left of mainstream. I don’t like to have normal desserts. You’d order the dessert and wouldn’t expect to be getting what you expect to get on the plate. You have a lot of different elements. I also think you need to have your chocolate dessert covered, have something lighter, and then it depends on the season. Play around with what you’ve got at the time. I kind of generally become obsessed with one ingredient and I will work out a dessert around it.
Do you think it’s important to be creative but also to keep it familiar for customers?
Definitely. I think it’s kind of important that desserts bring back childhood memories for people. It’s important to have elements in their desserts that remind them of times when they had to finish their dinner to dessert. If you put Milo in a dessert, for example, and it just brings you back to your childhood. If you get too creative, it can scare people off. It’s always important to have something there that they can relate to.
Recently I put a rice pudding on the menu. I always hated rice pudding as a child, and I don’t think anyone actually likes it. I became obsessed with trying to make a rice pudding that people would actually like. I think you need to add elements that take the focus off the fact that it’s a rice pudding. I don’t actually call it a rice pudding. I call it a pumpkin pie because it’s flavoured with pumpkin pie flavours. It also has Jack Daniels ice cream in it, so people see Jack Daniels and say, “Jack Daniels – cool. Pumpkin pie, I like that.” They eat it and think it is amazing, and then I tell them it was a rice pudding. I haven’t had a complaint about it yet.
What role does the staff play in helping promote dessert sales in restaurants?
When our staff seat customers, they go through the menu and promote the desserts while they are introducing the menu, which is always good. It’s also good to let the wait staff taste the desserts on a regular basis to remind them that they are tasty and that they should sell them.
If you’re building up the hype before, then dessert is always in the back of their minds.
Catherine Adams was the former Rockpool pastry chef who is moved to open a pizza place in Alexandria called Cipro Pizza, where she is the co-owner and mastermind behind the desserts, gelato, pizza bases and bread.
What’s the best selling dessert on your menu?
I think the Nutter butter gelato sandwich would be the biggest seller. As we make our own gelato, I wanted to do some sandwiches. We already had the biscuits for it, and the flavour and texture of the biscuits work really well as a gelato sandwich. It is always on menu.
Cipro's Nutter gelato sandwich. Image: timeout.com.au
What is your approach to your desserts at Cipro? Do you have more freedom to be creative at your own venue than you’ve had in the past?
My approach is very simple and fuss free. I’ve had creative freedom at my past job, and looking after bar and grill and spice temple gave me an even broader range.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your experiences as a pastry chef when it comes to creating a dessert menu?
Don’t try and over complicate things.
Why the move to make your own gelato? Have you experimented with this before in the past?
Making our own gelato seemed to be the natural partner to the pizza component of what we do. I didn’t have any experience with gelato but had been making ice cream for some time.
How many flavours do you offer regularly?
We have just four flavours, keeping them to vanilla, a chocolate, a sorbet, which is blood orange at the moment, and a composed flavour, which is passionfruit pavlova. I tried to change it once but everyone kept asking for it.
What's involved in making your own gelato? Do you make it on site at the venue?
We make the gelato at Cipro. We have a pasteurizer and a carpigiani quartetto and store it in a pozzetti counter. There is a bit of math involved in getting the correct balance of ingredients to make it stable and at a good consistency for scooping.
Felix Goodwin is the pastry chef at Melbourne’s Saigon Sally, an Asian restaurant that’s introduced a gluten-free dessert menu.
Why did you design a gluten-free dessert menu?
I’m a coeliac, so it’s something that I wanted to do for a while. An Asian restaurant lends itself to gluten free because they don’t have a whole lot of gluten in their diets, so it makes sense to try and do the desserts gluten free as well. I don’t have to change a whole lot to make them gluten free.
What’s your approach to creating desserts?
I find a lot of desserts are really oversweet. I like to have a lot of balance and I like to finish on a lighter, refreshing note if I can….something that will clean the palate. I find that when I go out, and if I’ve had a really nice meal, I don’t really feel like loading up with sugar. You want something that’s refreshing and hat you can take away with you.
It’s always good to try new things and push the boundaries, but you really do have to see where your customer is at and see what they are comfortable with and go from there. At our restaurant, we are catering to a certain clientele, and you have to understand that. You can’t just put on things that you like that possibly other people want. You just have to find a midpoint and hopefully expand their horizon a little bit. That’s the biggest challenge for me is that I like a lot of unusual things and flavours, but I understand that a lot of people are more conservative. I think our desserts cater to a large range of people. I like to have fun with it.
How do you promote sales in your restaurant?
I do all of my desserts from the middle of the restaurant, so it’s live and sort of an on-show dessert bar. That was one of the ways we thought would be good to promote dessert sales in the restaurant. It also gets pastry out of the kitchen, which is often hot and not ideal, so it’s a good environment to do pastry in. Desserts are also included on a $69 per head set menu, where diners can get entrees and a desserts and everything all included. We just write a menu for the diners…and that’s a good way to introduce people to desserts they might not have otherwise ordered. We do it for smaller parties and larger parties.
What can do you say to chefs or operators who are looking to promote desserts within their restaurants?
I find that when I am trying to sell something that is a bit unusual and where the customers may not be as inclined to order it because it’s a bit outside their comfort zones, I will try and put words or name the desserts something that they can associate with. We have a dessert cause Tira-Mi-Sally. They can associate the tiramisu because they know what that is and they know the flavours and they know they’re comfortable with it, but it isn’t a tiramisu as such. It’s a macaroon ice-cream sandwich. The name alone invites people to wonder….It looks like a vegemite and cheese sandwich when it comes out, and people pick it up and eat it with their fingers and it really gets them involved. They really enjoy it.
Saigon Sally's Tira-Mi-Sally