Blueberries are Julie Elkind’s madeleines. They trigger memories of childhood summer days spent picking berries and baking with her much loved grandmother. There’s the day she’ll never forget when the blueberry cobbler they were baking exploded all over the oven. “It blew the oven door open and splattered all over the walls and the floor. We were covered head-to-toe in blueberries. We just laughed and laughed hysterically, and then started eating it off the counter tops,” she recalls.
That’s the dramatic backstory to the executive pastry chef’s blueberry olive oil cake, the best-selling dessert at one Michelin-star Bâtard in New York City.
The deconstructed cake resembling that memorable cobbler explodes with flavor—this time in the mouth. The texture of the olive oil cake is soft and light, almost like a muffin—in the complimentary words of a visiting chef, “like a blueberry muffin on crack.” The blueberry compote is just the way Gram made it. It’s accompanied by a quenelle of sweet corn ice cream which to Elkind, “tastes like summer.” A fennel pollen streusel conjures a cobbler and plays to a slight Austrian feel in deference to executive chef Marcus Glocker’s heritage. It’s garnished with little bits of honeycomb and a few tarragon leaves because Elkind believes blueberries and tarragon are a great combo.
“When I design a dessert, it has to tell a story,” Elkind says. “It has to project an emotion. I want my diners to go on a journey with me. I want to find all the flavors and textures that are the most appealing. I’ll taste a dessert ten times before I even pitch it.” This chef can tell a story. And tell it she does using tastes, textures and techniques to build her narrative.
Elkind says she likes to get her message across via personal memories. Fortunately, her Proustian memory bank is overflowing: Vermont summers, sweet berries, backyards, oranges and lemons ripe for picking in Florida, a little girl baking with Gram.
After a recent family vacation to Cape Cod, she found herself missing her now-deceased grandmother and decided to compose a sweet ode to her which resulted in buttermilk panna cotta with citrus verbena, lime meringue, brioche crisps and orange saffron sherbet. (Pictured in the hero image.) Small cubes of ruby red grapefruit, Cara Cara orange and blood orange soaked in a lemon verbena syrup dot the panna cotta. Meringue twigs rest on a quenelle of orange saffron sherbet.
Her grandmother had a second home in Sarasota, Florida, and the backyard was filled with citrus trees. “I was always picking citrus, down to the fresh oranges we squeezed for juice every morning,” she recalls. So it was fitting that she would use a variety of citrus in this ode to her grandmother. The saffron was an inspiration that came to her when she was watching the cooks make pasta and was so enamored of the brilliant color she wanted to duplicate it. So she made a saffron concentrate and added it to her base. She grows the verbena and her Dad suggested she might want to use it in her ode.
Memories and inspiration combine to make up her thoughtfully-composed desserts that are an integral part of the tasting menu at Bâtard. Diners are not required to order the dessert course, but on average 65 to 75 a night do. (One night during restaurant week she sold 151 orders of the blueberry olive oil cake, she reported with great excitement.)
Elkind lives and breathes her job. “It’s a lifestyle,” she says. And yet she almost literally fell into it. In spite of all the childhood baking, she didn’t think about becoming a chef. “My mother is a teacher and my father a lawyer. I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, where the question was where I was going to college, not if I was going.” She started out as an art major at Hofstra. But she didn’t feel it was working for her and, after a year, switched to culinary school, where she originally enrolled in the culinary program before switching to pastry.
Her first real job was at Le Cirque. “I walked in wearing a pencil skirt and a blazer,” she says, now amused at her own naiveté, but the chef let her try out. “I worked for free for about a month and then I got a job,” she recalls. From there she went to work at La Fonda del Sol (where she met her husband), then to the now-defunct Convivio, and then to ESquared Hospitality, where she built her own pastry department and was in charge of six locations. “It was all just happening too fast,” she says. “I never really had a mentor. I was always on my own.”
When she walked through the door at Bâtard, she says she had the feeling right away that it was the right fit—and that feeling comes across in the desserts she presents each night.