Thursday, February 25, 1999
Last year was Lincoln Carson's first time as a participant in the annual Masters of Food and Wine event. Looking back a year later, he remembers it as the best week of his life, spent in the kitchen. Once again in the throes of a week-long, pull-out-all-the-stops, wine-and-food fantasy come to life, the Pacific''s Edge pastry chef smiles, explaining that his job is "not just about cakes and pies anymore."
That''s true enough, even when there doesn''t happen to be a world-class event that puts him elbow to elbow with cutting edge culinary talent visiting from all over the world. But given the circumstances--this 13th episode of an action-packed, Olympic-style, cook-fest cum epiphany--Carson''s job just got even more interesting.
In 1997, Executive Chef Cal Stamenov gave him a call back in New York. By that time, Carson had worked his way up through the ranks to some top-notch pastry positions. Sporting a resum and a degree from Johnson and Wales, in 1990 he had "somewhat navely" landed in New York with $500 in his pocket, and was "not real sure about what was going on at first." He quickly found out after answering a blind ad for what turned out to be the sous chef position at Francois Payard''s Le Bernardin, one of six four-star restaurants in New York. "We had five full-time pastry cooks and 300 desserts going out the door every night," he recalls. Following chef positions at places like the Waldorf, Luxe, and Four Seasons, Carson agreed to accept Stamenov''s invitation to try out for the opening at Highlands.
Civilians should note that trying out for a keynote culinary position involves somewhat more than showing up in a suit and a smile. Arriving in the kitchen at 6am after taking the redeye from New York to San Francisco, Carson''s task was to produce three or four desserts for each of 14 courses, in about a day and a half''s time. "It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do," he admits. But in this case, success was especially sweet.
Seasoned now at his second Master''s event, along with acting as a liaison for guest chefs and overseeing Pacific''s Edge regular dessert menu, Carson has myriad other duties. "One of the biggest challenges is pairing desserts with wine. You become hypercritical of how flavors work together," he explains. "This year I had to come up with two desserts, paired with the same wine, a Riesling, for two separate dinners. What it ended up being was the opportunity to come from two different directions, building an idea that would reinforce each flavor. You have to ask yourself how to balance flavor without overpowering the wine. The Riesling is not overly sweet, with a good acid finish and some citrus going on, so you ask yourself what fruit to use that is good and in season. And that can be difficult in February."
For tonight''s dinner featuring Diane Forley of Verbena, Lee Hefter of Spago Beverly Hills, Roland Passor of La Folie, and Thierry Rautureau of Rover''s, Carson solved the riddle with honey-poached pears, sauted and caramelized to order, served with bread pudding made from vanilla pound cake underscored with an infusion of black truffles, vanilla and cardamom, and served with black pepper and vanilla ice cream. And for Nobu Matsuhisa''s dinner on Friday, the wine will accompany gyozas, wonton wraps filled with mango- and ginger-infused pastry cream served with a sauce of mango pure and lime, and carrot-lime sorbet.
Dreaming up more heavenly confections for several other lunch and offsite events is what Carson defines as his favorite part of the job during this week of whirlwind festivities. And when it''s all over? "I''ll be wishing for just one more," he claims. cw