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A rapid Boyles.

Elwyn Boyles The French Laundry and Per Se, Yountville, CA


I glided across the softest spring green lawn and admired beds of fuchsia bursts and blooms landscaping Elwyn Boyles' boyhood home. Sweet perfumes of fruit trees and the wild, brambly blackberries, gooseberries, black currants, and strawberries hitched along as I traveled back to earth. That's what a Boyles dessert does--it takes you places. In the dining room of The French Laundry in Yountville, I scraped the last dab of creme fraiche from my "Rhubarb Tea" dessert and silenced the tines of my fork after a futile search for remaining specks of spongy matcha genoise.

Boyles, who oversees the dessert menus at both The French Laundry and Per Se, clearly favors fruit desserts over chocolate. You can see why.

Raised on a five-acre homestead in Dolanog, Wales, the Boyles family lived largely off-the-grid. Home-churned Damsom plum ice cream, stalks of rhubarb soaked in unpasteurized milk from the family cows, and sour purple ice cream plucked from black current bushes stood as the order of the day. Commercial chocolates and other candies were not easy to come by, with the exception of chocolate-vanilla swirls of cornetto ice cream cones on monthly outings to the cinema.

As executive pastry chef for The French Laundry and Per Se, Boyles reintroduces guests to English classics. "When I worked in the UK, we would make, for example, rhubarb pancakes, a dish I grew up eating. I wanted to show guests that my version was the best they'd ever tasted."

Interpreting childhood memories risks coming off self-indulgent, or disappointingly passe. That's not the case with Boyles, whose desserts express thoughtful refinement and total excitement. "Something that looks simple might actually be more complex than originally perceived, like the Marjolaine cake. In contrast, the fruit tart looks complex, but it's not; it's just meringue, cream, and fruit on top."

Boyles has a semi-sweet tooth that hankers less for sugar than for seamless incorporations of unexpected ingredients. For instance, avocado, celery, cilantro, and rosemary balance out cakes, meringues, and ice creams. "Black pepper sprinkled on the plate and mixed with toasted oats coating almond ice cream makes a beautiful seasoning. It goes well in many different things," he says of his Spring Blossoms dish.

"I think it's important for a menu format with multiple dessert courses to switch them up with a burst of something herbaceous. If you come to the restaurant, you don't want all of the desserts to taste the same. You don't want your palate to be bored at the end of dinner." Yountville is a light year away from restaurant Red Lion where, at age 19, Boyles toiled in the dish pit before steadily climbing the ladder to chef. For two years, six nights per week, he cooked dishes such as steak and mushroom stroganoff. Learning by association was impossible; pastries, cakes, and ice creams were not made in-house. The longer he stayed, the further he strayed from his idea to pursue a career in math. But the math stuck. "I think having that background has given me a basic foundation. If you understand what is happening--why different fats emulsify, how sugar caramelizes--you can change it."

An apprenticeship at Cafe Royal on London's Regent Street cemented his love of pastry. "It just seemed a natural fit." Pastry accommodates his affinity for math's scrupulous, exacting standards.

Head chef pastry positions at grand hotels and restaurants followed, including Midsummer House in Cambridge, The Four Seasons, and Connaught Hotels in London. Boyles helped Tom Aikens open his flagship fine-dining restaurant on Ellison Street, then trained and supervised a pastry team of six at Danesfield House, a country estate on 65 acres in Marlow, England. He asked himself, "What's the next challenge?" His answer came in an advertisement. Per Se needed a pastry chef.

Four years ago, as Per Se's pastry chef, Boyles started helping from afar at The French Laundry. "Thomas wanted both restaurants to be a collaboration and development progression." Two years ago, Boyles moved from New York to Yountville. His style jives with Keller's own philosophies: upholding classic French and European ideas filtered through slightly contemporary lenses and presentations.

"California produce is a dream for a chef. I ask for beautiful things--a new herb or fruit--and a team of amazing gardeners brings them to me and we research possible uses." His pasture now includes mara des bois, small ever-bearing strawberries that pack a great, sweet wallop and fragrance, and Angelica, the trimmed stalks of which he candies.

Boyles still ponders and delivers on a lesson gleaned from his first year at Per Se almost a decade ago: "I'm learning what makes people happy."


Elwyn Boyles The French Laundry and Per Se

"I have very vivid memories of my mother's garden In Wales where I grew up--a grass lawn with flower beds running up the sides." Boyles replicates it here, planting poached rows of rhubarb between a perfectly manicured matcha genoise sponge lawn. Whipped creme fraiche flowers creep up between blades. He studs his reimagined garden with finely-diced rhubarb, green tea mochi rounds, pink fucshia flowers, rosemary, and cilantro. Spooned on top: two quenelles, green tea matcha ice cream and rhubarb sorbet.


Elwyn Boyles The French Laundry and Per Se

Fernand Point toiled to perfect his famous Marjolaine cake served at La Pyramide in Vienne, Isere, France. The layer cake balanced three tantalizing fillings: chocolate cream, butter cream, and praline butter cream, its ends fortified with chocolate shavings and its top finely-dusted with confectioners' sugar. Point's Marjolaine cake holds a special place in Thomas Keller's heart. Keller tells us, "This book to me, Ma Gastronomie, was inspired, not influenced. The recipe for the Marjolaine does not exist--but it did in Point's mind. The story of the cake captures you, and you draw up an image of what it is. It's a classic dessert from the 1930s that never diminishes in quality. That's why it is an accomplishment. It's inspired." Keller relays one of his greatest honors--that mentor Paul Bocuse gave him a copy of Ma Gastronomie. Even Keller wouldn't have predicted that years later he would be asked to write the introduction for the 2008 reprint.

The same cake has haunted pastry chef Elwyn Boyles who says, "We spent years trying to perfect it when there really is no recipe for it--only vague instructions. The layers and textures--a hazelnut genoise a la Japonaise alternates with K&M chocolate ganache, vanilla buttercream, and praline buttercream--hold surprising flavor. "It's a classic cake with clean lines," says Boyles. "It has a toasty hazelnuttiness, and one of the challenges is retaining moisture in the meringue to achieve soft and chewy textures." Boyles has, indeed, finally achieved a version grand enough to serve at The French Laundry. Often guests who celebrate their birthdays are surprised with the Point-inspired masterpiece. One key point learned from experimentation: "It's best a day old," Boyles reveals.


Boyles cites collaboration as a vital part of TKRG culture. In this case he draws inspiration from one of The French Laundry's signature starters, Garden Louie, a salad of asparagus, hearts of palm, snap peas, avocado, or other assorted vegetables dressed with a green goddess puree. "My version uses beautiful California avocados and big kiwis." Boyles calls the Victoria sponge cake that he flavors with vanilla, lemon, and orange, a "classic British sponge cake. It's moist with an excellent crumb." He tops it with crystallized tarragon, a chiffonade of baked feuille de brick "hay," quenelles of green apple, and avocado sorbet, all garnished with salted kiwi and sliced avocado.

Elwyn Boyles The French Laundry and Per Se

* Green Goddess, a creamy salad dressing, dates back to 1920's San Francisco. Phillip Roemer, chef at the Palace Hotel (still located on New Montgomery Street in its reincarnation after the 1906 earthquake and fire), created the dressing to honor English actor George Arliss, who starred in the four-act William Archer stage play, The Green Goddess, and a regular at The Palace. For years in the 1980s, the dressing's popularity soared, reaching its height when it topped the Crab Louie salad. The recipe has evolved over the years, though the original rendition, with tarragon inclusion, remains the standard. It wasn't until the 1970s when avocado became a popular addition.

** Since 1978, Aptos Farm, a small four-acre CCOF family farm has grown organic kiwi fruit. On a weekly basis, Joe Ramaeker, affectionately known as "Kiwi Joe" drives them up to The French Laundry himself.


The original version of the Nestle Aero bar, a crater-textured chocolate, was introduced in North England in 1935. Aero rolled out a chocolate-coated mint option with a vivid green, equally small-bubble center. "This is my version of the Aero bar," says Boyles pointing out several entrapped foamy elements in his dessert: K&M* chocolate bavarois, whipped mint tea, and aerated chocolate.

Boyles serves the dessert on a handmade, bubbled, glazed plate made by Korean porcelain manufacturer, KwangJuYo. Founded in 1963, KwangJuYo practices eighteenth century production techniques established at the Gwangju royal kilns. For 500 years, the royal kins crafted ceramics for the Joseon royal family.

Elwyn Boyles The French Laundry and Per Se

* Thomas Keller and olive oil producer Armando Manni conspired to make this bean-to-bar chocolate that swaps cocoa butter for Manni's extra-virgin olive oil. They use a proprietary method to process the cocoa beans so as to preserve the antioxidants normally destroyed in the chocolate-making process. The olive oil further enhances antioxidant properties.


As the story goes, the first Battenberg cake celebrated the marriage of Queen Victoria's granddaughter to Prince Louis of Battenberg, Germany. Its checkerboard motif continues to delight afternoon tea habitues throughout England and Ireland. That includes relatives of Elwyn Boyles, who tells us he and his siblings consumed their fair share of tea and biscuits (including a packaged version of the Battenberg cake) when visiting extended family in Belfast, Ireland. Traditionally, genoise or pound cake squares alternatingly tinted with food coloring, get sandwiched together with jam and wrapped in a thin layer of marzipan. Here, chocolate marquise and banana ice cream comprise one slice of Boyles' version; yellow and chocolate sponge cake laced with passion fruit jam segment the second slice. Grated pistachios cover the sides.

Elwyn Boyles The French Laundry and Per Se

Elwyn Boyles The French Laundry and Per Se


"I grew up eating peanut butter and jelly. It's a favorite of Thomas Keller as well," says Boyles. "When I came to the United States, I was intrigued by "ants on a log" (the requisite school snack of celery ribs smeared in peanut butter, then garnished with a few raisins). "We've done several renditions over the years and it always sparks guests' memories." His version repurposes celery into a light and fluffy celery seed creme diplomat with a garnish of fresh celery tops and celery seeds. Sliced Moon Drop grapes*, and grape puree complement the candied peanuts. Boyles makes standard Swiss meringue flavored with lime. He pipes it into molds, then parbakes them upside-down to set before lifting them out while still warm and hollowing out the meringues' insides to form cups.

* Moon Drop grapes grow in Southern California. Similar to table grapes, but more flavorful, they hang longer in the sun and form tight clusters with elongated fruit. Their dark black skins and green seedless pulp have a crisp bite.

Elwyn Boyles The French Laundry and Per Se


"Spring is not kind to pastry," says Boyles who thinks of the season as more of a tease and a time to collaborate with The French Laundry gardeners on what flowers and fruit to grow the following year. Yet within a three-block radius of the restaurant, wild plum trees inspire. "This is really a mousette based on an English trifle that my mom made when we were kids." She soaked yellow sponge cake in jelly rather than alcohol. Layers of fruit, custard, and whipped cream crested the top. Boyles' version, layers of almond genoise soaked in jelly and yogurt panna cotta receive a glaze of distilled plum blossom jelly. "It gives you the sensation of eating a trifle," he says.


Erik Johnson began his career at The French Laundry in 2009 as a wine intern. Today, as head sommelier he delights over the restaurant's remodel that includes a brand new 15,000-bottle cellar that sharply broadens his repertoire. "As a department, we couldn't be more motivated or enthused for what's to come." Cellar aside, Johnson begins each day by asking himself, 'what can he select for guests to enhance the cuisine, not overpower it.' Johnson works to "keep the chefs' arts and talents the primary focus while beverages subtly complement or contrast the ingredients on the plate." He says, "For how insanely creative and extraordinary Chef Elwyn is, you would never know it by talking to him, he's so humble. The more I experience the genius of his craft, the more inspired I am at finding the perfect accompaniment to serve with his desserts." Change of seasons and private events dictate dessert menu changes and Johnson says he and Boyles speak "as often as necessary to stay current and prepared for next service." For that reason, The French Laundry does not offer a set pairing. Instead, to accompany the variety of courses at the conclusion of the meal, Johnson tailors beverages to the guest, "whether it is a Madeira from a birth year, or a Chateau in Sauternes visited on a honeymoon." If a guest dislikes sweet wine altogether, he offers tea or a digestif from the spirits collection. And what to pour with the Gateau Marjolaine? Johnson fixes upon a 1968 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal Reserva.


"I spend a lot of time with my staff and teach them how to handle various situations, to develop their own style, and to become leaders. I help with anything--from how to make a chocolate decoration, to seeking input on how to organize the kitchen. Sometimes they have a seed of an idea for a new dish, yet they can't quite visualize it on a plate. I help guide them to it, setting them on the right road.

I keep in mind the guidance I did not receive. That is almost as valuable as the guidance I have received."

--Elwyn Boyles

Photos by Kelly Puleio
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Author:Newman, Carol M.
Publication:Art Culinaire
Article Type:Restaurant review
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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