NEW YORK (Reuters) - As executive pastry chef at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York, Gonzalo Jiménez creates all kinds of desserts but he has a passion for chocolate and uses it to create intricate sculptures of robots, steam pumps and other objects.
"I was supposed to go to architecture school," said Jiménez, also known as Chef Gonzo, whose whimsical creations often reflect industrial themes.
"I enrolled and everything but when I was a teenager, I left home and started cooking in a restaurant."
Jimenez, who makes a line of hand-made chocolates for the Grand Hyatt, studied culinary arts and molecular gastronomy and earned a degree in pastry arts at the IAG (Instituto Argentino de Gastronomía) in Buenos Aires, honing his skills at luxury hotels in Argentina, Colorado and New Orleans.
The 29-year-old spoke to Reuters about learning how to temper chocolate from elderly German women in Patagonia, and his dream of representing his home country in the World Pastry Cup competition.
Q: Did you always want to be a pastry chef?
A: No, I first started as a savory chef but switched into pastries because I really like the crafty side of it, like making wedding cakes and things like that.
Q: How did you become interested in food?
A: I was always around when my mom and the maid were cooking. It was always Spanish cuisine because my dad is from Spain, and my mother learned cooking from my grandmother on my dad's side.
Q: Is Argentina represented in your pastry?
A: I use a lot of dulce de leche (caramelized milk) and quince paste and corn, which represents the north of Argentina. The cuisine of my country is a mixture of different European countries - French, Italian and Spanish. We don't have a distinguished cuisine, as such.
Q: Does Argentina have a tradition of chocolate?
A: Yes. In Patagonia, we have the Germans who ended up there after the war (World War Two). This beautiful town called Bariloche has a couple of chocolate factories. It was while working at small boutique hotels in Patagonia that I started becoming interested chocolate, working with elderly German women who taught me.
Q: What did you learn?
A: Mostly how to temper the chocolate by passing it through three different temperatures to create a chemical reaction. Once you melt it you have to temper it otherwise it'll never get solid. It's a pretty hard thing to do. I still mess up now and then. Chocolate, versatile as it is, is very temperamental. I can make anything out of chocolate from truffles and bonbons to cakes and mousses to elaborate sculptures and structures. That's why I love it. But it's tricky.
Q: How did you start sculpting with chocolate?
A: When I came to the States I saw pastry chefs doing it. I started reading about it, coming up with different structures while working as a pastry chef in Colorado. My old chef didn't want me fooling around with chocolate sculptures. So if we had a Sunday brunch and I wanted to put a sculpture on the buffet, I had to work overnight. I would work 48 hours in a row making the sculpture and in the morning, it was there. I really love it.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration?
A: I'm inspired by whatever I see. A year ago I was into mechanics - bolts and nuts and industrial look of things. Before that, I was into steam pumps. Now I'm working more on abstract pieces.
Q: Where do you hope to take this?
A: It's 5 percent of what I do as a pastry chef. There are still so many things I don't know about chocolate ... I would love to represent Argentina in the World Pastry Cup (an international pastry contest that takes place every two years in Lyon, France).
Q: Do different countries treat chocolate differently?
A: In Argentina, they do traditional chocolate, like in Europe. They don't use as many crazy colors and cocoa butter and their flavors are very subtle. It's different here in the States. Everything is more dramatic.
Q: Do you eat chocolate?
A: I work with dark, milk and white chocolate. If I have to eat chocolate, I would rather eat milk. But actually I don't eat chocolate. I try it, but it's not like I'm going to buy myself a box of bonbons.
500 grams dark glaze chocolate
100 grams toasted chopped almonds
100 grams chopped walnuts
100 grams red raisins
100 grams dried cranberries
100 grams of Rice Krispies
100 grams chopped pistachios
Melt chocolate slowly in a double boiler, then add all dry ingredients and spread out on a silicone, non-stick baking mat or wax paper. Let the chocolate set and then cut in small pieces.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Marguerita Choy)