Andrew LeStourgeon completes an opera cake at Hen of the Wood
The dough is toothsome but tender, the filling spicy with cinnamon. Hen of the Wood chef Eric Warnstedt can't stop raving about the sticky, glazed cinnamon buns from pastry chef Andrew LeStourgeon. "I try not to eat one of those cinnamon rolls every day. They're so decadent, so rich," he says.
Luckily (or unluckily) for him, Warnstedt gets to indulge when the buns are hot out of the oven. Hen of the Wood owns Little Sweets, a line of LeStourgeon's creations that it markets as its dessert brand. Each morning, LeStourgeon and his team prepare their buns at the Burlington Hen of the Wood and deliver them to Hotel Vermont, the Marriott Courtyard Burlington Harbor and Maglianero Café. By dinnertime, Little Sweets' wares make their way to the Waterbury location of Warnstedt's restaurant, along with cocktail components and some savory fare.
Warnstedt and his team call LeStourgeon himself "little sweets" with irony-tinged affection — while he's certainly sweet tempered, the 30-year-old redhead stands a far-from-little 6-foot-5. And when it comes to pastry, he's no naïf. LeStourgeon adapted and perfected his cinnamon bun from the recipe he used when he worked at New York City's Balthazar Restaurant, famous for its version.
Such traditional crowd pleasers are half of Little Sweets' winning equation. "The cinnamon bun is 'one plus one is two,'" LeStourgeon explains. "People are expecting two as an answer. There's real value in giving people what they're expecting — what they had two years ago and what they want tomorrow."
But LeStourgeon also likes to offer customers what he calls "one plus one equals three" — creations as amazing as they are unexpected. Caramelized brioche with bacon frangipane and rum-raisin ice cream certainly fits the bill. He says he learned to challenge people's palates from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the renowned French chef who tasted LeStourgeon's fare at Balthazar and invited him to join his team at then-new restaurant Perry St.
To explain the unorthodox equation, LeStourgeon cites a combination he's currently working with: yuzu and Thai chile. "When I tasted yuzu for the first time, I was like, 'What? What is this?'" he remembers. The citrus fruit's unique, tangy flavor combines heat and sweet to yield a whole greater than the sum of its parts, the chef says. "It makes you think on a new level: a new color you didn't know about. A new flavor combination equals a new experience in the brain."
LeStourgeon says he fell in love with experimental food early in his tenure at Perry St, where he worked with "rock star" pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. By the time he met his current employer, Laurent Halasz, he had learned to balance the two equations.
Halasz hired LeStourgeon as executive pastry chef for his Fig & Olive chain in 2006. The restaurant group currently has six restaurants in New York and southern California. When Halasz unveils another in Chicago this summer, LeStourgeon will be there. He still holds his title at Fig & Olive, even as he supplies desserts to both Hen of the Wood restaurants, Juniper at Hotel Vermont and the upcoming Bleu Northeast Seafood at the Marriott.
"He's a true gem," Halasz says of LeStourgeon by phone from Los Angeles. "It's wonderful for Vermont to have this wonderful person among your community. Keep him as long as you can."
So far, LeStourgeon has had little trouble balancing his two worlds. "They pay me well to answer the phone and develop some recipes," he says of Fig & Olive, estimating that he devotes two to four hours a week to what he considers a consulting job. He's credited as the pastry chef on Fig & Olive's menu, but when he visits its kitchens, he says, he has the strange experience of working with a staff he's never met.
LeStourgeon missed the opening of the Newport Beach Fig & Olive last December because he was so busy handling holiday dining at Hen of the Wood. In Chicago, he says, he'll be on hand to train the staff in preparing his interpretations of dishes from Halasz's Mediterranean childhood, such as crème brûlée cheesecake with caramelized peaches, and warm marzipan cake with olive-oil gelato. "His relentless passion to invent flavor and create is amazing," says Halasz. "He's a great talent."
It may come as a surprise, then, to hear that Halasz was supportive when LeStourgeon took a Thoreau-esque turn in 2012 and bought an off-the-grid cabin in Lincoln. "I told him, 'That would be wonderful for you,'" the restaurateur recalls. "It was the right move for him. He likes this type of nature and setting."
A few months after his surprising real estate purchase, LeStourgeon decided to spend a long weekend in Vermont to wait out Hurricane Sandy. With New York essentially shut down, the chef ended up staying longer than expected, and he realized he might want to make Vermont his full-time home. On a whim, he answered an ad seeking a pastry chef in Waterbury, a town he'd never heard of. The restaurant was Hen of the Wood.
LeStourgeon's résumé, which also includes a brief early stint working for François Payard, was indubitably impressive. But Warnstedt looked at it with a sober eye. "When people come to Vermont [from New York], they always look pretty good on paper because we don't have a lot of super-experienced people here," he explains. "But there's sometimes a deeper reason that they're leaving their job in the city."
LeStourgeon quickly proved to be the real deal. At the time, Hen of the Wood didn't have the luxury of employing a full-time pastry chef, so LeStourgeon worked part-time until the Burlington location opened, six months after its originally planned debut.
It was in Waterbury that LeStourgeon gradually perfected what he now says is his favorite dessert at Hen of the Wood: the opera cake. The many layers of hazelnut-and-almond sponge, chocolate ganache and maple butter cream are moist with maple-rum syrup, making it a sweet unique to Vermont. A scoop of intense vanilla ice cream serves as foil to the darker flavors of chocolate and maple. Its creator's understated description: "It's very likable."
LeStourgeon says that living in Vermont hasn't changed his general approach, but local ingredients have made their way into his desserts. He's beguiled by crab apples, which he compares in their singularity to yuzu, kaffir lime and caramelized white chocolate. He uses the miniature apples paired with honey in sorbet or serves them roasted alongside tiny glazed doughnuts, which he based on ones he bought from an elderly Indian street vendor in New York.
Little Sweets has infiltrated the two Westport Hospitality hotels adjacent to Hen of the Wood: Juniper serves LeStourgeon's uncommonly smooth ice creams and other desserts, as will Bleu. The company stocks counters at both hotels, and petite rotating packages of financiers, brownies, shortbread cookies and caramels have replaced the typical turndown-service chocolates.
Three Tomatoes Trattoria in Williston and Burlington's nika used to purvey Little Sweets, too. Now that those restaurants have closed, the only place other than Cherry Street to score a hit of LeStourgeon's pastries is Burlington coffee shop Maglianero.
Hen of the Wood cook Owen Spence is the one who proposed that Little Sweets supply the Maple Street café, where he's a regular customer. When LeStourgeon brought samples, Maglianero co-owner Giovanna Jager was bowled over, remembers general manager Corey Goldsmith. "She was really into Balthazar. She didn't know that was where Andrew had worked. When she tried them, she was like, 'Wow, these are a little bit familiar. They remind me of Balthazar.'"
Goldsmith says the pastries are just what Maglianero needed, both in quality and price point. Daily deliveries include crumbly, almond-topped maple Bostocks; the famous cinnamon buns; and a savory version of same, filled with ribbons of Hen of the Wood butcher Calvin Hayes' house-cured ham and melted Gruyère and Grafton Village cheddar. Smaller bites include several flavors of doughnuts and cookies.
LeStourgeon typically delivers the wares himself after he begins his day at 7 a.m. — a downright leisurely start compared with classic bakers' hours. Luckily, his "main girl on Little Sweets," Nicole Cootware, is happy to get up at 2 a.m. to begin the heavy lifting of each day's bake, he says.
Little Sweets' relationship with Maglianero is a symbiotic one: general manager Goldsmith recently started making weekly visits to Hen of the Wood to help train employees in exemplary coffee service.
As LeStourgeon helps manage Little Sweets and learns from the business-driven Fig & Olive brand, he's begun thinking about starting his own dessert company. "I'm almost ready for a business of my own," he says. "I'm not yet. I have some things in myself that I need to iron out. We all have demons, and there are a couple left in me that I need to get to know a little bit better before I ask somebody for a quarter of a million dollars."
LeStourgeon says he dreams of a multiunit business model that would showcase the best of his dual loves: New York City and Vermont. As much as he misses the easy access to anything he craves in the big city, LeStourgeon says he's found indispensable boons in his new home. Those include bountiful farms, his tiny solar-powered cabin with no running water and his devoted staff, which has learned to appreciate his rotation of Broadway cast albums in the kitchen. (Rent is his favorite.)
Warnstedt expresses doubt that he could help LeStourgeon open a bakery in the near future, given all he has on his plate with his two restaurants. Halasz says he'll support LeStourgeon in any way he can. "He should have a pastry shop of his own. He is so talented," says the restaurateur.
We can only hope that, when it happens, LeStourgeon's flagship location will be in the Green Mountains, where the quirky pâtissier fits like a streusel-topped blueberry muffin in its pan.
"He's a freak," Warnstedt says. "I love him." So do Vermont diners.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Confection Perfection"