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Cocktail Culture, Bad Ass Pastry Chefs, and What Not to Hate About L.A.: An Interview With Best Bartender and 'Top Chef Just Desserts' Judge Johnny Iuzzini

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Johnny Iuzzini
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Acclaimed New York-based pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini is becoming known in homes everywhere thanks to his return as host and judge of Bravo's Top Chef Just Desserts, which had its second season premiere last week. A previous recipient of the James Beard Foundation's "Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year" accolade, the cookbook author has been immersed in the restaurant world since his teens. Iuzzini will be lending his savvy to the L.A. cocktail scene as part of a panel of esteemed judges in the upcoming Table 20 L.A.'s Best Bartender 2011 competition.

We got in touch with Iuzzini via e-mail to talk about what makes a great cocktail experience, where he eats in Los Angeles, and what sweet treats we're in store for this season on Top Chef Just Desserts.

What do you look for in a cocktail?
I look for balance. I want a cocktail that melds complimentary and not so complimentary flavors in a way that they create a dynamic which has a beginning middle and end and flow smoothly between each. Think of it as music, notes strung together, one leading to the next, telling you a story or taking you on a journey. Some cocktails are immediate classics and others are legendary flops.

In a bar?
I really want to own my own bar one day. I think the problem with a lot of today's bars is that they are over-stylized or they try to be too many things at once and therefore become confusing. I want a bar to be warm and inviting in some way, to be organic in material. I love rich woods and stones. Chairs and booths should be comfortable. There definitely has to be seats in front of the bartender. I hate when there isn’t. Part of the magic of a great bar comes from the bartender himself.

In a cocktail-maker?
Whatever you call the person, or better yet, what they call themselves, doesn't really matter to me. Essentially all that matters to me is similar to what a great cook/chef posses as far as an understanding of their ingredients as well as a foundation and knowledge of the classics, as in a respect from where it all comes from. Yet this person must go even farther in that where a chef gets to hide for the most part in the kitchen from the public, a bartender must be able to communicate with the customers and be able to read their wants and needs and make them feel like there is no place they should be. A great bartender makes you feel like you are at home and welcome. Someone who educates you without being condescending.

What kinds of cocktails and spirits pair well with desserts? Do you ever create desserts to go with specific drinks?
To be honest, I don't love many cocktails with desserts. I am not a fan of overly sweet wines either. They always seem to be cloyingly sweet to me and throw the dessert out of balance. Dry wines and cocktails have the same issue. That said, I really love cocktails made with madeiras, ports, and sherry. They provide the sweetness necessary to compliment the dessert while still imparting their own character and unique flavor. I am also a huge fan of amaros, and heavy botanicals like chartreuse. Occasionally I do tastings and pairing focused on a specific spirit in which i will dissect the spirit and rebuild the dessert based on all of its flavor profiles. For example, for whiskey, I would incorporate the char, the sweet notes, the bitter notes, and the wood. Once all the components come back together on your palate they would pay homage to the spirit.

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We're in the midst of a pretty pronounced "mixology" revolution that is influencing cocktail and dining culture globally--what do you think of the concept and term "mixology"? Do you see it having an effect on the pastry/dessert realm, too?
If people want to define and separate themselves from the masses in the industry by changing their job title then more power to them. It's just a title. Unless the case is regarding what their job actually is, meaning are they actually working a bar, are dealing with customers and making drinks to order, or are they by themselves somewhere just creating cocktails to be sold to brands or for the purpose of publication? I think the real gift and talent lies in the ability to be able to be creative and create cocktails, know the classics, and be able to interact with guests in front of you the whole time. To be able to read your guests and lead them through their selections all while maintaining composure and humility. This is easier said then done. I truly respect the bartenders, mixologists, bar chefs, etc that posses all those skills.

I know you're a NYC guy, but I read a posting of yours on Facebook where you said L.A. was growing on you... What about L.A. is winning your favor these days?
I will probably upset a lot of people with this answer. I think LA is kinda fake, pretentious and for the most part built on lies and shattered dreams. That said, I think LA has one of the most honest and original food and scenes. Meaning it is what it is. I love the simple culture. I love that people specialize in single products. A lot of LA restaurants seems really humble and focused. I have had so many great meals there. The restaurants (and bars) seem do really be about the products and less about the chefs egos. The bar scene is exploding there, with so many talented bartenders/mixologists currently in LA.

When you're in L.A., what are your favorite bars and restaurants?
Hmm. Tough...Favorite bars, Library Bar [at the Hollywood Roosevelt] with [fellow Best Bartender Judge] Matt [Biancaniello], Varnish with Eric [Alperin] and Devon [Tarby], 7 Grand, Sotto with Kate [Grutman], Tasting Kitchen, La Descarga, Rivera, Spare Room. For food, Cole's for french dip, Bottega Louie, Animal, Son of a Gun, Mozza, Triple and Picca.

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A cocktail using fresh figs made by Matt Biancaniello at the Library Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt (Photo by nomsnotbombs via the LAist Featured Photos pool)
What's your approach to judging the Best Bartender contest?
I will approach judging the cocktails like I do when i create and judge my own food. We eat with our eyes first, so presentation always matters. Next we are greeted by the aroma, so I always smell my food and drinks. Then the fun part begins, the tasting. Almost always the flavors develop over time across you palate. You taste different components in different parts of our tongue. Where you taste bitter, sour, sweet etc are all in different areas of taste buds. I look for balance but I like to be able to taste what i am drinking. Texture also plays a part, different liquours provide different viscosities as well as ice provides a layer of texture. Also, originality must play an integral part. So all these factors come into play as I judge a cocktail.

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What can we look forward to on this season of Top Chef Just Desserts?
This season is chock full of bad ass talent. This season's group of chefs are very serious about competition, some have even competed before. We have truly raised the bar in the types of challenges we present to them. The idea is to not let them just recreate the same dishes they create everyday in their home kitchens but to challenge them to apply their skills in extreme ways, for example with a pantry of ingredients they aren't used to working with, or possibly not in a kitchen at all. This season the chefs do have their basic recipes but that doesn't mean that the challenges even require them. All in all, this season is the next level of professional, these are high end pastry chefs who show us a lot of technique and creativity without the excessive drama. Don't get me wrong- it is reality TV after all and there must be a certain amount of drama.

Want to keep up with Iuzzini? You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Voting continues in the L.A.'s Best Bartender competition, with a celebration and awards party scheduled for October 9th.