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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Of Pastries And Chocolate And Candy And Sugar [Chef Alon Gontowski Tries To Become A “Sweet Genius”]

Posted Apr 4, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Apr 4, 2012 at 04:54 PM

Alon Gontowski

Alon Gontowski already is a bit of a rock star as the pastry chef at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, creating magnificent desserts, candies and cakes for the facility’s restaurants and room service.

Now he aims to be a sweet genius.

Gontowski tests his sugary skills against three other contestants on Food Network’s show “Sweet Genius” under the discerning glare of master pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel. The episode airs at 10 p.m. Thursday.

The show’s format: Throw secret ingredients at four chefs, give them an inspirational design motif and a small amount of time to finish their task. Along the way, Ben-Israel throws them a culinary curve ball by introducing a new ingredient to the mix. The one who makes it through three rounds earns that episode’s title.

Gontowski described being on the show as a “life-changing experience.”

“It was a total emotional rollercoaster [going back and forth] from the lows of saying, ‘What did I just do and why did I do that?’ to the highs of saying, ‘I nailed that plate,’” he said.

Gontowski, who has been the pastry chef for five years,. and has spent two decades creating pastries for various resorts and casinos, including the Four Seasons San Francisco and Caesar’s Atlantic City Hotel & Casino after graduating from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

Prior to coming to the Seminole Hard Rock, Gontowski developed the menu for 29 restaurants at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. While there he helped design and build the world’s largest wedding cake, which measured more than and weighed over 15,000 pounds.

Tackling “Sweet Genius” was an equally gigantic challenge

During a recent chat, Gontowski described what it was like to make pastries under pressure and what advice he gives to up and coming pastry artists.

How do you get ready for a show like this?

You want to hear something? This is funny. You’re going to laugh.

The night before I’m up at all hours of the night sitting up looking at my recipes spread out on my bed in the hotel room trying to cram before finals. I’m sitting here gathering all this information and thinking, “Oh my gosh, do I really need this one?” But you have to have everything ready in your arsenal because you never know what you’re going to need.

You basically have to draw on what your experiences have been throughout your career?

A lot of it was a foundation of your past experiences of what you’ve done, recipes you know are going to work and whatever ingredients you’re given. That’s the key to any good chef: having a good foundation to build on.

How did you adjust to the pressure of TV and being in that kind of spotlight? Were you able to block out the cameras and just do your thing?

It’s hard to block out the cameras when he’s following everywhere you go. No sooner would I turn around and I would bump the camera guy big time.

You go as you go. Some chefs come into their own realm and block it all out. It’s my environment. I adapt by taking in my settings and saying I’m here to do what I’ve got to do and I’ve got to do pastries. It was awkward because you didn’t know where things were, but you adapt.

The thing is, all of the contestants don’t know where everything is.

Correct. It was a dream kitchen. I have to give Food Network kudos. You have toys in that kitchen that pastry chefs don’t even have in their own shops.

Such as what?

We had this griddle that freezes things right on top as soon as you put something on it in a couple seconds. They had blast freezers, popcorn machines, cotton candy machines. It’s all fun stuff.

You didn’t happen to shoplift that griddle and bring it back to Tampa, did you?

[laughs] No.

Alon Gontowski

At the Seminole Hard Rock, is there a particular kind of dessert you like to make? This is not a place with small amounts of humidity. It’s not the easiest environment for anyone in the pastry arts to work.

I just focus on trying to have fun. I incorporate a lot of the Hard Rock logo and memorabilia into a lot of things we do. It’s why I chose the Hard Rock. I came to Tampa and interviewed with two establishments and the first was great. It was posh and all that, but I went to the Hard Rock and absorbed the energy. It was so cool and energetic for me. I was, like, “This is my house. This is where I’m going to feel most comfortable.”

We do a lot of things with the guitar logos. We had our Fat Elvis for the Hard Rock Café, which was Elvis’ combination of banana and peanut butter. We added our own little twist to it by doing it as a cupcake and adding chocolate-covered bacon on top of it. There’s a lot of room to play at the Hard Rock.

You’ve worked at a lot of resorts and casinos, but it’s not like working at the Hard Rock. It gives you freedom to go outside the lines, I’m guessing.

Exactly. What chef doesn’t like to work outside the lines? You have such a wide variety of restaurants there, from our Fresh Harvest buffet to our fine dining for Council Oak. You have that whole spectrum to play with, as well as getting funky with room service amenities doing chocolate pieces and sugar work. It’s a pastry chef’s dream to have that support of the executive chef and the powers that be to go have fun with it.

What has your strength been during you career?

I’d have to say I lean more toward chocolate. Sugar is temperamental, in a sense, and being here in Florida, it’s even worse. But I have to stick to doing everything because a well-rounded pastry chef has to be – especially in a casino. In this environment, you have everything from fresh breads in our new in-house restaurant Rise. It’s going to be an ultimate place where we’ll be making all the breads and rolls fo the sandwiches we’re going to be making as well as doing a little café style to-go product. The world is open for us to create.

Is there someone in the field you try to model on who has a standard that you aim for?

That changes because the plates of the world change, the flavors change and there’s always different people out there. Sugar work from Ewald Notter over in Orlando to the older generation who inspired me when I was starting out. There’s so much out there, so much influence. You have to continually grow and learn and try. That’s how you develop your own style. Never be stagnant at what you do. I tell my staff members to stay with me for a period of time but go out and see the world – especially these young people – go out and absorb the knowledge of working under different chefs and see what they do. That’s going to help you, seeing and doing and learning.

That’s one thing my father never understood. Being a blue-collar worker back in the day, he basically raised us. He’d do his job and come home. But seeing me at a young age in the kitchen and going out and seeing the world and not having, at least in his eyes, stability because I’m only staying two years here and two years there and working holidays, what kind of life is that? That shows no stability.

But Ron [Ben-Israel] said, “He just didn’t realize the passion that you have.”

You started your career before Food Network blossomed. These days, being a chef is a profession parents can be proud of. Back then, it was people who were coming straight from trade schools or probation. It was a much different culture back then.


It also seems now that pastry chefs are finally getting their due.

That’s correct. Its great to see pastry chefs have their own show on Food Network and they are being recognized. Sometimes we’re that second fiddle within the hotel industry. A lot of times it’s about the food, the food, But the pastry is the last thing that goes out and the last thing on people’s mind and that’s an important role. We don’t always get that recognition. Food Network has been totally awesome with that exposure.

In the bad sense, they have pushed that envelope and made America aware of what we can do and, in a sense, it has pushed this generation to step up now and perform and do the things we may not have necessarily done in the past. It’s taking us out of our comfort zone. And that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t’ be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. I tell the guys that all the time. That’s the way you’re going to succeed. You’re going to find out how you do things better.

I watch these shows on TV and the one curve ball they always throw the savory chefs is to have them make a dessert. I know a lot of pastry chefs who could cook the savory side, but I don’t know many savory chefs who could do the opposite. I think you have to be more versatile to be a pastry chef.

That’s true. I just watched last night’s “Sweet Genius” and their secret ingredient was lobster.

There’s some good sweetness in lobster.

Exactly! First thing I thought of was lobster and butter. You could make a butter cake and throw that lobster in there. Somehow make it work.

Tell me how it came about that you created the world’s largest wedding cake.

That was back in 2005 and I was at the Mohegan Sun. It had a steel frame and it took months of planning. The sheet cakes all had to be stacked with buttercream in between. It was like a big jigsaw puzzle on each tier. It stood about 17 feet tall and weighed about 15,000 pounds. It was a cool experience.

It’s almost more architecture than baking.

Again, look at “Cake Boss” and Duff on “Ace of Cakes.” The things they’re doing with PVC and Rice Krispies … we didn’t do that back in the old days. We had to construct that out of edible things.

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