When your dinner menu is as precisely executed and beautifully plated as those of Chef Lee Cooper’s, at award-winning L’Abattoir Restaurant, your desserts had better be equally spectacular. Pastry chef Oliver Bernardino understands this, and he’s up to the task.
Dig into our interview below to get to know a bit more about the talented pastry chef. For a fuller understanding of Chef Bernardino, though, we recommend paying a visit to L’Abattoir, to familiarize yourself with his creations firsthand…preferably by working your way through the entire dessert menu in one go (Chef Bernardino-style).
When did you start working at L’Abattoir? Can you remember the first dessert that you served?
I started in November 2016 as a pastry chef assistant. Though I remember the desserts on the menu, I can’t remember what I first plated…To be honest, I was so nervous. I had never worked in a restaurant before, so at the beginning it was very overwhelming.
Before becoming a pastry chef, you went to business school. The distance between the two disciplines seems vast. What was it about the prospect of pastry that compelled you to shift your focus so dramatically?
I’d always wanted to get into pastry, even before I went to Sauder, but I also wanted to go to university first and get a degree. While I was in school, I would bake in my spare time, side hustle wedding cakes, and sell pastries at farmer’s markets. So for me, it wasn’t such a dramatic shift when I decided to pursue pastry professionally. Towards the end, I’d basically be in class researching pastry chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants – how they got their start, staging, etc.
When speaking with you about your creations, it’s obvious that you have a lot of respect for the pastry chefs who have come before you and whom you often reference. However, you also very clearly have your own path and style. What are the recipes, innovations or creative techniques you would be most proud to be recognized for by your peers and future chefs?
Almost everything we make here is rooted in a subtle nod, so I’m glad that reference comes through! When I first took over the pastry program, Lee [Cooper, Chef Proprietor L’Abattoir] suggested I incorporate my background in lamination, so there was definitely a puff pastry driven phase on the menu — scored pithiviers, mille-feuille, brioche feuilletée. It’s been very rewarding to be able to draw on inspiration from experiences from the onset of my career and elevate them with the techniques I’ve since learned at L’Abattoir.
As the final item of a meal, what is dessert’s responsibility to the diner and dining experience?
There’s a responsibility to complement the progression of the preceding savoury courses and tie everything together. It’s an opportunity to make a lasting impression on the diner and end their experience on a high note. People will always remember the dessert course, especially if it’s a good one.
Much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into your dishes involves incredible precision. Still, for the diner, who is often either wanting to be transported somewhere exotic or is looking for nostalgic comfort, dessert is ultimately about emotion. In the space between precision and emotion, where does the magic happen?
I wish it were as idealized as it sounds! In reality, it’s 12+ hour days of conceptualizing, researching, prepping, troubleshooting, and constantly refining methods with my pastry assistant, Daisy, to ensure a dessert is everything we intend it to be. Now, over time, we’ve been able to pinpoint which concepts work and build a framework of recipes, so that we can plug in flavour profiles that match the season or spark intrigue and execute them efficiently. Ultimately, it’s a rewarding process, especially when we get good feedback and guests respond with the emotions we’re trying to evoke, but, no doubt, it requires a lot of demanding work.
Best kind of cookie?
Chocolate chip, preferably one made by my old boss, Jackie.
Favourite dessert as a kid?
I’ve always loved bakeries, and growing up, my parents spoiled us with pastries from the best of them: warm egg tarts from New Town, glazed fruit galettes from Leslie Stowe, buttery mamon from Goldilocks, diplomat cakes from Notte’s Bon Ton… Many of those desserts inspire the baking I do now at the restaurant.
Low-brow (corner store variety) guilty pleasure?
Anything fried and covered in cinnamon sugar (soft pretzels, churros, donuts, beaver tails) is a winner for me!
You have been known to order multiple desserts with your meal and, on the odd occasion, even skip over the ‘regular’ menu entirely and go straight to dessert. Which restaurants have inspired the latter?
I’m always drawn to compelling dessert menus created by standout pastry chefs, so much so that, when travelling, I’ll plan my restaurant itineraries around them. On my last trip to Portland, I solo-dined dessert at Tusk. The servers (and kitchen) were super kind about it; I had ordered three, but they sent all four, with Amaro to finish. It was incredible hospitality.
In those instances where you can choose only one dessert, do you tend to lean towards chocolate, vanilla, caramel or fruit?
I like fruit-forward desserts, especially in the summer. But if the menu reads well, I’m prone to getting all of them.
In an industry (pastry and dessert) designed around being impressive, who is impressing you locally these days?
I am a big fan of Myra Maston at Ubuntu. Everything she does is always so well executed; it’s proper baking. I recently had the tasting menu at Elephant, and though he wouldn’t consider himself a pastry chef, Justin made some really nice desserts: they were simple, balanced, and thoughtfully complimented the style of his savoury courses. Of course, there’s the king, Thomas Haas. Celebrating milestones with his pastries always feels so special.
What are you serving on your menu right now?
Right now, it’s early spring, so there’s a mint chocolate grasshopper bar, a tropical take on Claire Fontaine, and a warm play on Banoffee with whipped bourbon caramel.