Bringing rise to a new confectionary landscape
PHOTOGRAPHED BY PETER BARRETT
Francisco Migoya, owner and chocolatier at Hudson Chocolates, wears his chef ’s whites at work. It’s worth keeping this in mind as you read about his new venture, little more than a year old, because the confections he creates in his small Poughkeepsie kitchen and showroom are all inspired and informed by the same rigorous training, ingredients, and process that goes into developing a plate of haute cuisine. The results range from traditional confections to avant-garde interpretations of landscapes, but the execution is always immaculate and appealing.
A serious, intense 39-year-old from Mexico City, Migoya speaks flawless, lightly accented English with a scrupulous vocabulary that would be remarkable even in a native speaker. The overwhelming impression he gives is of a man who is passionate and disciplined in equal measure: a personality clearly mirrored in the hedonistic experiences offered in such a refined delivery system of chocolate.
DREAMING IN CHOCOLATE
After studying in both France and Mexico, Migoya moved to New York City in 1998. He got a job cooking in a restaurant, and hated it: “I bought a Sunday Times and looked for another job.” He found a spot as pastry chef at the Railroad Café in Brooklyn. “It was eyeopening. I was comfortable, and everything finally made sense. I was befuddled and swamped in a savory kitchen, but doing pastry I felt completely at home.” His talents led to a job at the exalted French Laundry in Northern California, where he learned how to perform consistently, with no excuses, at the highest level of excellence.
“Besides execution, Chef Keller taught me the importance of always being prepared, of never running out of anything.” These were lessons Migoya constantly emphasized to his students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, where he began teaching in 2005 after leaving California.
The kitchen at Hudson Chocolates fills the back of the modest, somewhat utilitarian, room, the center of which is dominated by tall wheeled racks of sheet pans covered in finished or partly finished chocolates. On one side of the entry, a counter wraps around three walls, and there’s a long table in the middle; those shiny white surfaces hold examples of everything currently for sale, all displayed with a mix of minimal elegance and subtle whimsy depending on the personality of the sweet. Samples for tasting are indicated by the large metal tweezers resting nearby on oversize red and white pills used like chopstick holders. The effect is part Matrix, part Willy Wonka.
It’s a small business; Migoya’s wife, Kristina Peterson Migoya, handles the bookkeeping and helps out as needed, but most days it’s just Migoya and his assistant, Annie Kamin, who previously worked under Migoya at the CIA’s Apple Pie Bakery. “This is the best job I’ve ever had,” she says, and Migoya credits her with numerous inspired ideas, including the Mix and Macs box, an assortment of chocolates shaped like half macarons, all in different flavors and colors, with suggestions inside the box for combining two halves into one circular whole with timeless pairings like espresso with hazelnut, pistachio and cherry, lemon and blueberry. Vanilla, Migoya remarks, “goes with everything.” He uses it as he does salt, in many concoctions, since a small amount flatters and enhances other flavors without masking them.
On all the packaging—sturdy charcoal gray bags and boxes—an orange representation of the Hudson River wends its way down the middle, with a dot indicating Poughkeepsie in the center. Referring to the geographical symmetry, Migoya observes, “That worked out pretty well for us.”
Whenever possible, Migoya sources ingredients locally; like the pumpkins from Wonderland Farms in Rhinebeck. Each week, when in season, Kristina picks up local fruit and other produce from a variety of farms in the area. Another tribute to the region, albeit a more oblique one, is the Espresso Bar: an arced slab of coffee ganache dipped in dark chocolate and then dusted with rust-colored cocoa powder that evokes the weathered finish of Richard Serra’s monumental Cor-Ten steel sculptures on view at Storm King and Dia:Beacon.
Fall, the most glorious of our seasons, is Migoya’s favorite. To celebrate its many pleasures, he offers a line of seasonal treats, including flavors like apple, pear, butternut squash, chestnut and quince. The Terroir Bar, an imposing hunk of chocolate flavored with apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, pecans and cranberries, is decorated with a cast chocolate leaf in the center. And each fall, “there’s one really long day” when they process a huge shipment of Ginger Gold apples (a yellow variety, descended in part from Golden Delicious), cutting them into small cubes and candying them, then vacuumbagging them for the freezer, ensuring a supply of uniform quality and peak freshness. Migoya engages in this task because, as he says, “Over time, the pectin [in stored apples] degrades and you don’t get the same texture.” Those apples end up in remarkable apple-cinnamon truffles that taste like homemade pie. Using baked goods as flavors for chocolate is somewhat of a trademark; there’s also a doughnut bar (with their own cake doughnuts blended into a ganache) and bars made with shortbread and birthday cake.
They use some store-bought molds—most interesting are irregular ice cube trays repurposed to cast the variety of faceted forms that make up the Hudson Mountain Range, a cluster of frosted polygons arrayed on a chocolate sheet and surrounded with chocolate-covered puffed rice. “It’s a great conversation piece,” Migoya says. “You can put this on the table instead of a cake after dinner and watch your guests figure out what flavors are inside each shape.” Whenever possible, though, they like to make their own molds so the confections’ shapes can be as distinctive as their flavor combinations.
But it is not always about flavor and aesthetics. Experimentation also plays the role of muse. Migoya recounts making a mold out of a veal bone, which inspired an attempt at bone marrow ganache, which turned out to be disgusting. “It’s fun to be adventurous. I love weird shit, but the marrow was just gross. There are many headaches that come with being your own boss, but there’s total freedom to experiment.” This also extends to regularly adding new products as inspiration or season demand; some trays of bunnies hinted at Easter treats in development, and new products are ready to roll for springtime and Mother’s Day as well; the Christmas season is busiest, but demand spiked last Easter and he expects the other holidays to be busy as well.
The chocolate Migoya works with is all tempered by hand, in small batches, on a marble slab, before being poured into molds to form the shiny outer dome-shape shells of the flagship Modernist Collection. This box of 16 “crown jewel” chocolates represents the distillation of Migoya’s philosophy of flavor and technique; the full line requires 8 to 10 days of work to complete. The flavors, usually combinations of two strong tastes, range from classic (dulce de leche and milk chocolate) to whimsical (blueberry and corn nut) to the unusual (white miso and cocoa powder). Migoya has enough molds to make 320 pieces of each flavor at a time, so nothing ever has a chance to sit on a shelf for too long. Slicing one in half, he points out the almost paper-thin shell that contains the filling, in this case passion fruit ganache and black sesame praline. “See how thin it is, how uniform? That’s execution,” he insists.
The common (with good reason) combination of chocolate and citrus gets an uncommon twist in the form of yuzu, a small but magically pungent Japanese fruit that Migoya adores. “Lemons are great, but yuzu comes from another planet.” The Yuzu Bar, made in a mold cast from a whole fruit, sits in a small box surrounded by a nest of raffia, sprayed a bright yellow tinged with acid green.
A sectional view reveals an undulating interior stratigraphy of yuzuinfused milk chocolate, lemon verbena ganache and candied almond nougatine. “It’s not complicated, it’s complex,” he says, leaning on the distinction. “You detect the different flavors and textures [sweet, sour, crunchy, nutty, creamy, floral] at different points, but they’re seamless.”
This elegant choreography of sensual experience is the whole point of all the exhaustive experimentation and rigorous technique. During the tour, Migoya weaves the technical explanation of the process in with the inspiration behind the flavor combinations. They’re two sides of the same macaron, really, since successful use of all the current science surrounding food requires that the transformative potential of technology must always serve the sensual pleasure of the eater or it risks coming off merely as cerebral trickery.
TECHNIQUE IS EVERYTHING
Migoya’s most recent book, The Elements of Dessert (Wiley, 2012) represents the realization of this collected experience, all conveyed in a sort of open-source format. Rather than a conventional cookbook, it provides an exhaustive repertoire of components, ranging from the traditional (red velvet cake) to the cutting edge (encapsulated huckleberry compote) and everything in between. The first section of the book covers technique, and some of the science behind various operations like tempering chocolate and making ice cream, as well as an extensive exploration of flavors—divided into “frontal” and “mild” for the purposes of determining their role in a finished dish—that endeavors to describe the ways in which flavors are inclined to play well with each other.
The book is so sophisticated and polished as to be almost intimidating, especially the photography, which though the chocolate creations are impressive relies heavily on sprayed finishes: equal parts of chocolate and cocoa butter, dyed with food coloring, heated and sprayed onto the usually geometric treats with an airbrush or paint gun. The effect, a speckled matte finish somewhere between stucco and velvet, is enticingly tactile and yet devoid of any trace of the maker’s hand. After a while, the initial impact diminishes. In the shop, though, one sees a welcome variety of textures, including some fairly rough-hewn looking surfaces that are not captured on the page. Migoya embraces the Japanese aesthetic of wabisabi (referring to the celebration of the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete) in many of his creations: “As much as we embrace precision, we also like organic, irregular, organic shapes.”
The book’s title, derived from the periodic table of the elements, reflects Migoya’s accumulated experience, organized in such a way that readers can master a wide variety of techniques and then assemble more complex desserts from those building blocks. His stated goal is to help people think about food in this modular, experience-based way. “I strongly believe there’s a method to creativity. The book gives you resources you can use to make your own combinations and begin improvising.” He believes that the more flavors we taste, the bigger our repertoire of possible combinations becomes and the more creative we can be when cooking. “It comes down to a subconscious process born from experience; everything you taste creates a flavor map as your brain remembers all these things, so the bigger your map the more resources you have to draw on.” Having said that, though, he continues: “You can be creative, but the result will suck if you lack technique.” When signing his books, he always writes “Technique is everything” above his name. “Pâte à choux, for example [the pastry base for éclairs and the like] has only four ingredients, but there’s a very complex interaction between them; you have to understand what’s going on if you want to be able to control the result.”
Elaborating on the idea of taste memory, he mentions some foods from his youth, those formative flavors with unmatched powers of evocation. Migoya makes a chocolate-covered chicharrón—undulating slabs of crunchy, airy fried pork skin dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with fleur de sel and chipotle powder—that hearkens back to his childhood in Mexico City. “I’m not a big fan of bacon in chocolate; it gets stale because there’s still water in the bacon. The skin [fried for him nearby at a Mexican restaurant] is completely dry, so it stays crisp.” It’s a winning combination, containing a dynamic equilibrium of contrasts: crackling texture, bittersweet chocolate, creamy fat (pork and cocoa butter meshing in the mouth) and a long spicy finish.
His eyes light up when discussing cajeta, another Mexican delicacy, like dulce de leche but made with goat’s milk and sold in plastic squeeze bottles like Bosco. Migoya’s enthusiasm for it is readily apparent, both handing a spoon to this neophyte and enjoying one himself: “If you sprinkle a little fleur de sel on top? So good.” His smile, nervous and fleeting up to this point, broadens and lingers, both from his own pleasure and in seeing your correspondent’s delight at the sweet and decidedly goaty complexity of the syrup. It’s an instructive touchstone for understanding his urge to incorporate unusual savory flavors into chocolates. Niçoise olives simmered in sugar syrup, then dehydrated and coated in white chocolate tread this line admirably, balancing sweet, salt and umami. Another sweet-savory home run can be found in wasabi peas enrobed in white chocolate, then dusted in green apple skin powder (saved from making the apple pie truffles). Though not very interesting on its own, Migoya believes, “White chocolate lets other flavors shine through, as opposed to dark, which overpowers them.”
Migoya recently left the CIA to begin an exciting new project: Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft executive and publisher of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, the huge and encyclopedic fivevolume guide to cutting-edge technological approaches to cooking, tapped Migoya to write the baking and pastry edition, currently anticipated to run at least another three volumes. After receiving the offer, he says, he looked in one of the books and saw a photo of Myhrvold, Thomas Keller and Tim Ryan (president of the CIA) all standing next to each other. “My three bosses! I think I’m doing the right thing. I’m super-duper excited.” And with good reason: if the big leagues had a subset that was an even bigger league, this gig would be within that subset. He’s unwilling to say anything more specific about the gig, since it’s brand new and hasn’t yet been officially announced, but after a recent trip to visit Myhrvold’s Seattle facility, Migoya does offer that “It is one of the most amazing and inspiring places to make food” that he has ever seen.
Discussing his plans for the chocolate business, which his wife and Kamin will run while he is traveling, he ponders an eventual move. “It would be nice to get more foot traffic, to have a beautiful retail space,” he says, looking around the room, which sits below grade in an anonymous building on a dead end street far from any commercial traffic. But for the time being, “Overhead is low, we’re making some money, and people are really interested in artisanal, handmade products.” Pointing at a shelf of stacked boxes, he gestures emphatically. “And when someone of renown orders a box, I know I can grab any one of these and it will be perfect.” With that, he politely excuses himself to go pack more orders for shipping.
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