Charting the Course

Before they're cooked up in a restaurant kitchen, the prettiest plates are created in ink.

Photo by Connor Sumner

Photo by Connor Sumner

Despite what Top Chef and Chopped might have you believe, visually stunning dishes are rarely created on the fly. At Radius, pastry chef P. J. Waters mulls his edible creations for days, often dreaming up compositions on his way to work. A former architectural designer, he draws blueprint-style plans for his plates, using local cityscapes as his muse. A recent rice pudding, for example, which Waters titled “Fire,” was based on the Great Fire of 1872, a  disaster that devastated the Downtown Crossing area and the land around Radius. “I sketched out the roads and the buildings, and it became that dessert,” Waters says. “It’s a fun way of conceiving of a dish and presenting it…. And in a way, it preserves history.” Waters isn’t alone: Many local chefs, including Tim Wiechmann of T. W. Food, William Kovel of Catalyst, and L’Espalier pastry chef Jiho Kim, sketch out their plates in advance. Here’s a look at how some abstract confections came together, from drawing to composed plate.

The Dish: A Portrait of the City… as a Pudding
How P. J. Waters designed “Fire,” a Radius dessert inspired by the Great Fire of 1872.

1. The Idea: In Downtown Crossing there are a lot of historical plaques and landmarks. I always walk past and read them, so I wanted to remember that in a dessert.”

2. Sesame Paste: Waters created “streets” out of ground black sesame seeds and sugar.

3. Mochi and Mango: There are two little triangles of mochi. There’s also little mango dices scattered around the plate, and that’s the embers.”

4. Mango Syrup: That [represents] Firebox 52, which is where the first alarm sounded. That’s outside of where Starbucks is [today].”

5. Rice-Paper Cone: “I paint that with honey and sprinkle it with sesame seeds and bake it. That represents Radius, but also sort of burnt-down shells of buildings left after the fire.”