I believe cooking in all its forms is an art, but for me, baking inspires a particular respect. Built as it often is on the utmost precision — exact measurements and proper temperatures — the creation of amazing desserts can be an awesome feat.
I don’t get to write a lot about the pastry side of the hotel F&B world, however, which is why I jumped at the chance to chat with Alon Gontowski. Currently the pastry chef at the massive Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, Florida, Gontowski’s resumé not only includes an impressive array of positions at top hotels, he also helped create the world’s largest wedding cake — recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records — and even prevailed on Food Network’s “Sweet Genius.”
Gontowski talked about what it’s like to create all the breads and desserts for his property’s seven F&B outlets — including the new Rise Kitchen and Bakery — as well as his views on broader trends on the pastry side of the culinary world.
Ann Storck: Tell me more about exactly what you oversee as pastry chef at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Alon Gontowski: I oversee right now two bakeries with our new expansion of our new restaurant, Rise. In those two facilities, I have about 15 employees. We, out of two kitchens, produce all the products —wherever there are desserts for our food and beverage outlets. We’re doing everything from breads on up to high-end plated presentations of desserts, which could include ice cream, tuiles and cakes, and there’s also showpiece work that’s involved for amenities and special events.
AS: Why did you decide to become a pastry chef versus a chef with a broader focus?
AG: I learned baking in high school — it was a vocational school. When you start out in this industry, you’re always going into the basics — danish, muffins, croissants, doughnuts and things like that. But as I got into my second year, I started learning cake decorating and other things, and I really just enjoyed it.
Some people call it anal. You have to be precise. You have to really understand what everything does in a particular product. It is very meticulous. It’s very methodical. It’s very analytical, and that’s the type of person I am.
AS: What unique challenges do you face as a pastry chef in particular, especially in a hotel environment?
AG: There are a lot of differences between restaurants and hotels. It’s the diversity of the clients, which propels you to be more creative. Here, you have to learn to adapt. Being at a 24/7 property, that keeps you on your game. You can never run out in the casino industry. If you’re in a bakery or a restaurant, you can 86 something and call it a done deal, but not in a casino.
AS: Is there anything you’ve experimented with recently that made you particularly proud?
AG: Council Oaks, which is our steakhouse, usually has a tendency to go with certain flavor profiles. I took carrot cake — carrot cake usually has flavor profiles with pineapple and things like that — but we omitted the pineapple. We made a pineapple gelee to go with it. Instead of weighing people down, especially in a steakhouse, you want to keep it on the lighter side. So instead of doing a cream cheese frosting, which was the past practice, we went with a goat cheese mousse. We lightened it up so it wasn’t so heavy, and it really made that carrot cake so nice and light and flavorful.
AS: What do you see as the next big trends in pastry?
AG: Dessert is going to be more complementary to your food. What I’d like to see and what I think is coming out is desserts are no longer these big honker pieces. Your flavor profiles are very strong, but desserts are going to be meant to be eaten in three bites.