Hello all you beautiful DFK people! Ordinarily if you’re reading this you’d be getting ready to be slapped in the mouth with a great recipe, but I wanted to change it up today and give you a little insight into my process for designing and building showpieces. Showpieces, by the way, are what we in the pastry biz call edible sculptures. More often than not those sculptures are made of chocolate and/or sugar. I got into showpieces from the very beginning of my career. In fact, it was a showpiece competition show that planted the original seed in my head to be a pastry chef in the first place!
The concepts and methods I’m going to talk about aren’t anything official that I learned from anyone. This process has been trial and error over the span of fifteen years and more than a few pieces. So hopefully you can pick up a trick or two that will work for you if you’re planning to make a showpiece of your own, and otherwise simply be entertained by my yammering.
The first step in creating a showpiece is designing the damn thing. This can often be the hardest part for a chef, with a literal blank page staring you in the face and a ba-jillion different paths to take. Designing a showpiece is a blog post all to itself. Hell, it could be a book (wink, wink), so I won’t get too in depth on the subject. Or try not to. In terms of creating an initial image, all I can say is it all takes practice. Once you pick a theme – in this case Christmas – you can start to work through imagery on the subject to spark ideas. I never shy away from Google image searches to draw up lots of images on the theme. What I don’t do though, is simply recreate an image I find online. All the visual references you collect should be just that, a reference for an original piece you create.
There’s no doubt about it, sketching is an enormous part of my creative process. I have dozens of notepads and sketchbooks filled with drawings of showpieces, cakes, plated desserts, and on and on. I have a natural gift for drawing, so sketching has come easily to me and I enjoy doing it, but even if you can’t draw a stick figure you should sketch out your ideas. Let me repeat that. SKETCH OUT YOUR IDEAS. PERIOD. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Many things will happen when you start to sketch. First of all, you’ll get better at it! You may never be Michelangelo part 2 but you’ll still improve in your abilities to draw. Second and most importantly, by sketching an idea you fire off different areas in your brain than just thinking of an idea and it helps to improve your creative process and familiarize yourself with your design.
Sometimes the first sketch I draw will be the fully realized showpiece, but usually I sketch the piece over and over. Not in a psycho way, just casually over a few days or a week, letting the concept mull over in the back of my head. Each time I sketch the showpiece, I feel like I’m building it, refining the idea and adding or editing details. That being said, It’s important not to limit yourself in this phase by thinking too much about how the piece is going to be built. Worrying logistics at this point will kill creativity. One way or the other, it’s hard to say when you know you have a final idea, and a lot of chefs (and artists) fiddle with their work until the end of time. All I can say is if you feel like you’re working on the concept without improving it, it’s probably time to move on to the next step.
Once I have a drawing and design I’m happy with, I move on to working out how to translate the idea into chocolate or sugar. There are a few different methods for doing this. For the longest time I would make the showpiece of out paper and/or foam core to see it in its full, 3D form. It’s a good way to go if you want to mix and match components and twist and turn the thing around without worrying about it breaking. I got great at cutting paper and foam core, but nowadays I don’t do this so much. I redraw the showpiece full sized, usually onto parchment paper taped together to at least have a “blueprint” of the thing in 1:1 scale. Having the image at its full size helps you to better visualize what the piece will really look like and acts as a great template for creating each component.
This is also when I start to look at the logistics of creating my piece. I’ve said it so many times but what I love about pastry is the combination of left and right brained thinking. When I first design my piece it’s total art, all about creativity and imagination. The blue print stage is where we put on the engineer’s hat, and I love that just as much. Every showpiece is a puzzle; create a sculpture that is beautiful and appears delicate, but that’s actually built strong like bull. Physics and center of gravity and torque all come into play, and I get to nerd out HARD.
The tree showpiece was a lot of fun to design. By creating concentric disks held together with pillars of chocolate, I could create a sort of skeleton of the piece that had the 3D form I wanted but was light and strong. All of the “needles” became the skin, glued one at a time onto the skeleton. I was a little nervous about this piece because I’d never made something with this technique at quite this shape and scale, but it turned out to be pretty smooth. It was a good 10 hours of gluing the needles, but still smooth.
mise en place
At this point, it’s time for the rubber to hit the road and actually make the components for your piece. This is where sugar and chocolate go in two very different directions. I made chocolate pieces for Christmas at the hotel, so that’s what we’ll look at now…A large part of chocolate showpieces is using molds to create your work. I always use basic geometric molds to cast the big, basic shapes for my piece and then add to them or carve away at them to make my final forms. Sorry not sorry, there’s nothing skillful about taking a bunch of professionally made molds that have the exact forms you want, throw chocolate in them, and glue them together. Anyone can do that. Molds should be a tool to create your vision, not the vision itself. If there’s a more complicated shape I need to make then I’ll make the mold myself and as a last resort use a professional mold maker for an object or technique that’s beyond my skill set.
Since I don’t own or use chocolate molds much, I just look for things around the kitchen to give me the shapes I need – pots, beakers, mixing bowls. I got pretty lucky with my nutcracker piece and found bowls and vessels to create all of the foundation structure.
If a piece needs to be carved, I carve it. For my pine tree, I made a mold using foam core and hot glue that approximated the shape of the stump, or rock or whatever that thing is. From there, I carved the block down to get the final form I wanted. There are lots of carving tools out there and once in awhile I’ll use one but 99.9% of all the carving I do is with a beat up, dull paring knife. Don’t leave home without it!
If a piece needs material added to it, I go ahead and do that too. I take chocolate and blend it in a food processor until it softens into a paste and then use that like clay to add on to my basic molded forms and shape by hand. That’s how I created the beard, hair and mustache for my nutcracker!
fit and finish
After all of my pieces are cast and/or made, I clean them well to remove any excess material around seams (called flashing), plug up any scratches and lightly clean off blemishes. Once you go to spray your pieces, any imperfection is magnified!
Spraying/coloring is the next step, and for that I use colored cocoa butter and an auto body spray gun (and sometimes paint brushes for hand applied color or effects). This stage requires a lot of patience. Masking off sections you don’t want to be sprayed takes hours and needs to be done well. On top of that, each color used needs a full 24 hours to really set up. The nutcracker took about five days to fully color.
While we’re on the topic of color, the color choice in your showpiece can absolutely make or break it. I can’t count the number of pieces I’ve seen that have a ton of technical merit but have really poor color choices that ruin the overall effect (this holds true for all pastry by the way). If you don’t have formal training in using colors, I think it’s worth it to get a basic color theory book. Another trick is to make photocopies of your sketches and then see what different color schemes look like on them using markers or colored pencils so you don’t have to learn what works and doesn’t the hard way.
You’d think after making so many showpieces I’d stop getting excited to start gluing everything together, but it’s just the opposite. As my skill has grown over the years I get more and more excited to see a showpiece come together because each one more closely represents the original design I had in my head.
This is the stage where you really have to take your time. A slip, clumsy move or bad placement can ruin a piece and create hours of work to fix it or worse be impossible to fix at all. Everything is glued together with chocolate, with no inedible component. That’s not an official rule or anything, you could build the whole damn thing on a metal frame and no one would come arrest you, but it’s definitely a matter of professional pride. This is a craft, a dying one, and I like to honor it when I can.
So those are the broad strokes into how I create my showpieces! It is fully a labor of love, no one eats them, or buys them. Hell, most people walk by them without knowing what they’re made of. For me, it isn’t about any of that. Building a showpiece has always been a matter of pure creative expression. I hope for those of you out there that share in that love you try your hand at the next piece with a few more tricks up your sleeve.
Cheers – Chef Scott
Laura Armato Tyler says
This nutcracker and tree are amazing! I will probably never make anything this beautiful, but I love reading about the process. Thank you for all the great cookie recipes, too! Have a great day!
Chef Scott says
Thanks so much! Never doubt yourself, I am sure you are capable of creations just as beautiful (and I’m glad you like reading about the process)! You’re very welcome for the recipes, thanks for showing support to DFK!
Cheers – Chef Scott
Natasha Capper says
Fantastic Chef, your explanation of the process and how to bring a concept to reality is outstanding. I wish this had been around when I started trying to build showpieces!
Chef Scott says
Thank you! Haha I’m glad the ramblings in my head make sense to other people 🙂 I hope there was some new insight you could pick up for your next showpiece!
Cheers – Chef Scott
Love all the descriptions! I wish you had videos! I would have loved to see the beard of the nutcracker shaped and glued. If you ever teach a showpiece class, sign me up. Really great work.
Love them both. I saw your chocolate Rooster a couple of years back at a chocolate competition in Las Vegas. I think it was you that made the wonderful creation. Best, D.
Sorry and Happy Holiday when you get a chance.
Lisa Parker says
What a fun blog, Chef Scott. My dad, an engineer, will enjoy reading this, too. I still have chocolate pieces from our work in class. Might be time to get them out, melt them down and play.
browsing the web to find ideas for my first showpiece as a pastry student and I couldn’t be more intimidated! These are gorgeous pieces; I hope I can create something I can be proud of the way you are of your pieces! Thank you for sharing!
That’s awesome you’re going to make your first showpiece! Don’t be intimidated, we all start somewhere. The first showpieces I made (about 20 years ago now!) were nothing like what I make now. In fact, when I first started working with chocolate I was so messy I thought I might just give it up. Just be patient with yourself and enjoy the process. You may not like everything you make (I still don’t all these years later), but with time you WILL improve. Good luck! Let me know how it goes!
Cheers – Chef Scott