Couture Chocolate: Award-winning pastry chef Donald Wressell reveals chocolate's artistic side

May 19, 2010 10:23:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Daniel Wressell, corporate pastry chef with E. Guittard Chocolate Co., tempted the sweet tooth of Mississippi University for Women culinary arts students earlier this spring when he visited Columbus. In a demonstration arranged by MUW''s Chef Erich Ogle, the California-based chocolatier showed how the cacao tree''s luscious product can be transformed into an artistic statement. 


By creating a basic chocolate sculpture step-by-step, Wressell -- the 2005 National Pastry Team Championship''s Pastry Chef of the Year -- gave students a glimpse into one of the culinary world''s sweetest specialties. 


Wressell actively competed for about 12 years in national and international competitions, and created stunning showpieces made entirely of chocolate. He represented the United States four times at the Le Coupe du Monde de la Patisseries (the world cup of pastry). In 2001, as coach and manager, he helped lead the team to the gold medal -- the first time in history that honor went to a U.S. team. 


In the MUW demonstration kitchen, the pastry chef used an assortment of intriguing and everyday tools to make individual elements that, when joined together, became a floral-themed sculpture. 




The medium 


"Chocolate has a warm and magical quality. You take something that is solid and then transform that into another shape," Wressell has said. "There is no other food that has that quality, if you think about it, except gelatin." 


He responded to questions about competition as he worked. 


"To be really good at it, you have to do it all the time, constantly practicing and training." Some showpieces can be up to 5 feet tall and weigh up to 50 pounds, Wressell added. Serious chocolatiers can spend thousands of dollars on molds and equipment. 


"You have to do things a certain way; you need to be precise about what you do," he said. "If it doesn''t make it to the table, it can''t win the prize," he cautioned. 




Noodles and doughnuts 


On a food-grade plexiglass board covered with polyethylene sheeting, Wressell arranged a purple "noodle," a flexible rubbery form, into the desired abstract shape that would serve as the sculpture''s base. He used heavy brass bars, or weights, to stabilize the noodle''s shape, before pouring in fluid chocolate. 


"Try to use one motion to flow the chocolate on the surface," he recommended. "Move the form slightly to make bubbles disappear." 


About five minutes in the refrigerator helps speed up crystallization. 


"The cold causes the chocolate to contract and set," Wressell remarked. "When done, take it out of the fridge and ''de-mold.''"  


Other shapes he demonstrated included hemispheres ("one of the easiest molds to work with") and flat-sided doughnuts. 


Lifting an air thermometer high, he smiled, "This is great chocolate weather. The temperature in this room is great for chocolate -- about 63-64 degrees." 


E. Guittard''s territory sales manager, Gary Dinstuhl, was also present at MUW. 


"Humidity is really a greater deterrent to chocolate than temperature," he interjected. "It needs to be below 50 percent. You can work in a room temperature up to 76 to 78 degrees if the humidity is low." 




Tips, techniques 


Wressell demonstrated a few simple but ah-ha techniques as he made individual pieces to attach to the base. Patting a towel to an almost-crystallized shape creates a dull matte finish. Similarly, dipping a shape in brown sugar gives it texture. Keeping the base on a turntable helps while attaching design elements. 


The audience paid rapt attention as Wressell deftly turned chocolate dollops into graceful leaves with a plastic "comb" with a serrated edge, or curved parchment paper as "smears" of chocolate crystallized and formed tulip-like flower petals. 


In a "paint booth" made of a large three-sided cardboard box, the chocolatier applied colorants to chocolate flowers with a hand-held air brush (from stores like Michael''s). Disco Dust added pizzazz, too. The assortment of food-grade decorative options on the market is vast. 


With individual elements made, the sculptor began constructing the final product. To attach them to his base, Wressell frequently touched the smaller piece to a warm griddle to give it more "glue-like" hold. Sometimes slightly scoring surfaces helps bonding, too. A blast from a can of "cold" or "freeze" spray aids in attaching the delicate petals and leaves into place. 


"The idea is to make it real sturdy while making it look real fragile," the sculptor said. "Be aware of the less-is-more theory. You need to know when to stop adding things." 




Getting the point 


Chef Ogle remarked, "This was a wonderful opportunity for students of the Culinary Arts Institute to work with an internationally known pastry chef. We''re very grateful to Guittard Chocolate Co. for the opportunity." 


"I really love the design aspect of it," said culinary arts student Patrick Ray, 21. "It was so cool to see some different ways to make chocolate do different things." 


Which was probably exactly what the pastry master and Chef Ogle hoped the demonstration would accomplish -- inspire and expose students to possibilities. 


And besides, as any good chocolatier might tell us, if things don''t go as planned, you can always eat the results.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.