It is late on a summer evening, and four friends have eaten themselves into a comfortable stupor at Osteria Morini, the northern Italian restaurant in Navy Yard. Still, a last course beckons, so they nod that one dessert should come to the table — with extra spoons.
The fragole (Italian for strawberries) dessert is deconstructed, a 21st-century style ubiquitous and often overwrought at upscale dining establishments. A ring of strawberry sauce piped no wider than Lady Gaga’s eyeliner serves as the epicenter. Atop it go craggy pieces of tender angel food cake; pastry crumbles; tiny strawberry meringue kisses; rehydrated basil seeds; short cylinders of lemon semifreddo; dollops of Meyer lemon curd; a couple of dehydrated-milk tuiles; freeze-dried strawberry dust; crème fraîche and strawberry sorbets; and slices of the fruit, their pointed ends turned upward.
In the kitchen, Alex Levin has heard his station’s point-of-sale machine scratch out the ticket; he reaches for the right prep trays instantly because he knows the sound of each dessert order by heart. It takes the executive pastry chef, or one of his well-trained cooks, less than two minutes to assemble a camera-ready presentation, including last-minute shaping of the sorbet quenelles. A firm tap on the server bell, and it’s out to the dining room.
“The table shared it,” he would recall later with a weak smile, “and I kind of wish they wouldn’t.” The chef had thought out every component, designing his fragole to be enjoyed by a single spoon following that circular progression, moving through bites of creaminess and crunch and cold.
Levin graduated in baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park a mere three years ago, in the golden age of modernist cuisine and deconstructed desserts. A limited practitioner of the former and reasoned defender of the latter, he says efforts can fall short unless each plated component can stand on its own merits, for texture, aroma and flavor. There can be no weak link.
“I’m trying to play on geometry and beauty,” he says. “But if my dessert doesn’t taste delicious, it’s a failure.”
Turns out, he’s a bit of a deconstructed dessert himself. Elements that make up the man are not what you’d expect. Some of them seem at odds with what it takes to create artistry on the plate. Levin could be running a multimillion-dollar company instead of piping perfect rows of perfectly crafted Italian meringue. He is a Microsoft Excel geek (having memorized all the software’s keyboard shortcuts) with a fascination for numbers and ratios. He has a borderline compulsion to keep things mess-free, which is tough to manage in a space where flour is tossed around all day. He is all about the group effort, not the star turn.
Yet when you consider the elements on the whole, they explain why Levin — named a Young Gun by Eater.com this year, at age 37 — has earned such respect so early in his culinary career.
Restaurant pastry chefs are well aware that nobody needs to order dessert. One of their more decorated role models, San Francisco’s Emily Luchetti, even launched a campaign last year urging Americans to eat it less often. Economist Tyler Cowen opposes the costs of it.
But pastry chefs who head restaurant operations have plenty of other things to worry about. They are most likely responsible for bread service and savories as well; for making ice creams, candies and other frozen goodies; for producing special-occasion menus; for navigating a modern-diner world of food sensitivities; for ordering and inventory; for sourcing the best ingredients they can find; for building a collection of flawless recipes; for training and maintaining a staff; for engaging the public; for upkeep of some very high-tech kitchen equipment. They must be organized, precise, not easily flustered, inspirationally creative — and they typically are relegated to less-than-ideal kitchen real estate. In early, out late, slim margins.
Even so, Levin is right where he wants to be.
“Once Alex decides to do something, that’s it,” says his mother, Shira Nadich Levin, partner in a Manhattan law firm. “There’s no end to what he can do to keep improving.”
His decision to step away from a lucrative top job at a New York management and training company in 2010 had to do with personal fulfillment. Levin needed to be happy in his work, and to work where he could learn from the best. He’d gotten that at Ramaz, the Orthodox Jewish prep school in New York, where math and physics were his favorite subjects and the demands of a double curriculum forced him to be hyper-organized. It’s why he chose to attend Yale over seven other prestigious colleges that accepted him.
But long before, he learned how much satisfaction can come from working in the kitchen. As early as age 3, Alex would spend afternoons baking with his grandmother. Martha Hadassah Nadich was the wife of Judah Nadich, rabbi at the Park Avenue Synagogue from 1957 to 1987. She would do the cooking and baking for congregation events, and she caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, who twice wrote up her High Holiday recipes in the New York Times.
Alex and his grandmother developed a special bond. “She trusted him at a very young age to do things on his own,” Levin’s mother says. A family photo of young Alex shows him standing on a chair next to Martha Nadich’s Mixmaster; he is beaming.
The Levins are a genuinely close family. Of their three grown sons, Shira and Jim Levin say Alex has always kept in touch the most. It’s not unusual for him to e-mail or call after a busy evening at the restaurant. When chef Levin was invited to celebrate his Young Guns honor in Los Angeles, he asked his parents to come and share the joy.
They were totally supportive of his application to culinary school, and not at all surprised when he graduated in 2012 with the highest grade-point average in his class.
“There are good students, and then there are those who also have drive, desire and curiosity. Alex was one,” says Francisco Migoya, who trained thousands of young chefs during the nine years he was at the CIA.
Now the head chef at Modernist Cuisine in Seattle, Migoya ran the culinary school’s Apple Pie Bakery Café, which he describes as “a kind of finishing school” for pastry, breads and savory. He saw Levin operate both as a student and as a paid worker. “He was a bit older than the others and therefore knew he wanted to do this,” Migoya says. “He would take the time to get something right, then he became faster and better at it. I remember his learning curve seemed sharper.”
Levin’s reputation got him stints in the New York kitchens of Del Posto, Jean-Georges, Ai Fiori, Amy’s Bread, Cafe Boulud and Osteria Morini from 2011 to 2013, where once again he got to learn from some of the best pastry chefs in the business.
“He seemed like a person who was going to move up. He came to Cafe Boulud with a specific set of goals,” says Noah Carroll, who supervised Levin there and is now corporate pastry chef at Dominique Ansel in New York. Levin took full advantage of the kitchen’s requirement that its pastry cooks create their own multi-component plated desserts; he developed 25 to 30 of them while he was there.
“I learned how to compose with a balance of flavor, textures, always a frozen element,” Levin says. “Chef Noah guided us and taught us to be creative.”
The good student has become the kind of mentor he was lucky enough to have, again and again. “Alex is patient — not like a lot of chefs, says Lloyd Cruz, who rose from pastry cook to pastry sous-chef in 15 months at Morini in the District. The 29-year-old Rockville resident has learned how to be better organized and more efficient: “He has guided me.” Levin doesn’t hurry his people through the rotations of daily tasks that go into Morini’s dessert menu and focaccia production. He shows them the way, then lets them do things on their own — just like his grandmother treated him.
“Do I want to be a chef who’s constantly yelling, ‘faster, FASTER’?” Levin says. “No, I don’t.”
That said, he eagerly touts Cruz as Morini’s quickest hand at plating desserts: “He recently handled 300 covers on a Saturday night! On his own.”
The pastry boss’s ultimate goals are to keep the young staff motivated and to build flexibility into their work schedule. When he instructs them, he stops to talk with them directly — with his piercing green eyes, this is easy to take — and reinforces the lesson with a give-and-take conversation.
Levin’s department runs as smooth as toffee sauce. Ingredients are clearly labeled, Sharpie on blue painter’s tape, and containers are neatly stacked where they’re needed most. Between incoming tickets, there’s no downtime. Levin’s team consolidates or refills prep trays, keeps the warm bread coming, sets up for the next shift. In that way, Morini pastry stays ahead of the game and sends out meticulous plates, every time.
Levin jumped at the chance to help open Morini in Washington in 2013, assigned to work under renowned pastry chef Bob Truitt from the parent Altamarea Group in New York. In the month or so before they could get into the kitchen, Levin summoned his spreadsheet skills to design the weekly budget report the entire restaurant uses today, which allows for pinpoint, instant tracking access of inventory and purchases.
As a result, Osteria Morini D.C. runs consistently about 1 percentage point below the food-cost targets set by Altamarea. Executive chef Matt Adler says his friend Alex is instrumental to the restaurant’s success. “He is intense in the kitchen, but always cool-headed,” Adler says. “You couldn’t ask for a better work ethic.”
Folks in the city’s restaurant community tend to use the same word when asked to describe Levin: mensch. He’s the guy who finds out what your favorite sweet treat is, makes a terrific version of it and brings it to your party. (His brownies and chocolate chip cookies are legend.) He was promoted to executive pastry chef at Morini in November of last year.
Levin’s constant reach for a taste surprise, a tweak for the center of, say, a warm chocolate cake (caramelizing milk chocolate for hours) and his eye for composition yield a variety of desserts that diners find irresistible. That he has eased tiramisu off an Italian restaurant menu (“I never really cared for it,” he says) speaks to his ability to create a dish with comparable flavors. Better, and stunning: praline chocolate mousse cake, espresso crema, chocolate-dusted almonds and torrone gelato.
In the end, his deconstructed desserts are not a way to show off. They are practical.
With so many different elements, a diner with celiac disease can find gluten-free options on half of the menu, and Levin can swap out a single component on a plate for someone with a nut or dairy allergy. Such an approach reflects the thought Levin puts into his work — and his ultimate goal.
“I want everyone to be able to enjoy them,” he says.
Levin will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.