Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 4, Episode 4 - Will Goldfarb - full transcript

Chef Will Goldfarb talks about his dynamic career and the obstacles he encountered on the way to where he is today.

[Will Goldfarb]
When I was in Paris for pastry school,

they were pretty clear
this was a bad career choice.

They were like,
"Just leave now. Don't even finish.

Even as a hobby,
probably not a good idea."

I had the same experience in Spain.

And it was really hard.

I mean, the guy I worked with would say,
"This is terrible, you're terrible."

Like, everything was so bad.

Someone's screaming at you all day long,

every hour, every minute, constantly,
18 hours a day.

In another language.

There's only so many times
you can hear you're the worst

and not at least have it in your mind
that maybe everyone's right.

And that continued for years,
so it wasn't, like, a fluke.

That theme would keep coming up.

[opening theme playing]

-[indistinct chatter]
-[cutlery clinking]

Can I have some ice cream, please?
Whiskey, let's go, right away. Window.

-[woman 1] Will, what's that?
-Uh, roasted watermelon.

-[woman 1] Oh!
-[woman 2] Wow!

[man] The curse of the pastry chef
is always having to follow someone else.

The concept of
the dessert-only restaurant,

that's a pastry chef’s dream.

Dessert first.
You know, who wouldn't want to do that?

Sauce, window.
Coconut, vinegar, and milk jam, please.

[man 2] So, this guy arrives
on the scene in New York.

Will Goldfarb, right? You hear he's making
all these crazy desserts.

Something in a syringe
based on the movie Trainspotting.

A dessert named after the Wu-Tang Clan.

It's like magic. All of a sudden,
dessert's the main event.

What Will did is bring in this new era
of avant-gardism.

He proved that dessert could be
fascinating and intellectual,

and reference art and music and film.

[Michael] Will elevated pastry
to this greater cultural moment.

I mean, he was the first pastry chef
to be profiled in The New Yorker.

Room 4 Dessert was interesting, was vital.

And it kinda felt for a while
like you had to be there.

It was the Studio 54 of desserts.

And then, he's gone.

Where is Will Goldfarb?

-[bugs chirring]
-[birds twittering]

[woman and Will speaking Indonesian]

[in Indonesian] Can I have this?
Two pieces.

How much?

This one?

[in English] Yes. Yeah. I love this.

[woman in Indonesian] Here, 5,000.

[Will speaking Indonesian]

-[woman] He speaks Indonesian!
-[all laughing]

[Will in English] When I go back to
New York, I feel people are really unhappy

and disappointed with not doing things
that they care about.

[in Indonesian] How much?

-[woman] One thousand.
-One thousand?

[Will in English] It's rarely possible

in a high-paced, high-profile,
high-pressure environment

to reflect on what you're doing.

Bali has a great way
of cutting through that bullshit.

You're very alive when you're here,
and very engaged.

You're hot, sweaty.

You crash your bike.

Things are loud.

And it forces you to pay attention
to what you're doing.

In New York,
I was burned out and I was miserable.

I walked away from my house.
I walked away from my career.

I walked away from everything.

What Bali has given me for sure is
the space and time to figure things out.

[Will] For a chef not to be able to get
fresh fish would be considered ridiculous.

But for a pastry chef
to get fresh chocolate

would never even be a thing.

For pastry chefs, it's considered standard
that you get what comes out of the box.

I think the best thing about Bali
is that everything's fresh...

in a way that it really just isn't
anywhere else.

Coffee, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon.

As a pastry chef, it's one
of the most amazing places in the world.

To me, when people think about dessert,
it's always chocolate.

Chocolate is the emblem of dessert.

Chocobubbles is a dessert,
one of the first things I ever made.

It was just hot chocolate mousse.

Now, we have a good version of it
with better ingredients.

Crushed cookies.

We do an emulsion of lime
and honey and olive oil.

And then a hot chocolate mousse.

The beautiful thing here
is that all these products are fresh.

The idea of making a warm chocolate mousse
with chocolate out of a package,

which was standard for me
for almost 20 years,

is now ridiculous.

If you don't want chocolate fresh for you,
probably shouldn't be a pastry chef.

-[bugs chirring]
-[birds twittering]

[Will] I grew up in Long Island.
It's about 30 minutes from New York.

We had the normal suburb life.

If you did well in high school,
you could go to a good college.

And so, I worked a lot. I studied a lot.

By the time
I got to my senior year of college,

I was pretty burned out.

I went to Paris to do pastry

as an excuse to not start
law school right away.

When I got there,
I started working with Gérard Mulot.

He was the ultimate gentleman.

Not pretentious at all.

He worked every station
in his own kitchen.

Took every phone call, put every box away.

Just did everything.

Mulot's food was really amazing.

It was very civilized.
It was very delicious.

The baguette was the best-tasting.
The croissants were perfect.

The vanilla ice cream was perfect.

Really proper pastry. No bullshit.

I loved it.

At that point,
pastry pretty much had its teeth in me.

It was a really good adventure.

It felt more like it was at the beginning
than the end.

In 1998, El Bulli
was the new best restaurant in the world.

It was the first year
they'd gotten three stars.

It was just so obviously
the next generation of cooking.

I knew I had to work there.

I faxed my CV to El Bulli.

Like, a handwritten CV.

And I was rejected.

I have no problem
just asking until I get something.

I just assume eventually
people will get tired of saying no.

I figured I could get a job by going.

So I went.

This time they were like,
"Well, we're full."

At the time, I was working in Florence
for only housing and food.

And then one day immigration shows up,
and I was immigrant labor.

So we hid in the office.

I'm literally under the desk, like...

very '60s private eye.

I was like, "Where am I gonna go now?"

I was next to the phone, and I figured
I should call the first choice, right?

So I called El Bulli,

and I think they thought
I wanted to make a booking.

And it was like, "We can't take a booking.
We're closed for winter."

I was like, "No, I wanna come.
I wanna work."

And they were like, "Sure.
How long you wanna come for?

The full year or the half?"

I was like, "The full year is fine."

And that was it.

It was, like, the most nonchalant,

two-year wait
for a under-the-table phone call,

while hiding from the authorities,

to get into the best restaurant
in the world.

Getting that invitation made me feel
I belonged at the big dance.

-[woman] I don't want you to fall.
-[Will] It's okay.

-[woman] There you go.
-[Will] I've had worse.

Not since yesterday.

[woman] There you go. You can do this.

-Can I go here?

-How many can I take?
-Take a few.

-We need that.

-Bring mother's milk, yes. Thank you.

-Yes, wonderful. Here.

[Will] There's about 5,000 years
of oral and written history

of the world's most advanced civilizations
taking care of each other with food.

[woman] Ah, there,
we got a whole bunch here. All right.

So, this is lemongrass.

-[woman speaking Indonesian]

[Will] If you're interested
in food history,

it's impossible to separate it
from food as medicine.

Here in Bali, traditional remedies
are very much still a way of life.

[woman] Let's make it sweet.

[Will] The most commonly known one
would be jamu kunyit, or yellow jamu.

Thank you, dear.

To hundreds of millions of Indonesians,
jamu is just a part of waking up.

I drink jamu in the morning
when I have coconut water and coffee.

Making medicinal herbs a feature part
of a dessert menu is certainly novel.

But it seemed like a really good fit.


[Will] When we did our last menu,

we were trying to do essentially
a tiramisu, but a vinegar base.

We'd use coffee grounds
to make the tuiles,

and we'd add our own vinegar
from coconut water.

Little milk jam with palm sugar.

Stuff that grows around the restaurant.

But it was very boring.

So we had to reverse engineer
the interesting part.

We thought if I drank jamu,
coconut water, and coffee in the morning,

the only thing that
that dish didn't have was the jamu.

That must be the missing piece.

So we took jamu, tamarind,
turmeric, honey, and lime...

and then brushed the plate with it.

You pick up a lot of nuances in the coffee
and the vinegar from those accents.

It's the equivalent of focusing a camera.

When one thing brings
the rest of the flavors into focus.

[Will] The chayote looks perfect.
Like, couldn't be better.

Flavor is excellent.
Did you crank up the oil from last time?


The ice cream is excellent,
it's just unclear what it is.

It's not obviously sorghum to me.

So we have to figure out
how to get more flavor in there, right?

When I got to Spain, I was told
I was gonna be working with Albert Adrià.

Albert was behind a lot of the amazing
things that came out of El Bulli.

It was like he created a new genre.

Not just for pastry, but for restaurants.

The food was so obviously new
and deep and thoughtful.

You knew you were somewhere special.

I remember walking down the street
with Albert, looking at a cloud,

being like, "I wanna make that cloud."

And he did do that.

That's a very, very different way
of looking at things.

Everything was new.

It's mesmerizing
to be in a place like that.

When you work somewhere like that,
you think you're special.

You're the center of the universe.

Your confidence is high.

After that, for me,

the new minimum standard
was to try to be the best in the world.

[Howie] In the early 2000s,
New York was pretty much still the '80s.

French food was still revered.
A great dessert was a soufflé.

Will comes back
from working in the kitchen of El Bulli...

and wanted to bring in
this new era of avant-gardism

and say cooking can be
about more than you think it can be.

[Will] When I got back to New York,

I was coming from the best restaurant
in the world.

Everyone wanted me to work for them.

I was a hot commodity.

I got a job with a chef
named Paul Liebrandt,

who was the bad boy of New York
at the moment.

He had a place called Papillon.

I had a very clear agenda
of what I wanted to do there.

Doing interactive stuff was considered,
by me, to be the next frontier.

We had syringes,
a lot of sensory deprivation.

Blindfolding, darkness.

I think we had some handcuffs in there.

And then the really edgy shit was, like,
onion juice ice cubes.

Things that are just straight-up
indisputably just not delicious.

It was about being provocative.

And we had a couple of busy nights,
but just no one came.

It was an experimental catastrophe.

The owners were sure
the direction wasn't the right way to go.

And then I got fired.

Will was doing the mad scientist version
of desserts.

But what was popular
was very upscale grandma food.

People in that era definitely weren't
doing something unless it tasted good.

[Will] Meringue is the fundamental
structural underpinning of pastry.

And it's only two things:
egg white and sugar.

Everyone loves meringue. It's awesome.

The problem is it's just sweet.
It's just not edible.

If you can imagine that,
in a history of meringue-making,

the idea of a less sweet meringue,
it just didn't exist.

And that's a problem that I thought
we were qualified to start thinking about.

When I first got to Bali,

I was obsessed with this incredible
natural product which is palm sugar.

It's a renewable source of sugar.

When you eat it,
it has umami or savoriness

that's more dominant to me than sweet.

So I had this idea of using palm sugar
to make a "less sweet" meringue.

We spent about a year
experimenting on this meringue.

And we did thousands of tests.

The final meringue is precise.

It's not sweet, it's delicious,
it's stable.

It merits its place at the table.

[Howie] The meringue is
a classic piece of pastry.

It's always been made a certain way.
Will Goldfarb says,

"I'm gonna change the ratios.

I'm gonna do it
how it needs to be done here."

It's a way of saying
that the meringue doesn't belong

to this French culinary tradition anymore.

It belongs to this new
Indonesian pastry tradition.

[Will] I thought it was important
to have at least one meringue

that had some foundation in Bali.

So it's not named after me
or the restaurant.

It's named after the place
the sugar comes from.

Balinese Meringue.

In 2004, I was working at Cru,
which was a really ambitious restaurant.

And I knew that I needed to play it safe.

I basically took
all of that edgy shit out.

And then one day, I was sitting
with Roy Welland, who was the owner.

He said, "Go for it. Be yourself.
What's the worst that could happen?"

I had this idea for a dish.
We called it "Day at the Beach."

The general idea was that a dessert could
transport you to a particular moment.

We use the saffron syrup.

The golden color kind of gives off
the illusion of warmth.

The refreshing mist of the ocean
became salt water in a spray.

And then there was the props
and the beach towel.

We did a pastry cream soda
with crispy ham.

A grapefruit gel with beer.

It had iconic imagery. It's interactive.

It shows the technical advance,
which was this idea of carbonating fat.

I was sure it would speak for itself.

The critical reaction was... [sighs]

New York Post said hiring me

was the worst decision in New York
that year.

When you get reviews like that,
you've got no credibility.

It doesn't just undercut your cooking,

it undercuts everything
you say you believe in.

I knew I was getting fired.
And I knew why I was getting fired.

Yeah, it was bad.

It was very hard to maintain
any kind of confidence

when everyone tells you always
how terrible you are.

-[Will speaking Indonesian]
-[indistinct chatter]

[Will in English] Hey, gorgeous.
She's so great.

By 2005, I was tired.

And it was really hard,

being universally panned
and repeatedly fired.

My wife was supporting us.

I was taking care of our daughter
who was three months old.

And then there was an ad in Craigslist
for a new dessert bar.

It's the movie moment, right?

So I went to meet the guys.

And they gave me an amazing offer.

I was terrified about what would happen.

I was coming off a string of failures
and departures and bad reviews.

I was toxic.

I thought there was no way
it was gonna work.

So I turned it down.

My wife was like, "You're crazy.
You have to take the job."

She was like,
"It's a chance to have your own place.

That's what you want.
That's what you've been waiting for.

That's the only way you'll ever be able
to do what you want."

So I went for it,
but I was terrified of the response.

[Howie] Will opened Room 4 Dessert,

a restaurant that didn't serve any food
besides pastry.

People were going there
like it was a meal.

They'd eat dinner at home and go
to Room 4 Dessert

and sit there
and have a dessert tasting menu.

All of a sudden,
dessert's the main attraction.

[Will] Opening a 20-seat dessert-tasting
counter-restaurant in Lower Manhattan,

that's a different sport.

You were in the kitchen with us.
There was no back of house.

I was doing the dishes,
cleaning the toilets and cooking.

We were there busting our ass
in front of you.

Cooking for 150 people.
You're watching us sweat.

This wasn't some abstract high-art thing.

This was a bunch of dudes in New York

getting the food in front of you
and really caring about your happiness.

We'd had an inkling that we'd be reviewed.

I just figured it would be awful.

When I saw the review,
it took me by surprise.

I was crying.

A decent review?
That's the first one I ever had.

I was totally in tears.
It was unbelievable.

And then, the New Yorker article came out,

and that put us into the "You're not
a restaurant, you're a cultural activity."

And different people started coming.
And more of them. A lot more.

All of a sudden,

cars are picking me up to go places
and I'm getting flown around the world.

I was on stage every night.

We expected to be in the paper every day.

We had a Pastry Art & Design
top ten in America.

Got nominated for a James Beard award.

It felt like I was back with the big boys,

but I wasn't an apprentice,
I was on stage.

I mean, it was only 12 months before
that I was unemployable.

It was intoxicating.

I became absorbed in my own importance.

[timer beeps]

Where's that bowl to cover my small batch?

Two recipes, please. Let's go.

Dying right now, on the fire,
I've got nothing to cook.

The guys that I opened with and I
had sort of gotten to the point where...

Neither one of us was handling
the attention I was getting very well.

So they just decided
to close the restaurant.

I found out and I was like...
I couldn't believe it.

It was a pretty massive blow
to lose my place.

That was like
being punched in the stomach.

I don't think I had any emotion left
at that point.

I just went for shutdown.
I think that was easier.

[Howie] Will was heartbroken.

For all the history of failures,
there is a person in all of that

who wants to be embraced by people
who appreciate his talent.

It's a dream to open your own place
in New York City,

doing what you want to do
by your own terms.

Making your own rules, forging a new path.

That comes to an end,
it doesn't feel good.

[Will] My wife decided that it was time
to get out of New York.

I was done.

Bali just seemed like-- Well, it's...
pretty severe as "exit stage left" goes.

[birds twittering]

By the time I got to Bali,
I'd been pretty softened up with reality.

And I was like, "I'm here,
but I haven't cooked for a while.

I'm sort of miserable.
The world is united against me."

And I had much less money and ambition.

When I decided to get into the kitchen,

no one there knew anything about me.

No one reads The New York Times
in Seminyak.

Being somewhere new, where
no one gives a shit what you're doing,

is very humbling,

and it forces you to reduce
your self-centeredness,

just deal with things the way they are.

[Howie] Cooking outside of the confines

of the competitive
New York City dining world,

that changes, I think, everything.

He started to relearn himself,
concentrate on his life and his craft.

[Will] That got me out of the cycle
of New York bullshit.

And that gave me the space and time

to learn how to work
with the ingredients that were here.

All the building blocks
of delicious desserts are there.

Chocolate's there, nutmeg is there,
coconut is there, palm sugar is there.

Getting it fresh in a way
you can't get it anywhere else.

[Will] At that point, I felt like,
for me and Room 4 Dessert,

there was unfinished business.

I wanted to be at peace and do it right.

I was ready to try again.

We'd found this little place
outside of Ubud with zero foot traffic.

We really poured our heart and soul
into it.

When we opened, we had a ceremony
to purify the place from the bad spirits.

[speaking Indonesian]

[Will] It seemed like the beginning
of a new adventure.

And it definitely felt like
rising from the ashes.

I couldn't believe it.

At that point, I was like,
"All right, let's cook."

[low chatter]

[Howie] When somebody shows
that they can be successful

living what seems like a fantasy,

people reevaluate
what they want their reality to be.

"Oh, fuck. Bali, I should do that.

What does this guy know that I don't?

Can I start a restaurant in Bali?

Can I escape?

Can I go to paradise?"

[Michael] Will has been a provocateur,

and as a chef you're constantly battling
your own ego and your own insecurities.

But with a little bit of maturity,
you can overcome those insecurities

because you've transcended your own ego.

[Will] Moving to Bali was really a chance
to restart and build from the ground up.

Now, I think it's much more charming
to take care of actual people

than to make something
in an abstract vacuum for your own ego.

It's easy to lose sight of that
when you're very self-centered.

[Howie] There's a calm about Will now.

He knows who he is, what makes him happy.

Nothing's in a syringe anymore.

What he's doing now is much more serene,
and it's because he is.

[Will] I'm just so happy now,

and I think of it as lucky
that I fucked it up then...

because otherwise I'd be struggling
in New York instead of here.

[soft music playing]