Antonio Bachour oversees a temperature-controlled chamber called the chocolate room. But as he squeezes into this nook at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort today, it's the macarons that capture his attention. Dressed in a pressed white coat, the bespectacled chef pulls a confection-filled tray from a stack. "Bacon macarons!" he declares like a child grabbing his favorite toy from a trunk.
Bachour then espies chocolates — bonbons splotched with more color than a Jackson Pollock painting. He thrusts an assortment my way. "Try one," he says. "I make 300 from scratch every day."
The bonbons are as delicious as they are pretty, which is exactly what Bachour — the peppy executive pastry chef at this posh hotel of 227 rooms, six banquet halls, and five restaurants — wants.
Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour
J jggrillmiami.com. Lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 3:30 p.m.; brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner daily 6 to 11 p.m.
But what exactly makes his desserts so special?
"I don't consider myself the best, but nobody in Miami makes cakes like I do," he says. "If I'm going to be a pastry chef, then I'm not going to be mediocre. I don't want to do things like everybody else."
Indeed, his skills are rare. Despite the city's long list of James Beard Award-winning chefs, this metropolis lacks prized desserts. Hedy Goldsmith, a Beard Award-nominated pastry chef who works for the Genuine Hospitality Group, and Jordi Panisello, the executive pastry chef at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, are exceptions. Only restaurant groups and fancy hotels can sustain such high levels of artistry.
And in the past few years, Bachour's talent has flourished. In 2011, he was a finalist at the International Chefs Congress Pastry Competition. Dessert Professional Magazine recognized him as one of the top ten pastry chefs in the nation. Today, he judges pastry competitions and teaches workshops at culinary schools around the world. He has thousands of followers on social media. His first cookbook will be published in six months.
When the 38-year-old was growing up in Río Grande, Puerto Rico, he never envisioned becoming a renowned pastry chef. When he was a kid, his family owned traditional pastry shops — selling pan sobao, flan, and Spanish-style cakes piped with colorful meringues and filled with pastry cream. At age 17, he was given a locale of his own. But Bachour immediately clashed with the old-school chefs. They deemed the young man's sweets too radical.
Instead of employing premade jams, he topped his cheesecakes with fresh fruits and herbs. He shrank the size of desserts to individual portions. He toyed with ganache and, like the French, glazed his cakes with melted tempered chocolate. "Even when I was younger, I'd see something and immediately think of how I could make it different," he says.
Restlessness is a recurring theme in Bachour's life, and eventually he grew tired of his shop. So he sold his portion to his brothers and moved to Europe. He studied at L'École Valrhona in France and apprenticed under chef Philippe Givre. Years later, when Bachour returned to Puerto Rico, he took a position at the Westin in his hometown and then at the Ritz-Carlton in San Juan. In 2002, he came to Miami. "I was worn out. I didn't want to work in hotels anymore," he explains.
Bachour moved on to the now-shuttered Talula, a Miami Beach restaurant by Top Chef contestant Andrea Curto-Randazzo. Later, he completed stints as a consultant for the W South Beach and Trump SoHo New York. He supervised 60 employees, slept at a different hotel each week, and traveled more than 120,000 miles a year. "It was too stressful. I lost all of my hair!" says the chef, patting his glabrous scalp.
So when Starwood Hotels offered him a gig in Bal Harbour, he accepted and landed at the St. Regis in 2011.
While other pastry chefs work in cramped quarters, Bachour oversees five dessert-plating stations and 12 employees. He shares an office with three of the hotel's leading chefs. He runs a spacious test kitchen where cooks assemble intricate wedding cakes while jamming to Shakira's latest hits. And, perhaps most important, he has that chocolate room.
Bachour earned this turf by constantly challenging convention. At the hotel restaurant J&G Grill, which is spearheaded by powerhouse chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, only two desserts are fixtures. The rest are born from Bachour's whims. He uploads photos to Flickr, Instagram, and Facebook daily so he doesn't forget what he's made. He works with feverish energy, obsessing over taste, detail, and aesthetics.
He also prepares absolutely everything on premises. "I make it all myself. At the Ritz-Carlton, they buy frozen macarons and bonbons from Norman Love Confections," he admonishes.
No two desserts are ever alike. The pastry chef uses warm spoons to scoop quenelles of sorbet. Depending upon his mood, he might plop one atop a pistachio sponge cake or drop it alongside a white chocolate mousse. He squiggles thick strands of cream on plates and garnishes everything with fresh fruit and edible flowers. He favors vibrant hues and tropical fruits. His desserts are like kaleidoscopes, gripping and seemingly untouchable.
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He hopes to debut a dessert-tasting menu soon — a bill of fare already proffered at critically acclaimed restaurants such as Atelier Crenn and Fifth Floor in San Francisco and Per Se in New York.
But Bachour has been at the St. Regis for two years. Will he tire of the routine, the banquets, the weddings, and the breakfast buffets?
"I make great money, I live comfortably, I travel, and I eat out four or five times a week. I want to do more cookbooks and workshops," he says. "But what I never want is to become average. I always want that 'wow' factor.
"As for my future? Maybe I'll retire as a pastry chef at a hotel, but I don't know."