Todd Johnson, Senior
Executive Pastry Chef, at Atlantis, the 2,300-room resort on Paradise Island
in The Bahamas, oversees a staff of
54 that produces the breads, breakfast pastries and desserts for
resort’s 35 food and beverage outlets. This operation accounts for more than
$80 million in annual food revenue.
Chef Johnson brings
impeccable chocolate credentials to this pastry empire. His love of fine
chocolate began early. “I went to Europe for the first time at age 13
and really got to taste some excellent chocolates. I think that was the
beginning for me of a life surrounded by chocolate,” he says.
Naturally, with more
than 20 years’ experience as a pastry chef—including a long association with
world-renowned chef and chocolatier
Norman Love—Chef Johnson has some
interesting things to say about chocolate:
CA: What is your chocolate philosophy?
CHEF JOHNSON: I
think it’s amazing that our forefathers learned to take the cocoa bean and
process it into something as delicious as what we know today as chocolate.
If you were to taste a cocoa bean, you would spit it out and never try it
again. The fact that we have learned to ferment the bean, dry it, roast it,
grind it, sweeten it, blend it in an infinite variety of ways to produce
such a variety of chocolate products is truly amazing. Chocolate is one of
the most satisfying pleasures and except for a few calories there is really
nothing in it that's unhealthy.
CA: What is your favorite kind of chocolate to work with?
CHEF JOHNSON: For 90 per cent of the products I make from chocolate I use Callebaut, a
Belgian chocolate of very fine quality. Callebaut is one of the largest
manufacturers in the world, and they produce a huge variety of products that
are very consistent in flavor. Atlantis uses different chocolates depending
on what we are making. Chocolates with a higher percentage of cocoa butter
are more fluid when melted and therefore good for coating, dipping and
molding. Ones with a higher percentage of cocoa powder are more intense in
flavor and therefore better for mousses, fillings and creams.
CA: What chocolate do you prefer to eat?
CHEF JOHNSON: I prefer bittersweet dark chocolates. Sometimes I like a milk chocolate (which
tends to be sweeter) but over the years of working with chocolate I've come
to really like the intense flavor of dark chocolate with not too much sugar.
Since sugar is by far the least expensive ingredient in chocolate the
quality can largely be determined by how much is added. A semi sweet
chocolate may have around 50 per cent sugar while a really good bittersweet
will only be about 30 per cent sugar. Bitter chocolate with no sugar added
is good for flavoring things but by itself is very unpleasant to taste.
CA: What is your signature chocolate dessert recipe?
CHEF JOHNSON: I'd have to say it's changed many times over the years. Since I've spent
most of my career in tropical climates I've learned to combine chocolate
with other tropical flavors, such as
banana, coconut and mango. (See Chef
Johnson’s pot de creme recipe for Milk Chocolate Mouse with Banana Ginger Cream.)
Currently, I'd say my bittersweet chocolate and passion fruit tart ranks up
there with my favorites. It's a creamy chocolate custard with fresh passion
fruit baked in a crispy shortbread tart shell that just explodes with
flavor. Not too sweet but very rich in flavor, it's really incredible.
CA: What are your first chocolate memories?
CHEF JOHNSON: Probably like most kids growing up in the states my first memories are
Hershey Bars, Snickers, Milky Ways, the Whitman's Sampler.
CA: Besides desserts, what other ways do you use chocolate?
CHEF JOHNSON: I've really loved working with chocolate for most of my career. I've done
hundreds of showpieces and smaller amenity pieces out of chocolate. Since
I've been at Atlantis, where the entire resort is immersed in myth, as well
as surrounded by water, I've learned that pouring melted chocolate onto ice
cubes can make very realistic-looking coral like formations. I've also done
a lot of chocolate seashells, fish and sand dollars for my showpieces.
Additionally, I make a lot of garnishes for plated desserts such as
chocolate fans and curls.
CA: What’s the most unusual thing you have ever made or seen chocolate?
CHEF JOHNSON: I've seen so many things made from chocolate it would be hard to come up
with just one. An eagle in flight with talons outstretched carved from a
single massive block? The pipe organ from Phantom of the Opera? Maybe an
entire six-piece jazz ensemble!
More about Chef Todd Johnson
Chef Johnson says his
parents raised him in an environment where he was encouraged to participate
in cooking at an early age. His early interest in cooking took him to the
Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated 1978 after an externship
at the legendary La Maisonette in Cincinnati, Ohio. From there, he
went to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. At this venerable
resort he says he found his true calling. The hotel’s pastry chef, Herman
Neibaum, was ready to retire and was looking for someone to train as his
replacement. Johnson spent two seasons under his tutelage in; Michigan and
Florida. When Chef Neibaum retired, he left the 21-year-old Johnson to
manage the staff of 16 in the Grand Hotel’s pastry shop.
At his next job, Chateau Robert in Fort Myers, Florida, Chef Johnson was introduced to
more contemporary styles of pastry by
Norman Love, his second mentor. Years
later, when Chef Love had gone on to become the Corporate Pastry Chef for
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, the two were joined again when Todd was
hired as the Pastry Chef of the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida. They shared
an office in the pastry shop in Naples where Norman was based for the next
seven years. Todd ran the operation while Norman traveled the globe opening
hotels and learning from some of the finest pastry chefs in the world. Upon
returning to Naples after these trips, Norman was always eager to teach Todd
the new techniques he had acquired.