Emily Wilson
Chef/mixologist Yvan Lemoine takes classic drinks on a jaunty joyride. Ready for a smoke (without the mirror) spin on the venerable Manhattan? Photographed in the E & J Gallo Winery's Tasting Room in New York City.
magnify Click image to view more.

Free Spirits

Daniel Schumacher - April 2006

A young French-Venezuelan pastry chef turned mixologist brings global flair and hybrid techniques to the American bar scene.

"I don't think you ever stop being a pastry chef," says Yvan Lemoine. "It's a state of mind. A lifestyle."

Over the past decade, Lemoine, a 24 year old Venezuelan of French descent, has earned credits as pastry chef, bartender, spokesman, and rock performer, most recently combining them all as bar manager of Gilt, the new restaurant where vanguard chef Paul Liebrandt heads the kitchen. Housed in the New York Palace Hotel, Gilt replaces the late Le Cirque 2000. Building on his experience, Lemoine has fused his passion for plating with a rock star aesthetic by revitalizing classic cocktails with modern culinary techniques.

Having worked at the chic bars of Milos, Viscaya, and most recently The Hudson Hotel, Lemoine sees the bar as the last frontier for culinary innovation; over the past few years he has seen the potential for a cocktail renaissance (see Recipes & Techniques).

Spending his formative years in Venezuela, Lemoine was exposed at an early age to gastronomic diversity and a culture of fusion, which helped set the stage for his later accomplishments. While he was introduced to interesting combinations by his French father, he realized the market for creative mixology while working in the pastry kitchen. Lemoine decided to take his act on the road and infuse some of the techniques he learned in the kitchen into his potent potables.

"Pastry chefs are always on the lookout for the new technique, the new gelatin, chemical, et cetera. I'm always experimenting. People's tastes come in waves, and it's a little confusing the way it's working today. There are the culinary daredevils taking technique, style, and flair to new levels, and there are those who, when growing up, got to experience ‘the classics'. That second group is bringing them back. Sherry is huge, pisco is taking on heat, and I think we'll see a lot of Madeira and Martini Bianco in the coming months."

Lemoine found that he preferred to be out interacting with his customers rather than meticulously plating desserts for hours on end in a stiflingly hot kitchen. A flashy showman at heart, he's right at home behind the bar, making whimsical creations.

Experimenting with the classics has lead Lemoine to some rather shocking results. Liquid nitrogen, at –320°F, makes his oyster and caviar–topped Martini one of the world's coldest. He has also riffed on the venerable Sidecar by including tangerine peel infused with orange bitters and high-quality sugar. "It's all in the sugar. I prefer Sugar in the Raw because it looks neater and has fewer chemicals."

While Lemoine takes cocktail innovation quite seriously, he doesn't see much competition on the horizon. He cites differing professional priorities about competitiveness in innovation between bartenders and chefs.

"The competition is much fiercer between chefs than bartenders simply because there are only a handful of bartenders who care. Right now behind the bar I have apple foam, quince gelée dusted with rose sugar [rose petals crystallized and ground], and my own fresh sour mix made with organic egg whites. Last, but definitely not least, fresh fruit juiced every single day. I've been making drinks with shiso olive oil and fleur de sel, not to mention gold salt, made with ground black Hawaiian salt mixed with gold leaf. One drink is actually smoked in front of the customer with wood chips."

Since he's spent much of his career in the back of the house, Lemoine got to experience more aspects of the industry than most. Instead of just making drinks his way, he's interested in working with back-of-the-house staff to utilize the most applicable techniques.

"We're all here for one purpose, which is the restaurant. We all have different backgrounds, different techniques and ideas, and we can all benefit from each other. When I see something unfamiliar that someone's doing in the kitchen, I ask how it's done and then store it away for later use. And vice versa, I think."

He credits the 2004 Worlds of Flavor Baking & Pastry Arts Invitational Retreat at The Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in St. Helena, California, as a pivotal moment. Getting to work with New York City pastry powerhouses such as Bill Yosses (Josephs by Citarella), Sam Mason (WD-50), and Pichet Ong (Pudding consulting) opened Lemoine's eyes to culinary experimentation and innovation. "Experience is like caffeine--the longer it's in contact, the more caffeinated the drink gets."

After ending his tenure at Gilt in February, Lemoine has set his sights on something bigger. Just as he has fused his mixology with his pastry background, he founded a company called iFoodstudios, a concept-development studio and a breeding ground of invention, from book ideas and menu development to live demos, food styling, test kitchens, and television shows.

In addition to the concept work, Lemoine says iFoodstudios will eventually offer fully stocked test kitchens equipped with industry-standard tools from 10-gallon mixers to high-end chocolate tempering machines. Currently, iFoodstudios offers branding assistance to foodservice and spirits companies including Grand Marnier and Torani.

"It's nearly impossible for chefs to do R&D in their own kitchens. With all of the day-to-day activity and noise, it's hard enough to get everything done, let alone tinker with something new," he says.