By Kenya McCullum
When Chef Andy Chlebana, CMPC, CCA, Professor of Culinary Arts/Pastry Chef at Joliet Junior College in Jolliet, Illinois, isn’t teaching his students how to make mouthwatering dishes that diners love, he’s creating delicious works of art from sugar that wow culinary competition judges. We recently spoke to Chef Chlebana, who is the author of “The Advanced Art of Baking & Pastry,” to get a taste of his work.
Q: How did you start doing edible art?
A: The first place was on the Olympic teams when we would do cold food. A lot of what we were doing was food styling, so if I was making a mousse, I needed to use food ingredients to make it look like a mousse. I wasn’t going to use cream and food coloring or buttercream and food coloring. I was going to use cream puree, gelatin, and some sugar and glucose so it didn’t dry out. I was going to make it look like a mousse and use a little bit of a different technique than I would if somebody was going to eat it, but I made sure that all the ingredients were edible.
There’s no more cold food for the national team, but I think it’s a great skill for chefs and pastry chefs to learn because when you change the way you do cold food, you can change the way you do the food you even serve to people to eat.
Q: How do you come up with ideas for your edible art pieces?
A: Sometimes I just see something and think, “I want to do that.” A lot of my process is the reverse of that though, so I actually don’t want to do something because I know somebody else does it.
Q: Do you make sketches of your pieces before you work on them?
A: When I’m teaching a class, I always sketch the pieces out, but normally if I’m going to do it, I will sketch it just to make sure that my proportions are good. Once you do it for a while, you kind of know the proportions of things, but sometimes you go, oh, that hoop is way too big, or it’s way too small, or I need another one of them there, or I need to create more volume here. So sometimes I’ll do pretty rough, quick sketches—especially if I’m going to be making a mold out of anything—because I want to make sure that I’m not wasting material.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in creating edible art?
A: I think finding time, or making time, to do them is challenging. Work isn’t going to pay you to sit around and pull sugar unless the boss needs help with something, or you are the boss, so you’re not going to have the time to practice. I think making time for yourself, even if it means staying late or coming in before your shift, is important to learn how to do those things. I think the industry has shifted a lot in recent years, especially post-COVID, so the majority of people aren’t interested in doing that. I think the most challenging thing is finding someone to show you what to do, and help you correct your mistakes, and just taking the time to practice.
Q: How can chefs get started with edible art?
A: They should find a mentor. Also, there are a lot of great books out there, not just mine. There are a lot of French chefs that have books out there, and the cool thing about art is that even if you can’t speak or read French, the pictures pretty much explain everything to you. I think that’s the best way. Chefs can also take a class, but the problem is right now I don’t see too many classes teaching sugar and chocolate work.