Indonesia-based acolyte of fine dessert cookery, Will Goldfarb was named The World’s Best Pastry Chef, sponsored by Cacao Barry, at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 ceremony in Antwerp, Flanders. 50 Best sits down with the New Yorker who has travelled the world in search of sweet perfection and has found a happy home in the magical island of Bali with his restaurant, Room4Dessert
Let’s take it right back. You were a law school student, but dropped out in the name of cookery?
Yes, essentially. I had gone down the traditional academic route and I was a very geeky high school student and then I went to university. From when I first arrived at college, I started working in restaurants. In fact, I’ve been working in restaurants from when I was about 15 or 16. Everything from parking cars to learning to bartend, I just loved it. When I went to college it was a great way to keep working on the side. I was a busboy, food runner, host, bartender, everything… all around Durham, North Carolina. By the fourth year, frankly, it had overtaken my studies in terms of importance. At the end of school, I was accepted to law school and I asked to defer for a year. The idea of going straight through didn't appeal to me.
But a trip to Europe did appeal?
I went to Paris and I started doing pastry. I did a basic class at Le Cordon Bleu school and then I did an intermediate course straight after. Immediately after I finished, I picked up an apprenticeship in a in a restaurant where I covered for a pastry chef so he could have a summer holiday. He then kicked me out as soon as he came back to the restaurant, but that was fine. I realised I could run a pastry department and didn't speak a word of French so it gave me confidence after this trial by fire.
I was doing school all day and then working all night; almost 24 hours a day so I burned out of that pretty quickly. It forced me to head back to New York, where I worked with a guy called Andy King to put on some huge gastronomic events. I was in two minds whether to stay and finish my studies in New York, but you know what they say about Paris in the springtime… I went back to Europe and got an apprenticeship. I did six months in Florence, Italy, then went back to Paris where it didn’t quite work out, which left me stranded. Quite quickly though, I then got asked to work cooking for a family across the south of France. I basically went from going to law school to homeless and unemployed to the French Riviera and Florence in about a week.
Europe clearly made a good impression on you. From there you were the first American to work at El Bulli in Spain?
Yes, at that point there had been no Americans come through the kitchen. I applied to stage twice and on the second occasion I made it through. You could tell everyone in that room was serious about what they were doing from the moment you walked in. It was around 1999 and there were all sorts of people from the 50 Best lists we see today passing through: Massimo [Bottura], René [Redzepi], then Grant Achatz joined the following year . You really got the feeling that something special was happening.
I think everybody knew that was the place to be. You have to think about it in the context of the rest of the food world: El Bulli got three Michelin stars in 1998 and with that it really seemed as though the balance of gastronomic power was shifting out of France for the first time. It was an epochal shift and it was the first time in 500 years that France was not the epicentre of the eating world. You can draw comparisons today with how the zeitgeist – in tune with the advent of Instagram – has shifted to Copenhagen in recent years as we can see from this year’s 50 Best list.
One of Golfarb's signature sweets from Room4Dessert, Bali, Indonesia
So what was it like in that formative El Bulli kitchen?
The intensity was there and everyone had the passion as we knew we were onto something amazing. The Adrias were years ahead of their time and the systems they implemented are now considered normal in restaurants all over: picking herbs for use that day, having a research facility, reflecting seasonality and the local environment. I don’t think El Bulli needs PR support from me, but it really changed the game in the late 1990s, much as 50 Best started to change the way restaurants started to think about rankings shortly after.
I know El Bulli is often talked about for its ‘molecular’ work – which I believe was the product of questionable journalism – but that’s not what I learnt there. Eating local and following the seasons wasn’t in vogue yet; the top French restaurants were still shipping in caviar and lobster from all over the world and I think El Bulli showed them another way. The dishes we made were complicated, but it was never technique for technique’s sake – everything had a purpose.
The attitude of everyone really impressed me when El Bulli was named The World’s Best Restaurant [in 2002] as it was the same as when they won three stars in 1998. They just said that ‘now we have to really work hard’, which was more meaningful than any of the actions I saw there. Essentially, if someone says that you’re the best, then that’s when you really have to start to work.
Could you have stayed longer?
I'm not going to lie: between the language and the pace – and the fact that at that point I'd been cooking for less than 18 months – it took its toll. I did a year and a half, then I needed a change. That's when I went to Australia on a one-way ticket. I had about $400 in my pocket and worked with Chef Chong [Liew] in Adelaide for a few months. He was fantastic and taught me a lot, but he quickly sent me on a bus to Sydney as he thought that was where I should be.
I had some wonderful experiences. Chef Liew was the hottest in the country and Tetsuya [Wakuda] was just breaking through. Bear in mind this was before we had proper internet – communication was patchy at best. You really needed to read Food & Wine at that point to know where the chefs were and what was going on in the world. When I got to Sydney I was working on a building site in the morning and then going to work in a fine dining kitchen in the evening. I was staying in a youth hostel where I had to tie my belongings to my person so they didn’t get stolen, so it really was an experience on many levels.
Goldfarb at home in Ubud, Bali
Doesn’t the brick dust effect the palate of a pastry chef?
It was a bit odd going from that kind of labour into a fine dining kitchen. It was standard migrant labour demolishing houses and the like but I actually really enjoyed it. Then I got the call from Tetsuya while I was on the construction site – I was literally cleaning bricks. He invited me in for dinner and offered me a job, I took it and the rest was kind of history there. After about eight months there I hit a wall. It had been three or four years on the road and I just needed to go home. Sydney was amazing, but I felt as though I’d run out of gas in the middle of the road.
One presumes you got a job in New York pretty easily in the early Noughties?
Yes, I did have a few offers. Europe was still very fresh in my mind and I was cooking this futurist style of food and was trying to make dining as interactive as possible. I’d been working previously with Paul [Liebrandt] in New York and we got together at Papillon and had some fun.
A New York Times review, released in 2002 described the Liebrandt and Goldfarb partnership as follows:
For a brief period, strange doings were reported at Papillon. Mr. Liebrandt, in cahoots with a wild-eyed pastry chef, Will Goldfarb, was staging culinary events that seemed to mingle theater of the absurd with conceptual art and Parisian avant-gardism of the old school, circa 1910, when shocking the bourgeoisie really counted for something.
Multiple courses, sometimes as many as 20, were served to guests who allowed themselves to be tied to their chairs and blindfolded, or consented to lick their food off the back of a half-naked woman in a fog-filled room. The idea was to disorient and disrupt, to make diners experience flavors and textures outside their normal contexts.
Post 9/11, it must have been real period of flux in the New York landscape?
The atmosphere was like I’ve never known it anywhere before. There was fear, but there was also anticipation. We saw it as the right time to be creative and to push the boundaries of what we're doing. It was also around this time when I met my wife, Maria, after responding to her advert for a flat mate.
And things changed for you from that point on?
Yes, Maria has always been my biggest supporter. She was adamant that if a chance came up that I could do my own thing, I should take it. We spoke at length about the concept for Room4Dessert so as soon as we could do it, we did.
And at the same time, when we lost the first restaurant a couple years later, it was important for both of us to get a clean break. Bali was somewhere that she had found as an alternative, for our family and for our education. From that point, it’s been amazing how everything's worked out.
Maria is heavily involved in the garden project in Bali, right?
The farming and sustainable ethos at Room4Dessert is entirely under her direction. She does all the design, planning, planting and advising on all the details and is at the heart of our sustainability programme. I like to think of it as pretty old school – at the heart of every great restaurant there was always the woman of the house who was responsible for everything important. So that’s the role she has here, but specifically for the garden.
The garden at Room4Dessert
She's also directing a project which allows our team members to start their own independent businesses: everything from natural dyes to composting and mushroom growing. That’s really the big focus for us in the years to come, alongside our Academy, where we run month-long pastry workshops, kind of like graduate school for professionals. We will be converting this to an online format soon, where we will offer scholarships to young local students. We have also sent members abroad to learn at restaurants like Belon, Bo.lan, Brae, L'Effervescence, Gaa, Toyo, and Dewakan, as well as SingleThread. Our sustainability workshops are currently focused on our community and will expand to regenerative farming and permaculture gardening programs as part of our Academy.
Do you feel at home in Bali today with the restaurant?
The nice thing is that when you walk people through the garden and sit them down and serve them the plants that they just touched, you don't have to explain it, it's pretty straightforward. It's our contemporary interpretation of the plant world that's around us which has been so critical to life and it's totally integrated with our menu. It’s easier for me to show rather than describe and that’s what makes me feel at home in Bali. We have a bigger connection with the products that we serve and everything seems more than just some food on a plate.
One of Room4Dessert's more theatrical creations
And where does being named The World’s Best Pastry Chef fit into your career to date?
I’d have to say that receiving the title of The World’s Best Pastry Chef, sponsored by Cacao Barry, must be up there with my greatest achievements. I’ve followed 50 Best since its inception and I think what it has done for the world of gastronomy has been absolutely fantastic in terms of recognising new cuisine styles and showcasing destinations such as Peru to the world that were previously unknown. It’s now just up to me and the team to see if we can put in the hard work that will see our little restaurant in Bali recognised on the big stage in the list, which is something I would really love to see.
Header image: Ramon Morató, Cacao Barry Global Creative Director, with Will Goldfarb, The World's Best Pastry Chef, and Andrea Doucet Donida, Cacao Barry Global Brand Director, at The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2021 awards ceremony
The list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2021, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on 5th October 2021 in Antwerp, Flanders. To stay up to date with the latest news, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.