Sweet Road to Success
words Kathryn Williams
portrait photography Benjamin Clay
cake photography Douglas Merriam
I’m rolling north on Route 1 with two slices of chocolate cake eyeing me from a container on the passenger seat of my Subaru. My temptress is “Monte Carlo Cake (an entremet in French),” and she might not survive the trip.
When I first tasted the coquettish confection, minutes ago in Robert Differ’s Ogunquit kitchen, my eyes rolled back in my head. As executive pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental, Boston, and its Bar Boulud, Differ is used to such reactions, though I’m sure it never gets old.
The decadent entremet is at once whimsical—garnished with gold leaf and an angel-hair flourish of spun sugar—and composed—thin, precise layers of hazelnut dacquoise, praline feuilletine, Manjari 64% chocolate mousse and paradise glaze. It reminds me of a fascinator, the kind of hat worn by British royalty to weddings and horse races. One gets the feeling Differ would feel comfortable in such circles. He is no stranger to celebrity—whether brushes with the genuine article or, increasingly, his own. Differ’s star is rising.
Turn and Burn
How does a self-described introvert from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, end up baking Oscar cakes for actresses and cupcakes for pop starlets in Boston? The story, oddly enough, starts in the ExxonMobil refinery where Differ’s father was food services manager. The future pastry chef recalls helping Dad with inventory. He was fascinated by the “characters” in the kitchen. “Something sparked,” he says.
When the family moved north in the 1980s, it was a short path, via Brookline High School, with its student-run restaurant, to a culinary arts degree from Newbury College and a post-graduate stint at a wholesale dessert company on the North Shore. With crazy hours and “turn-and-burn volume,” he maintains it was the hardest he has ever worked. “I put my total self into [it],” Differ recalls. The discipline and versatility he learned would prepare him for what came next.
The Mandarin Oriental is the third five-star hotel for which Differ has worked. Before joining Bar Boulud in 2014, he was at the Four Seasons Boston and, before that, Ritz-Carltons in Naples, Florida and Boston; and, for an internship, at the Hotel Ritz Paris. It was in France (“the motherland”) that Differ received a master’s in patisserie from the École Ritz Escoffier, an internationally renowned cooking school in the lower levels of the hotel.
After class, Differ would ride the elevator to his shift in the hotel’s bread or pastry shops, earning his way from station to station under the stringent French system. “Even cookie crumb scattered [across the plate] has to be a pinpointed recipe,” he explains, only half-jokingly likening the experience to an army boot camp. “They break you down to build you up.” But the rigor spoke to Differ.
Who’d Want to Stop Him?
It’s hard to imagine Differ could do what he does today without this level of exactitude. At the Mandarin, he runs a team of five pastry cooks and an assistant. Beyond the restaurant, there are all the wedding cakes and chocolate showpieces for Easter and Christmas, plus corporate events, in-room dining and meals for spa guests and full-time residents who enlist the kitchen for private parties. And it’s not just sweet treats. Brioche, focaccia and other specialty items also come from Differ’s kitchen.
But, wait! There’s more. Like Differ’s pie pop-up last fall, where he sold “lots and lots” of Sicilian pistachio cream pies. Or the gingerbread Back Bay brownstone for the lobby. Differ conceived Bar Boulud’s L’Express Lunch to-go dessert option and runs #BarkBoulud, a “canine café menu” featuring watermelon “Pupsicles,” gourmet dog biscuits, jus ice (chicken or beef) and a frozen yogurt “Pup Cup”. Then there are the locally famous Back Bay Sundaes (try the Magically Delicious, with Lucky Charms) and the cake-making classes. Chocolate bonbons and macarons that other hotels might outsource? Those are made in-house “for the joy.”
The man, simply, cannot help himself. Besides, who’d want to stop him?
VIP: Very Important Pastry Chef
“I consider myself an artist,” Differ says, sharing press clippings of his work over Arnold Palmers on the screened porch of his house, up a mossy drive in Ogunquit, where he splits his time. There is an accessible elegance to Differ’s creations. The visual experience is neat and formal without falling into staid, and the taste—well, I’ve covered that.
Some very important people are taking notice. There’s Executive Chef Daniel Boulud, who oversees Differ’s work, if mostly from afar. “Daniel” (pronounced le French way: Dan-YELL) “was intimidating at first,” says Differ. When Boulud walks into the kitchen, heads snap up, his voice booms. After three years, however, Differ has earned creative freedom. He looks forward to these visits from the boss, going over menus and collaborating with the chef célèbre.
About other celebrities, Differ is necessarily coy, though he can mention the Father’s Day cake that garnered more than 700,000 likes on a certain food-loving celebrity’s Instagram, or the night he served a royal family strawberry shortcake at 2am. Once a famous music icon was so smitten with a cake bearing her likeness, she invited the chef to her suite to say thank you. “Dessert is something that pulls people out of their world,” Differ says of the way otherwise inaccessible people interact with him over pastry, “something easy to talk about.”
His Time to Shine
Differ’s is not an overnight success story, though he acknowledges his career “really turned on” when he got to the Mandarin. And the hotel isn’t hesitating to put the chef front and center. In 2016, the company sent him to a management development course that included public relations strategy. There have been mentions in The Boston Globe, The Improper Bostonian and USA Today, as well as on popular food blog Eater Boston. Differ recently taped a segment for Boston’s NBC affiliate and our original interview was rescheduled because of an appearance on New England TV news show “Chronicle.”
Which leads me to ask, what’s next? We discuss the ideas of a cookbook and television (though Differ’s gut has steered him away from reality cooking competitions). “I haven’t ruled anything out,” says the chef, who knows the future is bright. “But I have it pretty good right now.”
If you were pulled over on the side of the road with a piece of his Monte Carlo Cake making its way to your belly, you would say the same thing.
Entremet Monte Carlo layers, from the base to its spun sugar and gold leaf tiara:
1. Hazlenut dacquoise.
2. Praline feuilletine (a hazlenut-flavored rice crunchy that doesn’t lose its crunchiness in moisture).
3. Manjari 64% chocolate mousse.
4. Paradise glaze: cocoa butter and dark chocolate in a knife-swipe across the top of the entremet.
5. White chocolate glaze.
6. Hazlenut truffles.
7. Sugar bouffant with gold leaf made with isomalt, a stabilized, heavy grained sugar. Created using a sugar wand.