A Sweet Life: Pastry Chef Josh Johnson
by meg mathis
Josh Johnson prepares a chocolate sculpture at the French Pastry School.
The lakefront playground of Navy Pier transforms into a veritable candy land this month, welcoming more than 125 vendors for the inaugural Chicago Fine Chocolate Show—and chef Josh Johnson has a golden ticket. An instructor at the French Pastry School of Kennedy-King College, the 36-year-old northwest suburban native will present a showpiece of sugar and chocolate confections throughout the weekend. Befitting his background as an instructor, though, Johnson is most excited to teach people about chocolate’s rich history.
He’s certainly qualified to do it. At the French Pastry School, Johnson teaches techniques in chocolate candy, chocolate and sugar sculpture, taste, and cake building. In the last two years, he has had great success displaying that knowledge, competing as part of the four-chef winning team at the 2011 National Pastry Team Championship, then following that up by winning Best Dégustation (for a selection of chocolate and sugar showpieces, plated desserts, entremets, petits gateaux, and chocolate bonbons) and placing second overall at the 2012 World Pastry Team Championship in Las Vegas last July. “It’s really intense,” says Johnson of the two-day competition, which he undertook with teammates Donald Wressell and fellow French Pastry School chefs Scott Green and Della Gossett. “A [chocolate] sculpture that would normally take a good week to build, you build in eight hours.”
Johnson’s love for pastry making started early. When he and his twin brother, Jeremy, were 13 years old, they helped their uncle Richard Rivera at his Euro-American pâtisserie Ambrosia in Barrington. But Johnson hasn’t always envisioned a career in sweets; he has left the industry twice to work as a car porter and an electrician. Ultimately, though, he favors the creativity baking allows him. “I love experimenting,” Johnson says. “I can’t buy a new engine just to see what it’s like, but I can make cookies all day if I want to try something new.”
Johnson is also the kind of chef who takes his work home with him; he frequently tests different recipes for chocolate chip cookies, and he cites a cocoa-rich combination of brownies and chocolate milk as his favorite treat (“People get coffee headaches; if I go too long without chocolate, I have the same thing now,” the self-professed chocoholic says). At a recent Pastry Chicago event, Johnson was in the midst of a sugar demonstration when he learned of a nearby brownie contest. “I was like, This is good and all, but where are the brownies?” Luckily for Johnson, he won’t have to look very far this month to satisfy his sweet tooth. The Chicago Fine Chocolate Show runs November 16 through 18 at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., 786-558-5234
photography by clayton hauck