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More Than a Meal: Experiential Desserts Create Excitement That Can’t Be Matched at Home

Offerings that bring diners together in a shared experience make the return of on-premises restaurant dining even sweeter.

Desserts Turn Restaurant Experiences Into Theater

Desserts that capture attention either by their unique visual appeal or through experiential elements that call for diner interaction can add excitement to in-house restaurant dining, reminding consumers of what they’ve been missing for the past year.

“I see experiential desserts as those moments of drama that elevate dining to a ‘feature presentation’ and transcend the simple exchange of goods and services,” says Michael Laiskonis, creative director at the Institute of Culinary Education. “I like the idea that as pastry chefs, we, in a sense, create memories—drawing the guest into an interactive dessert is undoubtedly an opportunity to make a lasting impression of the meal.”

In some cases, these desserts are relatively simple to create but stand out for their visual presentation. Others—such as build-your-own sundaes or s’mores constructed at the table—may invite shared experiences among diners. Some of the most creative dessert presentations involve desserts that are “unlocked” at the table (e.g., chocolate shells containing colorful fillings that spill out when diners break them open).

Explore these examples of desserts that demand attention and help reinforce the joy of in-house restaurant dining.

Modern Mont Blanc: Institute of Culinary Education

Modern Mont Blanc: Institute of Culinary Education

This version of the classic Mont Blanc dessert, which traditionally features a sweetened chestnut purée formed into a vermicelli mountain, combines layers of milk chocolate and vanilla parfait with cocoa chiffon cake and pear sorbet. To elevate the experience, Laiskonis caps the glass dish in which it’s served with a disc of dried meringue that diners must “shatter” before eating. The additional detail not only illustrates how a traditional dessert can be made interactive—and thus, more experiential; it also helps the flavors of the dessert jell before consumption.

Red Velvet Churro Bouquet: Chica

Red Velvet Churro Bouquet: Chica

This visually stunning dessert serves red velvet churros in a vase, with a side of three dipping sauces. The fun, playful nature of the desserts aligns with Chef Lorena Garcia’s personality—and is a great example of a simple creation presented in an innovative way that reflects the restaurant’s cuisine and ambiance. Garcia’s Chica restaurants in Miami and Las Vegas have promoted the dessert on social media with a video that even shows how to enjoy them.

Cinnamon Sugar Doh Rings: Red Robin

Cinnamon Sugar Doh Rings: Red Robin

This eye-catching visual presentation from Red Robin, featuring a tower of hybrid croissant/donut pastry rings, invites customer participation and promotes a shared experience. They are tossed in cinnamon sugar and come with hot fudge and caramel dipping sauces. It’s also available in a smaller version with four dough rings for two to four people to share.

Chocolate Kyu: Umi

Chocolate Kyu: Umi

This Valrhona chocolate sphere filled with fresh berries, red bean pastry cream and mascarpone cream also requires diner participation. The dessert is served with a small wooden mallet that diners must use to crack open the chocolate orb and access its contents. According to Farshid Arshid, Umi’s owner, the chef prepares just 12 to 15 Chocolate Kyus each night, which adds to the experiential dessert’s allure. “We’ve sold out [of them every night] since we launched in 2014,” he says.

Desserts provide a unique, memorable ending to a meal that reinforces the enjoyment diners feel when dining out with family and friends. Whether it’s for special occasions, or simply celebrating the joys of human companionship once again, desserts help bring people together for shared experiences.

The pandemic challenged consumers (and operators) in countless ways. Most honed their home cooking skills or made due with takeout, but there’s no substitute for “the social and theatrical elements of destination restaurant meals,” says Michael Laiskonis, creative director at the Institute of Culinary Education.

That’s just one of many reasons why so many restaurant regulars are eager to return to onsite dining—and the communal experiences they create.

Desserts offer a prime opportunity to deliver these types of experiences. Over-the-top creations that command the attention of the whole table (or even the entire dining room) help bring diners together—whether it’s to celebrate special occasions or just reunite with family and friends—and rekindles the sense of joy inherent to the restaurant dining experience.

“To me, this is really all about reminding people why it's fun to be out and dine in person, as opposed to cooking your own food at home,” says Montina Filice, senior strategist at The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that specializes in food and beverage. “Creating something that consumers truly can't recreate at home is key to reinvigorating onsite dining.”

When planning signature or experiential desserts, chefs and operators should focus on elements that add value to the overall experience. “Don't add ‘show’ just for the sake of the show,” she advises. “Experiential elements should have a functional purpose.”

She points to the vase used to serve the Red Velvet Churro Bouquet dessert at Chica in Miami and Las Vegas as an example. “For something like the Churro Bouquet, the vase is certainly presentational, but it also makes it easier to share the churros and likely keeps the outer coating intact,” she explains.

Desserts that aspire to be a signature or experiential menu item also should reflect the restaurant’s brand and its personality, Filice continues. “Is your brand silly and playful? Chef-driven? Edgy?”

The experiential elements should build upon existing brand attributes, she says.

A distinct point of view

Laiskonis says signature dishes often evolve through a kitchen’s creative process and sometimes “unexpectedly take on a life of their own” as they gain traction with guests.

“When I think of the most iconic and effective dishes, I see a distinct point of view—a unique presentation and inventiveness either in flavor or technique,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a singular creation or simply a new spin on a nostalgic classic. Sometimes it’s the result of wild complexity. Sometimes it stands out for its pure minimalism and craft.”

A signature dessert Laiskonis became known for as the pastry chef at New York City’s Le Bernardin was “The Egg.” It featured a real eggshell containing layers of milk chocolate cream, liquid caramel, caramel foam, maple syrup and a few flakes of Maldon sea salt. “I think it worked on a few levels, but what gave it some mystique was the fact that it was an off-the-menu item, often presented as an extra treat or asked for by those in the know,” he explains.

The dish, which is still available at the restaurant to those in the know, offers both a unique serving vessel—the eggshell—and, with its hidden layers, an element of surprise. “Served with a tiny demitasse spoon, it amounted to just a few bites but often left the guest wanting just one more spoonful,” Laiskonis says.

Signature dishes and experiential desserts also generate buzz beyond the four walls of the restaurant and into the world of social media. “They become sales tools of their own—must-have items [that are] noticed by other guests in the dining room [and create an] ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ moment,” he continues. “The best signature dishes create those lasting memories that lead to repeat visits.”

Other examples include:

  • An interactive petit fours presentation Laiskonis created with Matthew Kirkley when they worked at the now-closed L20 in Chicago: It featured nested lacquered boxes that were ‘deconstructed’ at the table to reveal a series of tiny cakes, chocolates and candies.
    “It was a very simple and relatively inexpensive way to add a bit of theater,” says Laiskonis, who adapted the idea at New York City’s Récolte Dessert Bar (currently closed), where servers often reassembled and opened the boxes again for customers to photograph for social media.
  • The ice cream trolley wheeled tableside at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London (which no longer appears on the menu): A pitcher containing a liquid ice cream base was poured into a hand-cranked mixer, followed by a stream of liquid nitrogen.
    “The server cranked the mixer amid the cloud of nitrogen to create an instant ice cream, which was then artfully scooped into tiny cones with a selection of toppings to choose from,” Laiskonis explains. “The drama of liquid nitrogen and the instant creation of the dish, as well as the repackaging of nostalgia in a very refined way, [made] that concept so quintessentially iconic.”
  • The bombolini at BomboBar in Chicago: This hole-less Italian donut comes with a small bottle that customers use to dispense a filling for the donuts, Filice says. Filling options include salted caramel and raspberry.
    “It's interactive and Instagram-worthy, and it places special emphasis on the components of the dessert, highlighting the flavor of the filling and preserving the texture of the donut,” she explains.
    Topgolf offers a similar concept, dubbed Injectable Donut Holes, on its dessert menu, Filice adds. There, customers choose two of three fillings they can insert themselves: chocolate sauce, raspberry jelly or Bavarian cream.

Tips for creating experiential desserts

There are plenty of ways to generate excitement for dessert that results in sales.

Offering tableside interaction between staff and guests is a good start. “I love almost every aspect of simple tableside interaction,” Laiskonis says. “Perhaps it’s a final sauce or flourish added to the dish, or a compelling story that offers insight into the inspiration and preparation.”

Creating hidden surprises or an element of discovery also helps make the dessert occasion special. This can be achieved by concealing hidden layers inside a dessert—or creating a component that guests “break through,” such as a chocolate outer shell, for example. Such presentation techniques “force the guest to engage in a way a ‘static,’ albeit beautifully plated, dessert does not,” he explains.

Finally, consider developing an offering that requires some work on the diner’s part. “Including the guest in some form of preparation or assembly is also a compelling way to bring a dish to life and draw emotion into the experience,” Laiskonis says.

Many operators choose to create excitement around their dessert offerings with limited time offers featuring familiar ingredients such as OREO Cookie Pieces. Sundaes, milkshakes, deep-fried OREO Cookies and other creations featuring the iconic cookie always create buzz—and can be an enticing draw for customers looking to rekindle their love affair with restaurant dining.

For more snack and dessert ideas featuring OREO, CHIPS AHOY! and other branded inclusions, visit the Mondelēz International Foodservice Culinary Center.

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