IN a restaurant, the division between the savory and sweet sides of the kitchen runs far deeper than, say, a chef's skill level with chocolate tempering as opposed to squab-butchering. It boils down to a fundamental difference in technique. Savory chefs cook by intuition, gauging quantities with their eyes, noses, fingers or whatever utensil happens to be nearby, be it a measuring spoon or a container lid. Pastry chefs use scales. This rift poses obstacles for Iacopo Falai, who is both chef and pastry chef at his Lower East Side restaurant, Falai.
Having worked as a pastry chef for a decade in Europe before planting a foot on the savory side, Mr. Falai lives and dies by his sleek white battery-powered scale, weighing out everything from the two leeks he needs for a soup (200 grams) to a hefty pinch of salt he adds to cake batter (5 grams). His kitchen staff of five, however, often rebels. The battle of the scale rages on a daily basis. ''I have a problem sometimes with the people working for me even if they are Italian,'' Mr. Falai said, weighing out strawberries for two seasonally inspired desserts he planned to prepare that day: celery pudding cakes with strawberry-rhubarb compote and strawberry-rhubarb salad with olive oil, mint and fleur de sel. ''Fabio, my sous-chef, doesn't like it when I make him weigh for the tomato sauce,'' he said, referring to Fabio Bano. ''He says, 'you are a pastry chef, you don't know.' But I say, what if someone else has to make the sauce, how will they know? Let's use a scale! Let's write it down!''
Mr. Falai's precision is also evident in the way he handles the ingredients once he has weighed them. The 100 grams of rhubarb for the salad is trimmed, peeled, cut into finger-long pieces and then sliced lengthwise into translucent reddish strips with a sharp vegetable peeler. He slips these into a pot of bubbling simple syrup to poach for exactly two minutes, until the texture softens and the color fades to the tint of pickled ginger. The celery for the celery cakes receives similar attention. Even though the stalks are juiced and then strained, he still peels them first, using a paring knife to pull out tough fibers and cut away any browned parts.
Mr. Falai's relationship to his paring knife resembles his attachment to his scale. It may be because of a grandmother who skinned all his grapes, or perhaps rigorous training in Michelin three-star restaurants, but whatever the reason, if something has a peel when Mr. Falai picks it up, it won't by the time he puts it down. For his homemade buckwheat pappardelle with spring vegetables and pesto, not only does he peel the fava beans, he peels each green pea as well. ''People who don't peel peas and favas are not nice people because the skins are not nice,'' he said definitively.
After juicing the celery, Mr. Falai freezes the bright green liquid until it becomes slushy before mixing it into the batter. The frigid temperature allows the batter to accept more liquid than if it were added at room temperature, he said. Even so, the batter looked curdled when Mr. Falai spooned it into the molds. But the cakes baked up with smooth creamy interiors that tasted a little like celery and a lot like butter and almonds. Served warm (Mr. Falai chills the cakes after baking to allow them to unmold easily, then reheats them), they were rich and almost gooey, like a fresher springtime incarnation of a molten chocolate cake.
To finish the dish, Mr. Falai seared rhubarb and strawberries in butter for a sweet-tart caramelized compote to sit beneath the cakes, and to surround them he simmered a velvety soup of rhubarb, strawberries and sparkling wine that he referred to as the ''fruity juicy purée part.'' Which it was.
Celery cake, compote and soup handily devoured, he set about tearing 20 mint leaves into green bits for the strawberry-rhubarb salad. ''This salad is something like what the grandmothers do when you're a child,'' he said, weighing out extra virgin olive oil and corn syrup for the dressing like no grandmother I know of -- except perhaps his, who in addition to peeling his grapes, also poked out the chunks of fat from his soppressata with a pencil. ''The grandmothers do it à la minute in a glass; some strawberries, mint, sugar and voilà, dessert,'' he continued. ''It's like my version except it's more interesting to use olive oil. Olive oil is a little bitter and I like to balance that with vanilla flavor.''
As he spoke, he slit a vanilla bean lengthwise on the cutting board and scraped out the seeds with the tip of his paring knife. In one fluid motion, he flicked the seeds into the dressing, and tossed it with the mint specks, berries and poached rhubarb. As a crowning touch, he sprinkled the top with a pinch of fleur de sel -- without even weighing it first. Score one for the savory side.
Celery Pudding Cakes With Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote Adapted from Iacopo Falai
Time: 1 1/2 hours, plus 4 hours' chilling
For the cakes:
3/4 cup celery juice, strained (homemade or bought from juice bar)
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups almond flour
For the compote:
1 1/2 pints fresh strawberries, hulled
2 large stalks rhubarb (about 4 ounces each)
3/4 cup sparkling white wine, like La Spinetta moscato d'Asti or prosecco
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped out
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Vanilla ice cream, for serving
1. At least 5 hours (or up to 36 hours) before serving the dish, make the cake: Place celery juice in freezer and stir occasionally for 2 hours, until slushy. Transfer to refrigerator until ready to use: it will hold for up to 4 hours.
2. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Put liners in 8 cups of a muffin tin.
3. In an electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat butter until creamy. Add confectioners' sugar and beat until light. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until well combined. Beat in almond flour until smooth. Slowly beat in slushy celery juice. Mixture will look slightly curdled.
4. Divide batter among muffin cups. Fill remaining unfilled cups with a small amount of water. Bake cakes, rotating pan halfway through, until edges are golden and center is firm to the touch, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer cakes to wire racks to cool, then chill for at least 2 hours.
5. To make compote, quarter half the strawberries. Cut a stalk of rhubarb into large chunks, and other stalk into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Combine whole strawberries, chunks of rhubarb, wine, sugar and vanilla bean seeds in a blender. Purée and strain.
6. Melt butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add quartered strawberries and sliced rhubarb, cut-side down. Sear, without stirring, until they begin to color, about 2 minutes.
7. Pour in the strained purée and simmer until rhubarb is just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer strawberries and rhubarb to a bowl. Continue to cook juice until it has reduced slightly, about 2 minutes.
8. To serve, mound some compote on individual serving plates. Pour some juice over fruit. Unmold celery cakes and peel off muffin liners. Heat cakes in microwave oven until warm, about 5 to 15 seconds. Place a warm celery cake on top of each mound of compote. Garnish with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
Yield: 8 servings
Strawberry-Rhubarb Salad Adapted from Iacopo Falai
Time: 40 minutes
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped out
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
For the salad:
1 medium stalk rhubarb (about 3 ounces), trimmed, peeled and cut into 3-inch-long pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries, chilled
20 fresh mint leaves, torn into pieces
Fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper
1. To make dressing, whisk together the corn syrup, lemon zest and vanilla bean seeds. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Set aside.
2. To make salad, use a vegetable peeler to shave rhubarb pieces into thin, wide strips. In medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine sugar with 1 cup water. Simmer until sugar has completely dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add rhubarb and cook for 2 minutes. Turn off heat and let rhubarb cool in syrup for 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer rhubarb to a bowl; save syrup.
3. Assemble salad just before serving. In a large bowl toss together the berries, rhubarb and 2 tablespoons rhubarb syrup. Add mint and toss again. Whisk dressing, add to salad and toss gently. Sprinkle with fleur de sel and black pepper.
Yield: 4 servings.