The Cherry on Top
Why celebrated pastry chef Miro Uskokovic always keeps an ice cream sundae on his menuDaniela Galarza
July 16, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Daniela Galarza explores the path of pastry chef Miro Uskokovic from rural Serbia to the kitchen of New York fine dining icon Gramercy Tavern, and how ice cream became a symbol of his adopted country along the way.
The ice cream sundae is more American than apple pie. It was invented in Ithaca, New York or Two Rivers, Wisconsin, or Norfolk, Virginia, depending on who you believe. Starting in the 1890s, soda fountains topped ice cream with hot fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry. Shops still sling them, from Brooklyn to Portland to Greentown, Indiana. That’s where, in the 1990s, Miro Uskokovic got his first job at a soda fountain called Tin Lizzy.
Now the pastry chef at the multiple James Beard Award–winning Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, Uskokovic always has a sundae on his ever-changing menu. “It’s a way to highlight a seasonal ingredient, it’s fun, and it reminds me of my first job in America...of imagining a sweet life,” he says.
Though he never moved from his hometown, Uskokovic lived in four different countries before age 16. He grew up in a small farming community in present-day Serbia, which went through several government and territory changes during the Yugoslav Wars. “I was six years old when it started,” he says. “The bombings, protests…it didn’t feel like a hardship, exactly, because it was all I knew.”
After the war ended, Uskokovic entered a foreign exchange program that allowed him to move to the U.S. to finish high school. After graduation, he moved back to Serbia and enrolled in a local hospitality college with a focus on travel—not the culinary arts. “I never thought of myself as much of a cook or a baker,” he says. A year into university, he started to miss America.
But when his mother was diagnosed with cancer and given just months to live, he paused his studies to be with her. “We spent almost every day in the kitchen,” Uskokovic says. That last year with his mother was pivotal. “With my mother by my side, I started baking,” he says. He appreciated the precision of pastry. “Being close to her, it allowed me to process and accept the situation,” he remembers. “But it also gave me a vision for what I wanted to do with my life.”
Before she died, Uskokovic’s mother made him promise to finish college. He knew he wanted to do that in the U.S. He moved back in with his host family from high school, and applied for a Green Card.
After two years of saving for tuition, he packed his books and KitchenAid mixer into his 1996 Chevy Cavalier and started driving east—to the Culinary Institute of America. A year in, he met his future wife, Shilpa, a fellow student at the school. The pair graduated together and moved to New York City to look for work.
Almost immediately, Uskokovic landed a job at Jean-Georges; he was promoted to sous pastry chef 18 months later. A year after that he accepted an offer to be executive pastry chef at Aldea.
In late 2012, Uskokovic married Shilpa at a restaurant known for its desserts: Gramercy Tavern. “That was an amazing day, being surrounded by friends and family—but I never dreamed I’d be the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern a year later,” he says.
The next June, Uskokovic read that Gramercy Tavern’s pastry chef was leaving. Knowing his chances were slim, he decided to apply. He was called in for an interview with JBF Award–winning chef Mike Anthony. “We hit it off,” Uskokovic recalls. The two chefs spoke for three hours, and though Anthony expressed some hesitations, a month later, Uskokovic landed his “dream job.”
Gramercy Tavern is a fine-dining restaurant, but its front room accepts walk-ins, making it feel casual even though it has the resources to support an 18-person pastry team—rare for restaurants outside hotels. Uskokovic’s department touches every part of the menu, and is responsible for about 15 different desserts, plus pre-desserts and after-dinner chocolates.
“Officially, the dessert menu changes four times a year, but we swap things out sometimes every couple of weeks,” Uskokovic says. So far this year, his team has introduced about 24 new desserts, including several ice cream sundaes—a sort of homage to his time at Tin Lizzy.
Gramercy Tavern didn’t serve many ice cream sundaes before Uskokovic started, but now they’re a constant on the menu. “We’re sort of known for them now,” he says. Of course, these sundaes are slightly more complex than the ones he served as a teenager in Indiana.
“Each Gramercy Tavern sundae starts with one single concept, and then it’s about building out components that will accent that flavor,” Uskokovic says. Rhubarb sorbet and lemongrass ice cream were swirled in this past spring’s sundae, layered with basil cotton cheesecake, candied almonds, and rhubarb–strawberry compote. For a banana-themed sundae, Uskokovic made cashew and caramel ice cream, banana cake, cashew sesame brittle, and layered it all with fresh bananas and a rum–toffee sauce. Multiple-component sundaes might seem over-the-top, but their technical complexity belies a simplicity in form. They’re ripe with flavor, but also make great Instagram fodder.
Uskokovic says there are a few rules to follow when creating sundaes at home: start with quality ingredients (store-bought are fine), imagine each bite having something fruity, something crunchy, something saucy, and one other texture—chewy or cakey or crisp. But the most important thing? “Have fun with it!”
A former pastry chef, Daniela Galarza is a reporter and recipe developer who writes stories about the intersection of food and culture for the New York Times, New York magazine, Eater, and other publications.