Mac Daniel Dimla, the 23-year-old executive pastry chef of L.A. fine-dining restaurant Providence, remembers what went through his mind when he heard that California’s foie gras ban had gone into effect in January. Providence chef and co-owner Michael Cimarusti walked into the restaurant and told his staff the news.
“He was like, 'Foie is banned, so take it off the menu,'” Dimla says.
Dimla, who’s soft-spoken but has a sly sense of humor, had a different idea.
“I was like, 'No, let’s put it on the menu,'” he says.
So he created an exceptional dessert with the appearance and texture of foie gras.
Providence, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant where 2019 James Beard Award winner Cimarusti composes beautiful tasting menus with sustainable seafood, is serious about seasonality. The restaurant has its own rooftop garden, and Dimla spends Wednesday mornings at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, even though that’s his day off. He thinks a lot about ingredients that he’ll have in the near future. So in the winter, he was already planning for strawberry season.
Dimla knew he wanted to do a dessert with strawberries and Valhrona Dulcey chocolate, which is creamy and golden. He was making ganache with Dulcey on the day he found out about the foie gras ban. The color of the Dulcey reminded him of foie, so Dimla created something that resembles a torchon by turning the velvety chocolate into namelaka cream (which is like a hybrid of ganache and pastry cream) and setting it in a mold.
Then, once strawberries were in season, Dimla inserted a Harry’s Berries strawberry gelée into his torchon-like masterpiece. To mimic pepper atop the dessert, he used some fine coconut and Maldon salt, and then he sprayed some cocoa butter to achieve "that bit of blush" that a torchon has.
“When he first presented it to me, I thought it was just brilliant,” Cimarusti says. “It’s visually stunning. The flavors are spot-on, in spite of the fact it doesn’t look like a very sort of California dessert, in the sense of lots of fruit.”
But Dimla is a pastry chef who says he likes to make desserts “that have a little bit of a surprise.” It turns out that the foie gras doppelgänger, which is known as Ban This Dessert, is a showcase of perfect strawberries.
“It’s an ode to Harry’s Berries, really,” Cimarusti says.
Beyond the strawberry gelée hidden within the chocolate, Ban This Dessert also features strawberry sorbet with Champagne and rice vinegar. That sorbet, Dimla happily points out, is kind of like a cocktail. In addition, there’s a compote with a syrup Dimla makes by steaming strawberries. The compote also features fresh brunoised strawberries and is seasoned with rose water and lime zest.
“He definitely has knowledge and ability that’s well beyond his years,” Cimarusti says of Dimla, who was promoted to executive pastry chef last year. “It just became very quickly apparent that whatever he wasn’t quite prepared to do, he was going to figure out.”
Providence’s pastry prodigy has a reputation for being a man of few words. (“He talked to you?” Cimarusti asks incredulously when I tell him that Dimla and I had a good conversation.) When I interview Dimla, I start by asking him to help me understand how he got in his position at such a young age. I tell him we can begin with the short version if he wants.
“My whole career is the short version,” he says with a smile. “I’m 23, you know.”
Dimla, who is of Filipino descent and was born and raised in Guam, thought about being a lawyer or a doctor when he was in high school. But he needed an extracurricular activity so signed up for a culinary program, ProStart, even though he didn’t have much cooking experience at home and had never worked in a restaurant. He ended up being part of a team that won ProStart’s national competition, beating teams from schools all over the United States, two years in a row. He was a backup in the first year and the team leader in the second year.
He wasn’t even sure he wanted to do ProStart the second year. He thought he would be better off in a nursing program, or maybe studying biology.
“But my culinary instructor came back to me and just assumed that I was joining,” Dimla says. “Being the shy person I am, I just kind of said OK.”
He then impressed his teacher when he decided to make turkey for his family on Thanksgiving.
“I posted it on Facebook, and my culinary teacher was like, 'Oh, you know to brine?'” Dimla says. “I was like, 'I don’t know what brine is.' I just put the turkey in a solution of water and salt, and it worked well.”
He says he learned how to do that because he was flipping through the TV and saw something on the Food Network.
“We had no ovens, only gas, no butane burners,” he says of the ProStart competition. “But we really got creative. We made stove-top ovens. We turned steamers into ovens and we baked cakes and everything. We sort of did what we needed to within whatever we had.”
Being the leader of the winning team, which impressed judges with dishes like a beggar’s purse featuring lobster, shrimp, scallops, ginger, scallions, and fermented chili sauce, made Dimla think that cooking could be a viable career option. And there were prizes for the winning team. He could get a full scholarship to some culinary schools. Dimla, though, decided to take a partial scholarship at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Napa.
“I thought if I was going to pursue this, just go for it,” he says.
He did his externship in New York at Marea, where he started on the garde manger station at the age of 17. He remembers flying to New York and starting work on the same day.
“I didn’t even how how to go anywhere,” he says. “I didn’t take Uber. I took the subway because I wanted to push myself. I took my bags, all my belongings, into the restaurant. I tried to fit everything in the locker, but it wouldn’t fit. I changed into my chef’s uniform and I started. And then after my shift, which was around 2 a.m., I think, I had to figure out how to get to where I was going to live.”
Dimla wanted to make the most of his time in New York, so he knocked on the doors of many restaurants. He staged at Per Se, Maison Kayser, and some lower-profile restaurants. He spent a few days at Le Bernardin.
After culinary school, he ended up in Los Angeles, where he was working full-time at Kali (where he was on garde manger and also helped with desserts) and part-time at Republique when he was offered a part-time job in the pastry department at Providence. By this point, Dimla, who had always enjoyed baking in culinary school, knew that pastry was his passion. Suddenly, he had three jobs.
Now, Dimla only has one job, where he spends a lot of time in an upstairs chocolate room at Providence.
“We don’t work together,” Cimarusti says. “He’s always upstairs in the chocolate room.”
Cimarusti laughs and tells me about the chocolate tree Dimla has been working on for a while. There’s a trunk, made of chocolate that Dimla whittled down while he was waiting for fig season. Providence has a fig tree outside, so he’s gotten leaves from the tree and put them on the chocolate tree.
Dimla’s vision is to take the bonsai-like tree tableside and plate a dessert with elements from the tree. The dessert includes a fig that’s sprayed with purple powder. All the figs are hollowed out and filled with steamed figs that have been turned into an almost transparent fig-water syrup. The dessert also features a fig cake, almond cream, almond crumbs, brioche-and-brown-butter ice cream, and some “gravel” below the tree that consists of white chocolate and buckwheat.
When I visit Dimla in Providence’s kitchen, he tells me that he’s going to put whiskey into each fig for a special Michter’s dinner that’s happening in a day.
I ask him how many chocolate trees he has.
“So far the one,” he says. “But by the end of today, hopefully, I’ll have five. Before we actually put it up for service tomorrow, we’ll have maybe 10. We’ll make more. I’d like to have 20. Hopefully, we’ll still have leaves by the end of the fig season.”