Shaun Hergatt’s Playful Canapés at Juni, NYC

The Michelin-starred Aussie chef compresses creativity into tiny bites at his Midtown restaurant

On an unassuming block east of Koreatown, NYC restaurant Juni lives in the ground floor of the quiet Hotel Chandler—a classic boutique hotel that eschews trendiness for efficient service. The restaurant is the baby (seating just 50) of Australian chef Shaun Hergatt, who closed his two Michelin-starred namesake restaurant to open Juni in 2013. And since, Chef Hergatt has been taking guests on adventurous two-hour journeys that highlight foraged ingredients, the current micro-season and, above all, his eagerness to knock the socks off. It’s his playful sense of humor, supported by his honed culinary skills, that result in dishes like the famed Cherry Ripe. Named after Hergatt’s favorite childhood chocolate bar from Australia, it’s a perfectly spherical-shaped foie gras mousse dipped in cherry gelée and garnished with chocolate tuile—the glossiest fake cherry we’ve ever eaten.

Each dish, simply described by their two to three main ingredients, on the three stripped down tasting menus similarly instill a sense of anticipation and mystery. With guests having no idea what to expect, fresh ingredients have never been more exciting or multi-dimensional. Setting the tone for the night is an unexpected procession of creative canapés before your selected menu. For instance, “The Oyster Which is Not an Oyster”—an entirely vegetarian recreation of an oyster—is camouflaged among real oyster shells on a cave-like stage. We spoke with Hergatt to learn more about how he creates miniature masterpieces, like this, for maximum effect.

Where does your fascination for canapés come from?

When you look at the menu, you see what you’re going to [order]. So all of a sudden, we come out with this procession of canapés. There’s a bit of mystery, there’s a huge ‘wow’ factor because it’s unexpected. But at the same time it’s the visuals, but also it’s the speed that it comes out because there’s a 25 minute period where you get seven canapés. It’s also the dimensions of how we’ve put the the presentations together. It’s also the levels of flavor profile and how it works in sequence.

This one particular part of the experience at Juni is something that, in my mind… we’re creating this semi-“experience within an experience” to try and just floor you before you even start the meal. Ultimately, you think you’re coming in and getting certain courses—but in actual fact, you’re getting much more. I want to capture your attention at the start of the meal. People walk away and say, “Oh my God, what just happened.” It’s rapid-fire, it’s interesting, it penetrates your mind, it penetrates your senses; it inspires you. It’s something that really sets the pace for the rest of the meal.

Can you walk us through the creative process for dreaming up a new canapé?

Ultimately it starts with inspiration from something. I’ll give you an example, like the cran-apple pebble: we had these rocks that we had purchased that we were using almost as a side thing that was underneath the plate. And I started to look at it, and I was like, maybe we should make this into a canapé because the shape is very natural. It was the right size for a bite. So we actually sent it through to Chicago and got a mold made. And then the process started—well, what are we actually going to fill it with? At the time, it was very much a seasonal thing: cranberries were in season and, obviously, apples throughout the year. An indicative vegetable or fruit that people would think about when they come to New York would be an apple; it’s the Big Apple. That part of it, with the seasonality, came together.

Then we started to figure out, well we know we want to make this thing. Do we want to make it a crunchy shell or a soft shell? Then we realized, let’s just have something that has a high citrus feeling in your mouth that’s going to keep you inspired. The apple and cranberry worked perfectly. And we kept it kind of soft because I like the kidney-like texture to it. Because what happens when the skin bursts, it has so many different layers of texture as it warms up in your mouth. After that, when the finish has happened, then you feel it in your mind, and in your palette, and how you feel as a human being. Once it’s gone, how do you feel about that? What is the process of the after-effect?

And then, really, it was just the presentation. We started to play with the pebble on the rocks. I got these boxes made from a local provider who is a friend of mine. And we put it together that way. That would be one of the creative processes in how we produce one of the canapés. But they’re all different in the way the inspiration comes, and then the way that the process happens as well. It’s not the same system.

Each canapé feels like a miniature theatrical production in the way you’ve paid attention to every single detail, including how its presented.

It’s not just about theatrics—it’s about the five senses and we want to create experiences where your mind will be taken over as soon as you see it, you start thinking about it, then all of the sudden, you’ve got taste and texture and these finishes as well.

It’s also sequenced out, too. If you start out with the carrot canapé and finish with the “truffle,” there’s a sequential understanding of why we’re doing that. It’s almost like in the same realm of how we produce wine; you drink a champagne and then you get into a heavy red wine. You also want to crescendo the [dining] experience in that way as well.

Speaking of the black “truffle,” how did you execute that idea?

As a chef, I was classically trained in French cooking and, back in the day, it was all sauces and all that sort of stuff. Then you start to open your mind and you get better at what you do, and then you open up the inside of you—and you realize that what you see is: fun. What you get, in the end, is a different story. From my perspective, I love to play with the understanding of visual and then changing the palate. So what you’re really seeing is not what you’re really eating. I think that’s an interesting point and a wow factor of the experiences that I produce.

So when you look at it, you’re like, “Wow, it’s a truffle.” But the actual fact is, there’s no truffle in it. Except this little sensor that pops in your mouth and you get that fluidity and that beautiful sort of scent on your palate. It was a very strenuous, long, hard… it just went on and on and on—almost for a year—to perfect this thing. The pure measurement of the crust versus the filling versus the center; I tried it in many different weights, many different thicknesses and it never worked for that perfect mouthfeel. So unless you have it down to the perfect gram, it just doesn’t feel the same. There’s even have a certain cooking time that we cook it so that once it comes out, it rests for a minute and a half so it cools down to the perfect temperature, and then the sugars crystallize in the actual crust so that we have that textural aspect as well.

I love to play with the understanding of visual and then changing the palate. So what you’re really seeing is not what you’re really eating.

Then I was walking around the market and went to pick up some flowers, and I saw this driftwood that was on the floor. I picked it up, cleaned it up and I started to paint it; and I painted it black. Then I had these things mounted on top of it, so when you have this experience with these “truffles”—the vessels are all handmade by me as well. This is something coming from a human being. It’s not mass-produced. It’s something we care for and I put on the table. I’m very proud that I did that—it’s a very personal affair for me.

We have a very avant-garde and futuristic way of thinking about food. As long as people continuously come looking for an experience that will be inspiring, we’ll always have [guests] coming through the door. I think that every corner in this city and on the planet, you can pick up a steak and a set of french fries, but there’s only one place on the planet where you can experience what we’re doing right now.

Juni is located at 12 E 31st St New York. Reservations can be made via OpenTable. Visit the restaurant’s website to view the changing lunch and dinner menus as well as the wine list.

Portrait and rock canapé images courtesy of Signe Birck, all others courtesy of Gina Santucci