(NYTIMES) - At C. Ellet's, a restaurant in Atlanta, an apple strudel arrives at the table. But it doesn't exactly look like an apple strudel.
There are no large chunks of fruit oozing rustically out of a thick band of pastry, no errant raisins or drips of sugary apple juice dotting the plate. The dough is laced with cardamom sugar, oat streusel, apple compote and clarified butter, but from the outside all that's visible is thin, delicate pastry, rising in a crinkled, cylindrical whirl. When a spoon makes contact, the structure shatters pleasantly, revealing a wayward interior spiral, whose layers encase perfect proportions of fruit to pastry to streusel.
The dish is the calling card of C. Ellet's pastry chef, Jennifer Yee, who makes desserts that are not only visually arresting but purposeful - where every shape and cut serves to build an ideal bite, to create a sense of wonder and surprise.
Yee, who oversees pastry for all the restaurants in the Resurgens Hospitality Group, used to be an architect, and she designs desserts the way she once did building interiors: meticulously sketching every element, testing many prototypes. And these days she has plenty of company: Many of the country's top pastry chefs have practised or studied architecture.
They include Ron Paprocki of Gotham Bar and Grill, a New York restaurant that since the 1980s has taken a structural approach to dishes, like its signature soaring chocolate cake; Rachel Gibeley of Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar in Boston, who oversees a celebrated pie program with creative flavours like grapefruit-caramel meringue; and Brandi Henderson, formerly of Delancey in Seattle, who now runs the adjacent cooking school and community kitchen, the Pantry.
The best known, though, is Dinara Kasko, a Ukrainian architect-turned-pastry chef who became an internet sensation last year for her sculptural, highly geometric desserts: a cherry cake made to look like shiny red bubbles encased in a cube, and a berry-almond tart with a mazelike surface, constructed with a mold made by a 3D printer.
The link between architecture and pastry dates back at least to 1815, when renowned French chef Marie-Antoine Carême wrote Le Patissier Royal, a treatise that codified how architectural principles like drawing and planning could be applied in pastry. Chefs have long played with the structural possibilities of sugar, egg whites, flour and other ingredients.
But today, architectural values and technology are shaping the new norms for dessert. And while the results are carefully plotted and constructed, they are not always towering or eye-popping. In fact, this new school of pastry chefs is trying to rescue the dessert course from the outlandish unicorn cakes and mile-high ice cream sundaes that saturate Instagram.
"You have all these photos of desserts covered in rainbows and sparkles, and they might taste like sawdust, but no one knows, because it looks great on social media," lamented Jansen Chan, a former architect who is now the director of pastry at the International Culinary Center in New York and the Bay Area.
"Instagram is a great way for pastry chefs to communicate, but there's also the danger of people walking away from great pastry just because it's not totally visually driven."
Why have he and other chefs made such a radical career shift? In interviews, several said they realised while working in architecture that pastry required a similar skill set, and they found baking a cake a lot more interesting - and immediately gratifying - than designing a building.
Yee, 39, always wanted to be a pastry chef, but went to architecture school to placate her parents, who wanted her to have what she calls "a real job". She landed a position at the San Francisco design firm Georgina Rice & Co., where she assisted in designing interiors, mostly for high-end apartments.
Tired of having to abide by mundane building codes and regulations, and wanting something more creative, she began studying pastry in 2002 at Le Cordon Bleu in London, while working as a pastry assistant at the Connaught hotel for chefs Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett.
She found that her architectural training applied in the pastry kitchen as well. "Being an architect is not all about the structure," she said. "It's about the intent. How will this improve someone's life?"
"Desserts are also about thoughtfulness," she added. "What are the ways I can manipulate this apple? What will highlight what's grown here? It's about looking at your environment and seeing what will be functional and beautiful in that space."
Consider the éclair, Yee's signature dessert when she was the pastry chef at the French restaurant Lafayette in New York from 2013 to 2016.
Éclairs are highly technical, she said, vulnerable to everything from the level of protein in the flour to the type of oven you are using. The pastry can easily come out overly dry, or completely lose its oblong shape when baked.
But precision, for her, is only one priority. "I wanted some element of spontaneity and approachability," she said. "When I garnished them, I would make the glaze a little wonky on the side, or cut the fruit on top in a random way."
That attentiveness runs through the sweet creations of Lisa Lu, 49, who oversaw the pastry department at the landmark San Francisco restaurant Boulevard from 2012 to 2017, and is now a production manager at the chocolate company Recchiuti Confections. Two decades ago, as an interior architect, she worked on creative projects like the American Licorice Co. corporate headquarters in Bend, Oregon, and a mock-up for a shop for the sports apparel brand UltraNectar, in the Bay Area.
"Having studied architecture," she said, "I can put together a plated dessert because I understand composition - the need for balance and a focal point."
The lime tart she used to serve at Boulevard, like Yee's apple strudel, looks nothing like what a diner might expect. Lu balances a marrow-bone-shaped pastry shell filled with a tangy lime curd and pomegranate seeds on a plate, piping toasted meringue all around the tart, "so that if a server wasn't careful when transporting the dessert, it would still be intact by the time it got to the table."
The meringue acts like mortar, sealing the tart into place and giving the dessert stability.
"It's a perfect example of balance," Lu said. "The shell, which is designed to be open enough to be able to pipe in a curd, is the focal point. The meringue is piped in a few key areas, and then the scattered pomegranate seeds draw your eye around the plate and connect the whole dessert together." To pastry chefs who learned the craft the old-fashioned way and don't work in the world of high-end restaurants, that kind of talk can sound like an overly cerebral or pretentious way to describe something simple: the joy of creating something sweet.
Stella Parks, a senior editor at Serious Eats and the author of the classic American dessert cookbook BraveTart, sees some good in the architectural influence on pastry, noting that it has brought more rigour into the practice.
"My worry," she added, "is always that the culinary element is being forgotten. I have had so many meals at high-end restaurants that were extremely memorable, but more like a trip to a modern art museum, where you would never want those kinds of things in your own home."
Agatha Kulaga, a self-taught baker and a founder of the New York City bakery Ovenly, agreed; architectural ideals, she said, often leave out a vital element: nostalgia.
"The usefulness of an architecture background really depends on the end goal," she said. "You can have a dessert made by a pastry chef that feels like looking at a work of art - or you can have a dessert like a cookie or a slice of cake that doesn't necessarily feel like art, but creates an experience of joy."
But Baruch Ellsworth, the pastry chef at Canlis, in Seattle, who studied architecture at a California community college, said elements like taste and emotion are essential components of the architectural pastry practice. The difference is that they are incorporated more methodically.
Both pastry and architecture, he said, are an equation: "A and B always have to equal C. You can tweak A and B lots of times, but it has to add up. You can't wing it."
In other words, you can be as creative as you want in your choice of flavours of ingredients, but in the end, the dessert has to be something that people will want to eat, "just like when you make a building: you can do anything as long as it won't fall down."
One of his most popular desserts explores the kaleidoscopic, shape-shifting nature of chocolate. On a single plate, there's a tobacco-infused chocolate mousse, a Madagascar chocolate brownie, a milk chocolate crisp, a cocoa nib brittle, a caramel cream with caramelised white chocolate, and white chocolate streusel - all covered in a dehydrated layer of chocolate that elegantly drapes over each component like a silk sheet.
Ellsworth compared desserts like that to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. "At first, you're like, 'I can't believe this is a building,' because the outside looks like a tornado," he said. "But when you go inside, you realise it is quite functional."
At the International Culinary Center in California and New York, known for turning out acclaimed pastry chefs like Christina Tosi, of Milk Bar, and Melissa Weller, the founder of Sadelle's bakery in SoHo, architecture plays a significant role in the curriculum, thanks to Chan, 42, and his architectural background.
Since 2015, the second half of the school's six-month pastry program has incorporated lessons on sketching, making timelines and project planning. Chan added a chapter called Elements Of Design to the school's textbook; it teaches students about architectural principles like dynamism and scale in relation to dessert.
Chan said a number of students have recently come to the school from the architecture world.
"They have a much easier time at adapting because they are used to being asked questions. They are better able to express their creative ideas," he said. "Pastry students with no design backgrounds will be the ones to draw a tall chocolate structure with nothing holding it up."
Chan has also introduced technology into pastry education - tools like lasers, which can be used to bake and pipe batter at the same time, and water-jet cutters, used by architects to slice through sheet metal and by large-scale patisseries and hotels for cutting cakes into precise, programmed shapes in the half the time it would take a person to complete.
Not everyone endorses this approach, though. "Architecture and pastry are both very em human /em schools of thought," said Yee, who makes the un-strudel-like strudel. "You are always thinking about what em people /em will like. This kind of technology, to me, dehumanizes food. You're taking away the personal aspect of cooking."
Some blame technology for the glorification of social-media oddities like clear pumpkin pie, or ice cream wrapped in a cloud of cotton candy.
Chan recalled encountering a red velvet cake at a bakery in Thailand on a recent trip.
"It resembled a red velvet cake," he said, "but it didn't have any cocoa. Someone had seen it online but didn't take the time to look up what, actually, is in a red velvet cake. That's the problem with social media. You lose context. Architects are the opposite - we're invested in the process."