GOING ALL THE WAY
Virtuoso Pastry Chef Milton Abel on Fatherhood, Jazz, and His Life’s Greatest Regret
The star of the short film ‘That’s My Jazz,’ premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, Milton Abel discusses fatherhood, food, and growing up the son of a jazz music legend.
To Milton Abel Jr., a chocolate tart is just five ingredients: milk, cream, dark chocolate, milk chocolate and eggs. “But when you eat it,” he notes, “there’s no way you think it’s just five ingredients.”
Yes, the technique sounds simple, but for it to work, the tart shell must be crisp and warm when the custard is poured. The temperature must be turned low when it goes back in the oven so it cooks from the inside out. “It’s that little difference that makes all the difference in the world,” Abel says, leading to a cookie-like crust and a silky center.
“To give that to someone and they can’t even realize what’s gone into it is just nice and exciting. It just seems effortless,” Abel says. “It’s very similar to a jazz solo. These guys are just moving up and down the strings. Dad used to do this thing where he would scat and play at the same time. Him and the bass were like singing together. It looked effortless and it sounded effortless, cause he’s playing what’s he’s singing at the exact same time. They’re moving together.”
In pastry circles, Abel is as accomplished as they come, a protégé of Thomas Keller, who trained at the celebrity chef’s temples to fine dining, French Laundry and Per Se.
He went to Noma in Copenhagen—then the best restaurant in the world—at Keller’s urging, returned to be the head pastry chef at French Laundry (his dream job) and moved back to Denmark to be with the woman who is now his wife. Shortly after, he walked away from the upper echelons of the restaurant world to open a modest bakery that gives him a shot at a normal family life.
What Abel rarely shares is that he is the son of legendary Kansas City jazz musician Milton Abel Sr. who is probably best known as half of a duo with his wife Bettye Miller, but who also had a second successful 25-year-career in jazz after she died in 1979.
This week he’s had to openly share that relationship at the Tribeca Film Festival. Abel is in New York for the world premiere of That’s My Jazz, the 14-minute short documentary in which he reflects on his relationship with his dying father and his own attempts with fatherhood. He has a son, now three, and a daughter who is 17 months old.
“If you were to put a button in front of me today where we would go back and I would say ‘no’ to the French Laundry and stay at home with my dad, live in a split-level apartment, take care of him, I would hit that button,” Abel solemnly declares at the outset of the film.
Over the 15 years since his father died at age 77, Abel has battled an internal struggle many grapple with: should he have stayed at home to be close to his father or was he right to travel the world in pursuit of his own destiny?
“Looking into that camera, it was the first time I had said most of that stuff out loud,” Abel says. “I’ve never talked to anybody about these sorts of things except my wife.
“When people ask, of course I share, but outside of that there are very few people who know who they were or what they did,” he says.
The day before the premiere, Abel and director Ben Proudfoot meet me for cocktails at Café Altro Paradiso in SoHo to discuss the film, which grew out of a project that was meant to be a love letter to Copenhagen but went bust.
There wasn’t much to be found during January in Denmark. “It was fucking freezing outside. It was not going well,” Proudfoot said. “I was totally angry and depressed and we have three extra days.”
A friend suggested meeting Abel, an American-born chef who was in the process of opening the first location of the bakery Andersen & Maillard. A second opened last month.
“My first response was, ‘Why am I going to Copenhagen to meet an American chef?’” Proudfoot said. “I went in there, and there is Milton wearing a white T-shirt and glasses and looking exhausted because they are building this thing.
“Basically I just wanted to convince him to make some croissants or something for our love letter to Copenhagen thing,” he added.
The conversation turned to how Abel ended up making his way from Kansas City to Copenhagen. He started talking. Proudfoot and his team spent the next three days capturing the story.
The bakery was about a week away from opening. “The construction is not done and nothing is going to happen on time and they’re spilling concrete in my [bread] starter,” Abel said. “One challenge after another.”
“But something about this just said you gotta do this,” he said. “This is important. I have had a few times in my life where that has happened to me where it’s like, make this decision. This is what you need to do, and this was one of them.”
“I call it the tug,” Proudfoot interjects. “And you get the tug.”
After hearing Abel’s story, the film feels too short. But it brings together the struggles children face as they begin their careers just as parents are wrapping theirs up, enveloped by two men, each dedicated to honing their craft—one jazz, the other food.
“I remember smoke everywhere, tuning basses, the smell of Grand Mariner,” Abel says in the movie.
He was a self-proclaimed mistake, born when his father was 55, the product of his marriage to his second wife, but also his father’s first child. His parents would later go on to have a daughter, Chloe, who is a professional dancer.
Abel’s earliest recollections are falling asleep under pianos at his father’s jazz shows. “I was a bar baby,” he says.“My mom coined that phrase.”
By age six he was playing gigs with his father. “My father was super encouraging. This is Tommy Ruskin on drums, this is P.I. on piano. I’m Milton Abel and this is little Milton Abel and we’ll be right back. That’s how he went on break.”
Abel would break away from the music world and go into acting at the University of Missouri, where he decided to start working in restaurants as a side gig.
He had a roommate in college who was cooking. “And I was like if he can do it, I can do it,” Abel said.
Abel was hooked. In the movie, he recalls how he returned to Kansas City, and began walking into restaurants armed with a résumé and hearing over and again, “We’ll get back to you.”
He was ready to give up. And in a last ditch effort, he walked into Grand Street Café, a legendary fine dining restaurant in the heart of the city and handed his résumé to the manager who offered to go get the chef.
“I sat down with this guy Michael Magliano and said, look, I don’t have any culinary school training, but I’ll work really hard for you,” Abel says in the film.
“Magliano inspired me about cooking and showing me what it can be and how far you can go,” he later adds.
He would show him the French Laundry cookbook, a sort of culinary bible among serious chefs. “I didn’t even realize this life was out there,“ Abel said.
The two dishes he remembers that had a lasting effect on him at Grand Street are both desserts.
“I burnt the hell out of some caramel once. Like I ruined the pan. There was so much burnt caramel that you couldn’t throw it away,” he said. Magliano’s solution was to turn it into burnt caramel ice cream. The second was the pure joy he and Magliano had creating a formless crème brûlée made out of popcorn.
Soon Magliano was off to French Laundry in Napa Valley. Abel soon followed, taking a job on the pastry team because that was the job that was open.
His father “was having a hard time walking and losing his ability to play,” Abel says in the film. “And I’m like I am going to California and I’m going to try for a job at this restaurant. I don’t know if he knew I was serious, that this was the Carnegie Hall of the culinary profession.
“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it all the way. I can’t see you living your life any other way,” he continues. “My family probably did need me at home, but they didn’t tell me that.”
The last time he saw his father alive, he was back in Kansas City a few years later, and wanted him to experience French macarons, the delicate meringue-based cookies that are the finale to a meal at the French Laundry.
“’Cause that was the most special thing I had learned to make at the French Laundry,” he said. “I made them everyday. I made 200 a day. It was the last thing everybody got, and the commis (the junior chef) made them. This was the fanciest cookie I had ever made in my entire life.
“It’s a big thing for me to start nailing this and that’s what I wanted to show him, ‘look what I learned to make,’” Abel said. “And dad loves cookies, so let’s just make something fancy together.”
Abel arranged for a car and drove his father from the nursing home where he was now living to a kitchen where he used to work and had negotiated for time so that he could cook while his father watched the performance.
“He just sat in the wheelchair in the kitchen and we baked them and we mixed them. He loved it,” Abel said.
“We ran out of time, so I didn’t get to make the buttercream. We didn’t get to make this and we didn’t get to make that, so we are now back in his room and he’s got this dry time of macarons,” Abel recalls laughing. “I think he was just proud of me, to see me showing some skill. And it didn’t matter. Even if the cookies had been terrible, he would have been excited just the same.”
They stopped by a jam session at a club called Jardin’s.
“People came out to say hi to him,” Abel said. “And that just plays over in my mind over, and over and over again. Had I just been there, we could have done that every Sunday. So many people spilled out just to say hi to him in the car. We could have done that all the time, even if that gave us five more years together.”
The film picks up a month later. He had called his father to say hello. His mother picked up the phone. “She put the phone to his ear. He was trying to say something but he couldn’t speak,” Abel recalls, “and I told her I had to go and I just went back to work.“
“I have dedicated myself to my work my whole life and I’m not going to stop now,” he said. “I worked until 2 in the morning, got home, and when I got home, then my phone rang.”
His father was dead.
A few years later, he asked to be transferred to Per Se. Soon after he went to work at Noma.
“He was able to be a professional and a father and do them both at the highest level. Hall of Fame Jazz Musician, a Hall of Fame Dad. I wasn’t going to be able to do both and I had to choose what was more important to me.”
From here, That’s My Jazz switches from black and white to color as you see Abel playing with his baby daughter. Then, as the credits roll, he feeds his son a series of desserts.
At the restaurant, he finishes a second cocktail—a mix of fennel, olive, lemon and gin which he earlier declared “dangerous, but it’s less dangerous than whiskey.” These days, he works 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. and rushes to be home for dinner.
“I know that I can’t do both inside of me,” Abel says. “I know that one would take over. The bakery almost does already take over. I am struggling right now to get home for dinner every night, but I do get home for dinner, get them to bed and then go back while they are asleep.”
“They’re don’t care if dad is a great pastry chef,” he adds. “They just care that dad is a great dad.”