How an elBulli-Trained Pastry Chef Found Himself Making Churros in Bali

Will Goldfarb has been through a bad business deal, cancer, and a 10,000-mile move with his family. Now he's ready to get serious—and weird—about his desserts.

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May 11 2015, 3:30pm

Ubud is an incredibly lush city in Bali, where people use palm fronds as umbrellas and Hindu temples rise out of the greenery every other kilometer. It's also a place you can find bottles of Lanson, Bollinger, and Polroger on ice. This is largely thanks to New York native Will Goldfarb, a lauded pastry chef who traded the grit of Manhattan for the rice terraces of an Indonesian island.

Six days a week, Goldfarb gets on his motorbike and winds down palm-lined roads to his restaurant Room 4 Dessert in Ubud. While the city is particularly popular with visitors and expats—you may have seen Julia Roberts bike through it in Eat Pray Love—it lacks the commercial feeling of the island's more touristy areas.

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There's a mystical quality about the city, and it's to be a buzzing part of Bali's burgeoning culinary scene. When I met Will at his one-year-old restaurant, he rattled off a handful of spots I should try while I was in town."And those are just from 2015," he said, after naming places for fine dining, coffee, and rising Balinese chef talent.

READ: How to Drink Moonshine in Bali

Goldfarb didn't relocate to Bali to join the growing hype. The move came after years of success in New York City. After attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in the 90s, Goldfarb landed a stage at molecular gastronomy institution elBulli, where he spent more than a year in the hallowed kitchen.

He came back to New York and worked for some of the most respected chefs in the industry like Paul Liebrandt and Morimoto before opening his SoHo dessert bar—the original Room 4 Dessert—in 2006, earning a James Beard Foundation award nomination for Best Pastry Chef in America.

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But in 2007, things went sour with his business partners.

"Around two years in, I was getting a lot of attention and I don't think it suited my partners very well," Goldfarb said of the beginning of the end. "We had an agreement for me to buy them out, and then that agreement turned into not an agreement. Then it turned into a dispute."

Things didn't get resolved, and Room 4 Dessert New York was shuttered. With a wife and young daughter to support, Goldfarb didn't have the luxury of waiting around until he could open a new concept himself.

"I'm a pretty stubborn guy as far as the bullshit artsy side of what I do, but that doesn't mean I don't have to work," he told me.

He took on less prestigious projects like opening a sustainable sandwich kiosk in Battery Park City and a dessert studio inside ABC Carpet & Home. But the accolades did not roll in as they had during his Room 4 Dessert tenure.

"You'd be shocked at how much shit I got for doing that and the sandwich kiosk," he said of the ventures. "But what am I supposed to do? I'm trying to open my place again and work in the meantime."

Goldfarb and his family decided to get out of the city for a while. His wife made the call on Bali, some 10,000 miles away from their current home. And then, just before the family was ready to move, Goldfarb was blindsided with a cancer diagnosis. Something he had assumed was a fatty deposit in his leg turned out to be a malignant tumor. Needless to say, the Bali move was postponed.

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He eventually went through surgery and full radiation therapy to battle his cancer. Thankfully, he recovered, and the medical setback did not derail plans completely.

"It takes an awful lot for me to get thrown off track. I used to joke that you would have to kill me, and that stopped being funny when I was in the hospital," Goldfarb said. "Once I got out of the hospital it was like, No, literally, you actually have to kill me, because anything else isn't going to do it."

After a year of treatment, he was finally able to relocate his family to paradise. But when they made it to Bali, the critically acclaimed chef was barely able to work; the radiation had taken an immense physical toll.

"Physically I wasn't strong enough to do a day of work. I could do like, six hours, once a week," he said. "I worked as much as I could, and then I rested the rest of the time."

While consulting and cooking his way back into shape at KU DÉ TA in Seminyak, Goldfarb faced yet another physical upset when he blew out his back.

"That's when I said, 'If I'm going to die in a kitchen, it's going to be my own kitchen,'" he told me.

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Goldfarb was determined to settle the unfinished business and revive his once-thriving dessert bar. In 2014, that dream became a reality with the reopening of Room 4 Dessert in Ubud. Without investors this time around, Room 4 Dessert had an opening budget of what Goldfarb describes as "zero," and he used his own savings to bring the concept to life. He and his wife made do with the kitchen appliances left behind from the space's previous life as a café. They brought in furniture from their own home, had more made with reclaimed materials—for financial reasons, versus the trendiness factor—and had local artists contribute to the space's aesthetic. Their one splurge was custom made plates from Ubud's Gaya Ceramics.

You would never know the restaurant came together in such a makeshift way. The cavernous space is warm, and a little industrial, with recycled metals from nearby Denpasar. A large ceramic basin, once a sink, is filled to the brim with ice and bottles of Champagne. An impressive lineup of spirits rests on rough metal shelving.

There's a familial air about the whole place. In the kitchen, Goldfarb introduces me to his staff like a proud father shows off his children. He's passionate about mentoring, and gives me a glowing review of where some of his protegées have ended up. In the dining room, he plates dishes while playing host to guests at the bar. Goldfarb strikes up conversations with diners that go beyond generic small talk, and suddenly it feels like everyone in the restaurant has become friends.

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Today, one year after opening, the dessert bar often does three turns a night, catering to a mix of locals, tourists, digital nomads, and people Goldfarb calls "the Jakarta design crowd." Although Goldfarb's background is in extravagant, Michelin-worthy dishes, the still-modernist cuisine is made less intimidating with dish names like "Pear o' Vegans" and ingredients that include the humble churro.

European pastry elements blend with tropical touches. Kemangi, taro, and cendol rub elbows with meringues, sablées, and financiers. His creme brûlée is created with cocoa paste, drops of mangosteen bitters, and Balinese sea salt.

"It's very, very simple but it's very, very Bali," he said of the fan favorite.

For those thinking an all-dessert restaurant might be a recipe for sugar overload, there's more to the menu than caramel and sorbet.

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Take, for example, the "Ghostface Keller 2: Liquid Curds," a Wu Tang Clan-themed creation which combines Reblochon with focaccia made with Bintang (an Indonesian pilsner), tatin from salak (snake fruit), and wood-roasted papaya, and offers a break from the straight sweetness if you go for the tasting menu. The restaurant also serves cured meats and cheese plates.

Now that Goldfarb has laid his unfinished business to rest with the success of Room 4 Dessert, he can focus on entirely new projects. The kitchen used to offer staff meal as dinner for restaurant guests in the backyard, but it was too much to keep up as a side project. Within the next few months, dinner will return to the Room 4 Dessert property with a new restaurant located out back called L'Hort, inspired by a special part of Goldfarb's youth.

"L'Hort [D'en Minguets] was the bar that was in Roses that I used to go to after work when I was working at elBulli," he said. "It's like the ultimate after-work chef bar."

Like the L'Hort in Roses, Goldfarb's 40-seat iteration will serve Spanish snack food alongside a drink menu with sangria, cava, and cocktails like the Cuba Libre, made with rum and homemade cola.

Throughout my tasting at Room 4 Dessert, Goldfarb frequently checked my pulse. "Taste is good?" he asked.

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At some point, a cover of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" starts playing. The song could be Goldfarb's anthem. Opening dessert bars, leaving fame in New York, relocating in central Bali—all of these choices may sound crazy to outsiders. Crazy or not, one thing is certain. Goldfarb did it all his way.