The 1980s Dessert ‘Death by Chocolate’ by Chef Marcel Desaulniers

The layered cake known as Death by Chocolate debuted as a special in 1982 at the Trellis, a polished American restaurant in Williamsburg, Va., and built a cult following long before a dessert could find instant fame on social media.

It’s worth noting that those were pretty weird times for chocolate. Its pleasure was distorted, often framed in the culture as a monstrous, feminine temptation to be punished with the manic repentance of a “Cathy” cartoon. But the chef Marcel Desaulniers, who died last month at 78, was less interested in guilt than in the sheer joy of extravagance.

That was his mission with Death by Chocolate, which he developed with the pastry chef Donald Mack. It was an architectural wonder that loomed 10 inches tall and weighed more than 10 pounds. At a time when every serious restaurant had its lavish, layered chocolate dessert, this one stood out. Slice by slice, word spread, and the kitchen was soon assembling as many as 16 cakes a day to keep up with demand.



Within months of its debut, people calling the Trellis to make reservations were checking with the host to see if Death by Chocolate would definitely be available because, look, some of them were traveling very far for a taste of this thing. Diners asked for the recipe, changing their minds when they realized it was in fact several subrecipes that came together in a multiday process. This was the definition of a special-occasion cake. It received fan mail.

Death by Chocolate brought Mr. Desaulniers fame, but he went on to create many more chocolate desserts, cakes and cookies.Credit…Bill Tiernan for the Virginian Pilot

The success of Death by Chocolate brought Mr. Desaulniers national attention, and he met the moment, giving himself the goofy nickname “the guru of ganache.” He wrote 10 cookbooks (eight of them on the chocolate beat), starred in two cooking shows (one about chocolate), taught cooking classes and made countless appearances on national television.

The phrase Death by Chocolate soon entered the American vernacular as a shorthand for over-the-top, winky-faced, better-than-sex, chocolate-flavored anythings. Bennigan’s registered the trademark in 1986.

Mr. Desaulniers said the name came to him from an article in Gourmet magazine, where the writer described a dense, single-layer French chocolate cake called “mourir de chocolat,” or dying of chocolate. I imagine Mr. Desaulniers raising his eyebrows: You call that Death by Chocolate? Ha! I’ll show you Death by Chocolate!

Growing up in a second-generation French Canadian family in Woonsocket, R.I., Mr. Desaulniers enjoyed few treats apart from the occasional chocolate bar and his mother’s home-baked cookies. His father, who died when Mr. Desaulniers was about 10, ran a dry-cleaning business.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1965, Mr. Desaulniers was drafted. Stationed in Vietnam as a Marine, subsisting on cold canned ham and turkey loaf, he spent his time daydreaming about food — particularly sweets. “I would fantasize about Rabelaisian romps through pools of warm chocolate sauce,” he wrote in his 1992 cookbook “Death by Chocolate.”

Book chapters and dishes with titles like “chocolate dementia” and “chocolate phantasmagoria” were a bit much, even then, but they were also the expression of a man who never underestimated the powerful, if fleeting, happiness of a well-timed sweet. At the Trellis, one of Mr. Desaulniers’s favorite moves was what he called “the panoply,” surprising a table with a large tray that held one of every dessert on the menu.

At 12, I was living in rural France and had never been to the United States, but Mr. Desaulniers’s book “Desserts to Die For” was a gift from a family friend who knew that I loved to study out-of-my-league recipes. I made his very ’90s “chocolate resurrection” — individual fondant cakes topped with caramel baskets holding fresh raspberries. The caramel was too cool when I flicked it, which meant it was too thick, and I overcooked the cakes by a minute, which dried them out, but the recipe had been an excellent guide, even teaching me how to remove caramel from the pan. (Add water, boil it.)

Death by Chocolate was more intimidating, and the recipe in “The Trellis Cookbook” (1988) didn’t include an image. “A fair warning must be issued that this is a time- and money-consuming recipe,” Mr. Desaulniers wrote in the postscript, which also gave a suggestion for how to break down the steps into three manageable cooking days.

Why go through all this trouble? Before opening the Trellis, Mr. Desaulniers had spent years selling industrial cake mixes and pie fillings to institutions; cooking from scratch, often with regional ingredients from Virginia, was a point of pride.

Death by Chocolate involved cooking a disk of cocoa meringue; a chocolate mousse; a second, slightly different chocolate mousse infused with coffee; a buttery chocolate ganache; a brownie layer to slice horizontally; and a chocolate-rum sauce.

Temperatures and textures had to be just so for the cake to come together with structural integrity. Two different nozzles were required for the piping. Directions were lengthy but precise, right down to how to cut the cake with a serrated knife run under hot water. You got the sense that Mr. Desaulniers really wanted you to get it right.

I never attempted Death by Chocolate, but rereading the recipe I felt a deep appreciation for its intensity and commitment — particularly now, when pastry kitchens are often considered nonessential expenses even at “nice” restaurants, where a dessert menu might contain little more than an overly gelatinized panna cotta and a scoop of mediocre ice cream.

I also wondered if this chocolate cake that did the most could crack the algorithm of our collective food obsessions now. If it debuted in 2024, would it be just another special, here one week, gone the next? After all, Death by Chocolate wasn’t built for the camera, but for the eye.

Knowing this, in 1982, Mr. Desaulniers employed a foolproof strategy. He simply walked a cake around the dining room, hoping diners would notice.

Of course they noticed. Everyone turned to see it, glamorous and gleaming, under a shield of rosettes. Ooh, what’s that, they asked their servers. The drama of the name must have helped. Mr. Desaulniers didn’t have to do anything else: Death By Chocolate called out to be sliced.

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