The Real Diet of Pastry Chef Cheryl Koh
Desserts have long had a place in this world. No, we’re not talking about the kitschy molten chocolate cake you receive on Valentines’ day as a symbol of love. We’re talking about the specially crafted sweet mercenaries that have been carefully put in place to punctuate the night.
Incredibly passionate about their recipes, pastry chefs have been known to spend 70% of their time in prep and just a mere 30% on the line. And though our dwindling spending power has relegated the option of having desserts to excessive debauchery, many would still appreciate the wave of creative, inventive and #foodporn-worthy afters that have surfaced in the local restaurant scene.
Cheryl Koh, for one, crowned Asia’s Best Pastry Chef in 2016 is a prime example of when dedication, imagination and sweet actuation collide. We all know the saying to ‘never trust a skinny chef’, and as Cheryl Koh of Tarte and Les Amis mumbles under her breath, “I don’t need a cheat meal”; one begins to notice her slender frame underneath that billowy chef’s jacket. Skepticism aside, her impressive work credentials and achievements may just be the solution to your lingering apprehension. Shortly after her recognition, Les Amis bagged two Michelin stars at the Michelin Guide Singapore award ceremony. We have so much to learn.
HNW: Your tarts are such Instagram darlings, it’s evident that everyone loves them. Tarts aside, what other desserts do you like to bake?
CHERYL KOH: I’ve always been a stickler for simple traditional French desserts. Given my training, these old-school recipes and techniques have always been the basis, and starting point of my ideas, eventually translating into what we put out for our customers. If I had to make one dessert, it would be a soufflé. It’s sophisticated and beautifully technical—when done right, the results are really delicious.
Do you have a sweet tooth?
Yes, very much so. I’ve an insatiable sweet tooth and it’s not snobbish too. A lot of people have that misconception because I work in the pastry department and I have to be discerning or snooty about my desserts. In actual fact, I eat everything! From cookies to chocolate bars, being in the kitchen and experiencing all that highs and lows inculcates a culture and atmosphere that forces you to indulge in snacks and yummy foods all the time.
Local desserts or French Pastries? Not asking you to pick a side but do you have any favourites?
Now, that’s a difficult question. Both ways depending on the situation and whereabouts. It’s understandable that on a hot and humid day, a refreshing bowl of ice-kachang or cheng tng is the way to go. However, if you’re sitting down with friends or satisfying a craving, French desserts are a must.
For me, I’ve always been a bit biased. Since starting out, I had a deep desire to venture to France to learn the craft of pastry arts. The French culture is amazing, and my advice to any budding pastry chef is to immerse yourself in the culture, because it is the place to be for desserts and pastries. Take the effort to speak the language, only then will you begin to understand the subtleties and nuances. There’s something romantic about learning to describe your food and surroundings in French. It’s invigorating.
In Singapore, there’s always a local corner coffee shop that dishes out the best chicken rice and possibly a very good lor mee. In France, the equivalent would be a pastry shop. Despite its humble settings, you should not miss out on that chicken rice, similarly in France, there’s no point in escaping the lure of tucking into a baguette or croissant. These simple everyday French bakes should not be taken for granted.
Recently, you baked a Pandan Coconut Tart for the la Crème de la Crème pastry event showcasing European cream. What was your inspiration behind that?
One day, my local boss brought an elderly office lady’s traditional home-baked kaya cream custard tarts to work. It was flaky and very delicious. After devouring the baked good, he asked me to use it as an inspiration to develop a new recipe. And voilà! My Coconut and Pandan Tart has no coloring and is composed of all natural product showcasing some of the region’s best coconuts. Sometimes, it is about taking the best ingredient and then putting a spin on things to make it your own.
Take us through a typical day for you, food wise?
No breakfast. I begin the day with coffee at work. Throughout the morning, I’ll taste all the various pastries, breads and ice creams that have been prepared for service. It’s a job requirement, crucial to ensure consistency. Ice creams are churned fresh daily for lunch and dinner service, and I’m terribly meticulous about trying everything. Doors to the restaurant open at 11:45 a.m. and I’ll be snacking on the sourdoughs fresh out of the oven at 11:30 p.m. Nothing escapes me.
How about lunch?
After a busy session on the pass, I usually am able to take a breather from 3 to 4 p.m. and squeeze in a small bite. Sometimes I’ll be too full from the morning tastings, but at Les Amis, there are always fresh fruits available. Hence, I can’t decide if it’s eating badly or eating well. French Gariguette strawberries, apricots from the South of France and cherries, I get to taste them all before deciding what goes on the menu. Occasionally, there are seasonal vegetables and prime cuts. My job allows me access to taste these prized ingredients before any of you do. It’s about the quality control, that and all the chocolate and ice cream…
What time does supper start?
After work at about 11 or 11:30 p.m. Sometimes the whole kitchen crew will head out but more often than not, I’ll go home and have a big meal before bedtime. All that manual labour allows you to eat like a king before bed.
When you’re indulging in a cheat meal, what’s your go-to?
A: Look at me, I don’t need a cheat meal. Well, if I had an off-day, I would visit other restaurants to try their offerings. Be it new establishments or old ones for their new seasonal menu, it’s always a pleasure to learn new things. But as I’ve said on numerous occasions, my true comfort food dish is curry chicken and potatoes. I can’t imagine the weight I would put on if there wasn’t so much manual work involved in my job scope.
What’s your best food memory?
A: Without a doubt, family meals. Homecooked meals always have a special place in my heart. Even if it was going to your grandma’s place and having the same 5 dishes every time, you understand it and it’s nostalgic. Sometimes I would even resort to taking my memory of a particular dish and tweaking the recipe to make it my own.
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