How did you get into being a pastry chef?
I was an infamously picky eater as a child, but also had an infamously sweet tooth – all I wanted was dessert for every meal of the day. My mother stopped allowing me to only eat dessert so I stepped into the kitchen to teach myself my favourite desserts. I loved it so much,I decided to go to culinary school and make it my profession.
What started with you doing food safety work for David Chang has led to you creating his desserts, opening Milk Bar, and being named the 2012 Rising Star Chef of the Year and 2015 outstanding Pastry Chef by the James Beard Foundation – how does it feel to have your life take such wonderful turns?
I worked freelance for Dave doing food safety work. And I guess he saw some kind of “push” or “promise” in me beyond HACCP plans! He hired me on full time to help work “operations” which was a mostly office work, as much as a restaurant office is “office work”.I approach life with a “jump” sort of mentality. I have for as long as I can remember. Though I wasn’t raised to make crazy risks (I taught myself that!), I was raised to be a crazy hard worker. It seems to be a pretty good match of qualities. When Dave offered me the “office” job, I just jumped and said “sure”, then I worked my heinie off for everything else. I am a planner in my day to day work, but not in my life. What comes from jumping and hard work, is either luck or a damn great blessing.
What have you learned from working so closely with Michelin-star chef Dave Chang, from the infamous Momofuku restaurants?
When Momofuku was still quite small, Dave and I spoke a great deal about the value we put in our staff. It’s incredibly important to grow Momofuku in order to create opportunity for the great people on our team(s), essentially breaking the chain of what you typically find in a restaurant: great staff that ends up leaving/ moving on because there’s no real long term room for growth, letting great people walk away. We are only as good and strong as our dedicated team!
Challenging the rules is vital. This translates not only to valuing staff (pushing to pay staff as much as possible, providing benefits to all staff, providing real room for growth) but every other aspect – food, style of service, etc, as well.The what-got-you-here-won’t-get-you-there mentality.Question everything!
What do you think makes Momofuku restaurants so special?
Dave has an amazing way of stripping things down to fundamentals: down right delicious food, commitment, empathy, balance, hospitality, individuality and connecting the food and the environment with the public. He also has an amazing ability to communicate, translate, teach and instill these essential elements to our family. He knows how to harvest talent, challenge each and every person and develop a devoted team, be a part of it all every second and step out of the way to let the teams he forms represent him and his vision.
How did you come up with the opening menu at Milk Bar?
When I first opened Milk Bar (15 Nov, 2008) I was quite adamant about making sure the bakery was a true, honest reflection of life and food through my eyes. I had no real vision or intention beyond that. I credit everything else to the masses that received it so enthusiastically. I am incredibly fortunate to create and also to be given a canvas for creation under the Momofuku name!
You’re known for your flavour combinations! Have you ever had combinations that you were surprised worked well together? And is there one that you thought would be a winner, but didn’t work when it came to the taste test?
I love a pairing we’ve had on the spring dessert menu at Ssam Bar: strawberries, celery root, lovage and ritz crackers. It’s a total flavor surprise and it makes complete sense while you’re eating it!We have plenty of failures in our recipe testing and innovation sessions. It’s usually less the flavor combos and more the technique and delivery of the idea. I think my biggest heartbreak was when I just couldn’t get an American cheese cake/pie with a saltine cracker crust and green tomato sorbet to work out in my favor.
How do you push to stay on the cutting edge in the here today gone today food industry?
I don’t push to stay cutting edge. I push to keep it real within myself and within the walls at Milk Bar. I try to teach to never judge, to never worry about what’s hot, what’s not, what’s upcoming, what’s on trend. I don’t believe you can truly create with those things in mind. It’s not about being like anyone else or fitting in, it’s about being yourself and confidently standing up for and embracing it. That’s the secret to Milk Bar.
What are you most proud of in your life/what is most rewarding?
I’m proud of going for it. Of keeping it real. Knowing who I am and standing behind it. Building Momofuku’s dessert program, building Milk Bar. Getting to do it everyday with an amazing group of hardbodies that I love and respect dearly. Building every new day together.
Which dessert is your favourite to make, and/or eat?
I’m really that obsessed with cookie dough. It’s the thing I eat after a long day, and nothing else can replace it/is better! Any cookie dough will do!
What is your favourite place to eat right now?
Alder or wd~50, both restaurants (wd~50 is not longer but I’d go there if I could!). He inspires such clever and ground-breaking yet simple but complicated, fun and thoughtful, delicious food!