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Chef Interviews

Named as one of the“2005 Ten Best Pastry Chefs in America”, Pichet Ong is well known for his innovative and delicious desserts that are both appealing to the eyes and the palate. Also an architect, Pichet Ong embraces authentic flavors of Asian ingredients into his exotic creations.

EBS: How would you describe your approach from architecture to cooking? Has your degree in Architecture helped you in your present career?

I come from a family where education is very important. My father always used to say “You can do anything as long as you have a degree.” Though I had a passion for cooking, for me going to school for Masters in Architecture made more sense than going to Culinary school. The way I see it, a lot of what you do, you learn it from your job. It’s obvious that there aren’t a lot of similarities between Architecture and cooking. But , the concept of the creative process is very much complementary. Being an architect requires creativity and focus on context of design and construction; on the same hand, being a chef requires creativity and focus on context as to who and what you are serving.

I learnt the fundamentals of cooking from my mother and aunt as I grew up in Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore. I like food, I like eating a lot, and I wanted to make it my world, so finally, I ventured into cooking.

I think education is really important. When I studied in Brandeis University in Boston, I had Mathematics and English literature as my major courses. I always felt Mathematics was my ticket to getting good grades- it just came to me! I don’t think I have applied anything directly to cooking but the concept of Mathematics, English literature, and Architecture has helped me in more ways than I know.

EBS: Tell us about the restaurants you have worked in the past?

After working as an architect for a couple of years, I have worked for a variety of cuisines and restaurants, a majority of them are French based. I began working at local bakeries and restaurants in the Bay Area, including Chez Panisse. I served as pastry chef at La Folie, where I also ventured into savory cooking. I also worked in the kitchens of Olives in Boston and Jean Georges in New York City. I work in many seafood restaurants in New York.

As a Chef, I have gained a lot of fame and notoriety at the same time. I’ve had a lot of people come for Asian flavors like Thai juice and also get a lot of people who’ve never tried Asian flavors. Many Asians who come in have enjoy the desserts as they get a taste similar to that at home. Reviews have been tremendously good, but some are skeptical as they don’t believe there’s anything like Asian desserts!

EBS: How did you enter the world of desserts? And what inspires you to create your desserts?

I like desserts a lot. It is always the favorite part of my meal. I started my cooking career with desserts. Later, I moved on to cook savory foods, pasta, salads, meat and fish. I am back to dessert-making now. I was sick of the smell of meat and fish; Dessert making is a lot better! Basically, it’s a professional choice and I see a lot of potential in incorporating interesting Asian ingredients into American desserts. The seasonal produce is the biggest inspiration when I create my desserts. I start off with the seasonal produce and I create a recipe around it.

EBS: So, what do you think is the most popular dessert of your creations?
Kulfi ( Indian Ice cream) with Ovaltine is really popular and is also one of my favorites. I was allergic to milk when I was younger, so the only thing that I had for an alternative was Ovaltine. I really like the flavor and now I enjoy it with Kulfi.

EBS: We’ve been told you help organizations that help AIDS victims? Can you tell us a bit about this?
I joined Project Open Hand in San Francisco in the early 90s. I had friends who were AIDS victims, so I had an attachment to the project. I volunteered and got my first job as a cook . I was in charge of cooking special meals for dietary restricted meals as well as Asian meals.

EBS: Can you tell us why and how you started your monthly dinner gathering of pastry chef community, “Pastry Chefs Night out”?
These gatherings are more like a social get-together than a business meeting. I wanted to open up a network to know and build up relations with pastry chefs. There aren’t a lot of pastry chefs and this dinner gathering creates an open forum for pastry chefs to make friends, discuss problems and enjoy each other’s company.

EBS: What’s the buzz about your new restaurant?
I am looking for a spot in New York for my restaurant P*Ong. Most probably, P*Ong will be set by next fall. I plan to have it as wholesale, retail place as well as a sit down for desserts. P* Ong will focus on puddings, cookies and ice creams with a lot of Asian ingredients. I will also use my architectural skills to design P*ong.

EBS: We hear that you are coming up with a book. What is it about and when will it be released?
The book is called “ An Exotic Finish” and is all about Asian ingredients and techniques you can apply to American desserts. There are many interesting recipes. I plan to release it in the Chinese New year 2007.

EBS: What’s next for you?
I want to open a sandwich shop. I love sandwiches and the shop would be an entry for me to go back to savory foods.

EBS: What kind of knife do you recommend?

Always use a sharp knife when you are cooking. I like Misono knives, the UX10-Deba is my favorite shape. That’s a cross between a heavy Asian style cleaver and a Western style 9″ pointed tip, but only a bit lighter and smaller. It is made of soft swedish steel which is easy to sharpen. I like it for its versatility, small enough to handle fine cuts and thick enough to split open large fruits.

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