Life is sweet for pastry chef Cheryl Koh

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 13, 2013

When it comes to eating dessert, Cheryl Koh, pastry chef of upmarket French restaurant Les Amis, is no snob.

She says she does not discriminate between the commercial and the artisanal.

The 33-year-old Singaporean says: "I love dessert. I love to eat it and make it.

"I enjoy a banana split with three scoops of ice cream as much as a McFlurry from McDonald's or a scoop of HaagenDazs ice cream. And I love these as much as as any artisanal, handpicked, garden fresh dessert that I might make. I like all dessert."

When dining at restaurants, the daughter of a travel agent mother and aircraft engineer father even surveys the dessert menu first.

Ask the slender chef if she then mentally compartmentalises her stomach in attempt to save room for dessert, she says: "Oh, there is always space for dessert."

With a love for dessert and pastry, moving into the kitchen seemed only natural for the St Nicholas Girls' and Catholic Junior College alumnus.

She did part-time work in the pastry kitchen at the Raffles Hotel during her school holidays and, upon graduating from the National University of Singapore with a degree in geography and European Studies, she took on a full-time job at the hotel.

Asked why she chose to pursue those majors at university and not start her culinary career earlier, she says: "I think it's education. I don't think I started my culinary career late. I don't think I actively chose something else then decided that I wanted to cook.

"It was an opportunity to go to university to get an education and to learn new things, and then start work."

She says she decided on a career as a pastry chef because she had fallen in love with "kitchen life".

Koh, who is single, says: "I liked the kitchen pace, the life, the people, the environment, the work. It's a very dynamic atmosphere."

After a year at Raffles, she decided to pack her bags for Paris, where she turned up at the kitchen of two Michelin-starred restaurant Lasserre to ask for a job. She had met the restaurant's chef Jean-Louis Nomicos when he came to Singapore for a food promotion at the hotel the year before.

She had studied French in university, so language was not too much of a problem.

She spent two years at Lasserre before moving to work at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. From there she went on to two Michelin-starred Don Alfonso 1890 in Macau and in Sorrento, Italy. She also worked at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, after which she joined the Les Amis Group's now-defunct Hong Kong restaurant Cepage. The restaurant closed in June.

The pastry chef, together with Cepage's head chef Sebastien Lepinoy, both of whom relocated to Singapore two months ago, now run the Les Amis kitchen.

Your father is the cook in your family. Which dish of his do you love the most?

Braised soya sauce pork belly with tofu and hard-boiled eggs. The thing about his dish is that it is not about creating something fancy. He has been cooking the same dish for years. But each time he cooks it, it tastes different. He improves on it and also tweaks it by adding different things. I don't know what he adds, because I have never cooked it with him.

What is your comfort food?

Chicken curry with potatoes. I eat it whenever I can, and when I was living overseas, I would cook it. My paternal grandmother would make the dish and it is something that I grew up eating.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I like fried chicken. I eat it whenever I can too. When I am hungry, and start thinking about what I would like to eat, I think about fried chicken.

What are some of your favourite ingredients to work with?

Fruit that is in season. Currently, I am working with figs and pears. Towards the end of the year, I will make desserts with apples, oranges, pears and chestnuts.

We use a lot of French fruit at the restaurant, but I am open to using fruit from anywhere. For example, near Christmas, I may use cherries from Tasmania, Australia. Now, I am using figs to make a fig tart and I also make a Mirabelle plum souffle.

What is your food philosophy when it comes to making dessert?

Three words: "Is it delicious?" That is all I think about - that I am going to make something that is good to eat.

Do other criteria such as textures, temperatures and flavours also play a part when you create "something that is good to eat"?

I also think about whether I would like something creamy, soft or crunchy, warm or cold. I play with different temperatures and different textures to make a dessert. Then, from there, different flavours or elements that might go together.

For example, with the fig tart that is being served at the restaurant now, I pair the figs with rosemary because where the fig tree grows, the rosemary grows as well, and I think they complement each other.

You enjoy making dessert for people and you call it the "happiest part of the meal". Why do you think it is the happiest part?

It is the happiest part of the meal because it is the part that you don't just eat - it is the part that you want to eat. And the person should eat it, because he loves it.

Where do you draw inspiration for new dessert creations?

Food history and stories. I generally like to read food encyclopaedias such as Larousse Gastronomique. Every time I create something, I think about where, for example, the fruit is from, or what stories centre around that fruit, among other things.

Do you always create new desserts? What about the classics?

I like to do classic, traditional desserts too, whether it is the perfect millefeuille, creme caramel or rum baba. When cherries are in season, for example, I would make a classic cherry clafouti. These are things I enjoy making too.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 13, 2013

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