IF YOU look through social media platforms, pictures of pastries are attractive. Being a pastry chef may be a dream-come-true job for many, but little do they know about the many challenges along the way.
“I still remember the first day of the class, I was in a team of three and we were all new to this line. Neither of us had any experience in the kitchen. As I stepped into the kitchen for the first time, I was told to make bread,” reminisced pastry chef Chong Ko Wai.
“Neither one of us had any experience. We were all so clumsy during the first practical class and it was a total disaster! Fortunately, I started [learning]. Every time the baked goods came out during practical class, it gave me unspeakable satisfaction, which drove me even further.
“I was so obsessed with pastry making that I purchased the same tools and ingredients right away after my class so I could do it at home. The first pastry I made at home without any guidance from lecturers was a black forest cake, and it was a total disaster.
“The sponge cake was hard as a rock, and the kitchen was a mess. My mother even banned me from baking in the kitchen due to the mess I created.”
But this setback did not discourage him. In fact, it sparked a determination to improve and to do better.
After many attempts, Chong learned that the most important ingredient to becoming a successful pastry chef is “determination.”
“Being humble has been my principle throughout the years of my career,” he added. “I will always assess my work to make sure that I continue to improve.
“I would never tell myself that my pastry is perfect, so that I will continuously push myself to improve.”
What inspired you to become a pastry chef?
“It all started with a book, which I picked up at a local bookstore. It was a Japanese book on pastries (written by a professional chef) which was so different from the rest of the pastry books on the shelf. I never thought pastries could be so beautiful, compared to what I usually see in Malaysia. That was how I started to get deeper into pastries.”
What are the challenges you face as a chef?
“As a chef, we are constantly facing challenges from different aspects, such as contemporary trends, current customer taste preferences and the latest technology. It takes dedication to stay in the field.
“A pastry chef is more like an architect of taste, whereby looks and taste are equally important.”
Do you have any memorable moments?
“The most memorable moment was during 2016, when I and my team-mates succeeded in winning the second place for mixed pairs at France’s international pastry competition (Mondial des art sucre).
“For many years, the podium was dominated by certain countries such as France, Italy, Japan and other European nations. No one thought Malaysia would make history at that time, as our country was on the list of so-called underdogs.”
What is your favourite flavour?
“Vanilla and lime are my favourites as they are basic flavours, simple and comforting.”
What is the most difficult or challenging part in making any pastry?
“The most challenging part I would say is satisfying different people’s tastebuds, as people from each region have different preferences in terms of sweetness and flavour combinations.
“Finding the right balance involves a lots of work. Maintaining food costs and yet still delivering quality (for pastry) is also one of the headaches, as many customers demand for good quality, but yet they are not willing to pay the price, which leads to using many alternative ingredients as a replacement, such as flavouring, margarine and non-dairy cream.
“These are not visible to the average customer, who is keeping up the competitive prices. It takes huge courage for a pastry chef, who believes in [his work], to stand by his principles and deliver good quality pastry.”
What is your plan for the future or goal in your life?
“To create pastries with a good balance between price and quality.”
Tell us about the Peanut Butter Jelly Rolling-Pin (Pate á Choux).
“The rolling-pin is one of the tools, which I use for my pastry-making. So, I decided to bring it to reality by making an edible rolling pin.
“The flavours of this pastry are peanut praline, raspberry jam and choux. Peanut is a familiar flavour, so I wanted to use a French technique with a touch of Malaysia, to highlight the peanut ingredient.
“The challenge is in the baking. I need to control the baking of Pate a Choux (also known as cream puff) with a specific shape. It takes a few baking tests to get it right, as it involves a consistent oven heat and the right selection of flour.”