words and photography Zarah Cheng
When I was younger, I watched The Food Network more than I watched cartoons. This was back when shows actually consisted of people cooking and baking with pre-prepared food portions that didn’t involve elimination or secret ingredients (yes, we’re talking to you 6-hour long Chopped marathons). So when I found out that my friend, Oliver, was not appalled at the idea of us watching him bake, I was thrilled. This was the closest I was going to get to watching Nigella Lawson bake in real life. As I circle over Oliver like a starving seagull at the beach, he prepares and garnishes a rhubarb tart (yes, gawd!) as we chat about what life as a pastry chef in a renowned bakery is actually like.
Where are you from?
What do you do and where are you working now?
I’m currently a pastry cook at a French bakery in Vancouver. I mainly work on laminating and shaping the viennoisserie, as well as some prep for other pastries.
What was the first thing you remember baking?
I think it was a chocolate cake. I baked a lot of cake growing up.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to face so far?
You’re pretty much self-taught as a pastry chef, in that you never went to culinary school. Would you say that a lack of formal training has ever felt like a disadvantage to you?
Sometimes. During my last year of university, I made a conscious decision to hold off on applying for culinary school and to find work in a kitchen. I wanted to make sure this was something I really wanted. So the day after my commencement, I went for an interview, got a stage/internship, and was hired full time a few months later.
Sometimes it feels like a disadvantage. Actually, all the time. But that’s really all it is, a feeling. It’s self doubt, and it sucks. But you just have to get over that, put your head down, work hard, and go after what you want. I still think about going to school, but I’m not sure what I’d want to get out of it.
Most of your training has been from chefs/cooks at the kitchen you work in. How would you describe this type of mentorship in terms of how it’s helped you grow as a chef?
I’m very fortunate, spoiled even, to have my first experience be working for and with people who care about personal growth. There are so many people out there trying to make an impact in this industry. It means a lot when you have other people see something in you, and really invest time and effort into getting you where you want to be.
There is a stereotype that pastry chefs don’t know how to cook savoury foods, but you’re actually very versatile in preparing both savoury and sweet foods. Is the way that you approach cooking the two different?
It can be. I’ve never worked in savory or anything. Generally, baking is considered more of a science, so it usually requires exact measurements when you want to make something properly. I think, in both cases, you have to trust your instincts. I was watching this video recently, where this pastry chef was talking about making pie. She said she hardly measures the sugar when making fruit pies, because it will always vary, depending on the natural sweetness of the fruit. We do that at work sometimes too. It really depends on what I’m making, and whether the ingredients are included for a function other than enhancing flavor, in which case you can’t change it up too much.
Describe your process when you come up with new recipes.
It’s all kind of random. Sometimes I’ll see something online, and want to make my own version. It’s spring now, rhubarb is in season, so I’ll want to make something with that, and will refer to some cookbooks for inspiration. I don’t come up with brand new recipes, just flavor combinations I haven’t seen much of before. I’ll usually have an idea of what I want something to taste and look like, and change recipes I know to make that come to fruition.
Lately though, I’ve kind of been into following exact recipes in books, trying to create a dessert exactly how the chef intended. It doesn’t do much to foster any sort of personal creativity, but I find it super rewarding. I think it has something to do with wanting to make something to the standard that’s being presented. It’s definitely a “cook’s mentality” in that I’m trying to execute someone else’s vision.
What are your favourite ingredients to work with?
I like working with fruit, especially when it’s in season.
What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever had to prepare?
I make these gingerbread displays every year that can be quite time-consuming. The last couple I’ve done took like two months to make. They’re fun because I don’t have to worry about how it’s going to taste, yet all the materials have to be edible.
You’ve been tasked with cooking for Meryl Streep. What do you make?
No idea. I make this apple tart that’s super easy, never fails, but everyone seems to like it. I’d probably make that!
What creeps you out the most?
The amount of time I spend on Instagram! It’s an amazing source of inspiration and a phenomenal networking tool, but I spend an unhealthy amount of time on there!
Follow Oliver on Instagram.
Posted on May 13, 2015.
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