Meet Pichet Ong, celebrating a life of dessert.
No one lives dessert more than Pichet Ong. As an architect turned savory chef turned pastry chef, he brings a logical passion to every endeavor he undertakes. His behind the scene contributions to dessert establishments worldwide are too numerous to mention here (and he signed nondisclosure agreements for many, anyway). He is a chef, businessman, entrepreneur, mentor, and consultant. Many of you know his name, but few know how Pichet became the dessert force that he is today. We are pleased to introduce Pichet as our newest contributor to Dessert Professional magazine. In every issue Pichet will provide you with practical, valuable, and inspirational tips in a Q&A format. His column is appropriately titled Q&A with Pichet. Thanks to writer Sara Hoden for the following mini-biography chronicling the twenty-year culinary career of Pichet Ong.
Pichet Ong likes contradictions. In fact, he seems to seek them out. And not only does he seek them out, he makes them work, and work well.
Ong has built a successful culinary career out of contradictions, seamlessly blending the worlds of sweet and savory cooking into cutting-edge dishes.
His penchant for contradictions emerged as an undergrad, when he majored in both English and Math. Later, he pursued a Master’s degree in architecture, all the while cultivating his passion for food and cooking. But Ong says he’s found more commonalities than differences in his career paths. He refers to his culinary methods as a type of “deconstruction”, a technique that hearkens back to his days as an architect. “A lot of people look at architecture and food in the same way. You take the food apart and put it back together. And pastry has a lot of conceptual work. You look at all of these as context and put them into your own designs. This is how the two worlds collided for me,” he says.
Laying the foundation
Growing up in an Asian home, food was a cornerstone of Ong’s family life. When he decided to try his hand at cooking, he gravitated towards dessert first, experimenting with various cookie and bread recipes, then moving into savory, mastering some Asian dishes. His first experience with cooking en masse came in college when he worked in the university’s dining hall. Later, as a grad student at UC Berkeley, he says he made the most of exploring both of his passions—designing structures, and cooking. “I’d always wanted to go to architecture school and have a little bit of history, math, physics, anthropology, and the handson classes. I’ve always liked it,” he says. “I think the study of it appealed to me because the concept was about de-constructing something and putting it back together; that’s what cooking is all about, as well.” He became heavily influenced by Southern California cuisine and started tapping his creative side to create new recipes.
As a concession to the education he’d just received, Ong’s first job out of graduate school was working for a well-respected architectural firm in San Francisco, but food remained a constant in his life. He remained with the firm for about two years, but he says that when the industry started to shift—“It was transitioning from handmade designs, like models, and shifting to computer-generated design, and that wasn’t so much for me”—he went back to his other love: cooking. “I really like working with my hands— butchering food, the meat and the fish, making the bread…I really found what I enjoyed doing.” Ong took a job at La Folie in San Francisco and pursued his culinary career.
Mixing it up
Ong has never attended culinary school, relying instead on his own sense of experimentation, love of “deconstructing” ingredients, and knack for mixing flavors in surprising ways. He’s also worked alongside some of the masters in the culinary world, among them Jean Georges Vongerichten, and their influence has helped to shape Ong’s own career. Like most creative individuals, Ong draws inspiration from virtually everywhere, and has been influenced by various types of cooking throughout his career. His tenure with Jean Georges in New York City in the early ‘90’s coincided with his deep interest in French cooking, and he says he couldn’t have asked for a better experience at that time. “That was an amazing place for me to start,” Ong says. “I worked at the fish station. That was the most creative station for me— and it was kind of the perfect backdrop. Jean Georges was very passionate about Asian food, with its combination of flavors, and also about presentation.” Later, Ong’s interest in Asian food then morphed into Mediterranean dishes—mainly Greek, French, and Italian—and he was able to hone these culinary skills alongside Todd English at Olive. Although at this point Ong was spending more time on the savory than the sweet, these experiences were invaluable and actually helped him become a more holistic chef. “I went through a period where I cooked only savory food, but that gave me a new perspective on the industry as a whole,” he says. Eventually the time came for Ong to strike out on his own, opening the innovative P*ONG in New York City, where desserts were a primary focus.
Although there is a lot to be said for remaining on the cutting edge, Ong says he still believes in putting together menus that just make sense. “I think desserts in restaurants should be contextual,” he explains, “The pastry chef’s responsibility Number One is that they should create the type of dessert that fits the restaurant.” Ong also believes strongly in bringing a level of mindfulness to dessert, giving it the same respect and attention as a main course. “I love the idea of using better ingredients in dessert-making. I think it is a form of indulgence, but I would take into consideration the whole concept of nutrition. I do think about the health factors, and I think about better quality ingredients,” he says. “I love seasonal eating. I think it’s always nice to have food that fits the seasons. In savory cooking you have people eat warmer foods in the winter—heartier cuts of meat and fish, and I think the same concept should be applied to dessert. Think about temperature, portion, and all of that.” And if you are going to indulge, Ong says, take the time to enjoy something truly sumptuous. “You’re not going to get something that’s quick or instant. I see a lot of people that cook at home and buy the best when they cook, but for dessert it’s not the best.” And in Ong’s kitchen, there’s no reason not to mix it up, using both the sweet and savory in either the entrée or dessert—or even both. Ong says he uses a lot of savory components—mainly herbs, cheeses, vegetables, and spices like black pepper or horseradish—in his desserts. “They can be a cool thing if used judiciously,” he cautions. The key to marrying the sweet and savory lies in trusting your taste buds and using simple logic. “Make sure the flavors make sense,” he says. “For example, a lot of fruits that have aromatic overtones, like apples, can be enhanced by something savory. So you can do something like a cheddar crust for an apple pie. Think about it, and taste your two components together.”
Ong learned from some of the best chefs in the business, and he takes the opportunity to pay it forward when he can, serving as a consultant on different culinary projects around the world. He turned to consulting after P*ONG closed, taking about four years to still keep a pulse on the business but consider his next professional move. Among his notable projects at this time was serving as a dessert consultant for Max Brenner, helping to develop the menu for their restaurants worldwide, which was accepted on a global scale. Ong says that was a different kind of project than he is normally involved in, but it remains a standout in his consulting career.
One current project is serving as the corporate pastry chef for Sugar and Plumm in New York City and New Jersey, where he is responsible for the development of all recipes and culinary endeavors, overseeing the team of in-house confection professionals (master chocolatier Thierry Atlan is also on board at Sugar and Plumm), overseeing the brand’s creative direction, which means being involved in all phases of product development, including determining price points, and helping to launch the company’s retail component. “I was brought on originally because our visions were similar,” Ong says, referring to Lamia Jacobs, Sugar and Plumm’s visionary owner. “They wanted a very broad appeal with different components—it could be a date place, or a family place—and a restaurant that could fit in other parts of the world. Many of these same ideas could also be applied to some of the other places I’ve been involved with.” He’s branched out into writing cookbooks—the highly successful The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts, co-written with Genevieve Ko—and has been tapped to serve as a judge for two Food Network shows—Cake Wars, and the new Sugar Dome that focuses on the work of sugar artists. He squeezes in the running of his restaurants in between his other commitments.
He cautions new pastry chefs to have clear goals before getting into the business and seeking out mentors and teachers you can learn from and not only work for, but work with. “It’s important to work with someone whom you respect and admire— not just in the quality of the food they use, but can communicate with you. You should have someone who looks at you as an asset and valuable contribution to the business. You also need to seek out the amount of responsibility you want. Some who don’t want to do it on a big scale, but others want the ‘big bang’. I want a lot of it.” And what about those chefs who want to make their own mark, not just in their kitchen but in the industry as a whole? Sometimes that just requires going back to basics. “Seek out the food that matters to you the most,” Ong advises. Taste, experiment, and see what flavor combinations speak to you—even if it seems as though the flavors almost shouldn’t work together. This approach has certainly paid off for Ong, who has built his career around the idea of contradictions.
Read more from Pichet in our interview Q&A with Pichet.