Combining the science and art of baking is something that comes naturally to executive pastry chef Mandy Pan of celebrity chef Daniel Boulud’s dB Bistro & Oyster Bar at Marina Bay Sands.
After all, the Sabah-born 38-year-old has not only a diploma in French pastry from The French Pastry School in Chicago, but also a bachelor’s degree in applied chemistry from the National University of Singapore.
For her, how each ingredient interacts with one another, and the balancing and melding of flavours, are just as important as the aesthetics and artistry of pastries and desserts.
The former chemist and pharmaceutical sales executive picked up baking when she moved from Singapore to St Louis, Missouri, in the United States in 2005, where her Singaporean scientist husband Ong Chin Tong, 41, was pursuing his PhD at the time.
They lived on his shoe-string student budget and, to save money, she cooked and baked to satisfy her food cravings. The couple, who have no children, later relocated to Atlanta for her husband’s post-doctorate fellowship.
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The self-confessed foodie says she baked everything from brownies to log cakes using recipes by cooking doyennes such as Martha Stewart and Ina Garten.
She soon developed a passion for pastry and, with her husband’s encouragement, enrolled in a six-month pastry course in Chicago in 2009. She went on to work at The Ritz-Carlton in Chicago and The Westin in Atlanta. She moved to New York in 2011 where she worked for famed French pastry chef Francois Payard for two years, before moving back to Atlanta to join The St Regis hotel.
Working for chef Payard is one of the highlights of her career, she says. It was a dream come true.
“I had found a job opening (with chef Payard) on Craigslist, applied for it and was called for an interview which involved a two-day stage (an unpaid internship in another chef’s kitchen).
“After my two days, the chef told me, ‘I’ll call you.’ I waited about a week or two, but it felt like forever because I had wanted the job so badly.”
She moved back to Singapore in early 2014 – the couple’s Build-To-Order flat in Clementi was ready – and took up a job with dB Bistro & Oyster Bar as its pastry sous chef that February. She became the restaurant’s executive pastry chef last July.
And now that she works for chef Boulud, she feels that her culinary journey has, in a way, come full circle. Chef Payard was chef Boulud’s first pastry chef when Boulud opened the now two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel in New York back in 1993.
She says: “I owe where I am today to my mentors, chefs Payard and Boulud. ”
WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY WHEN IT COMES TO CREATING DESSERTS?
There must always be a balance of flavours, contrast of textures and some acidity. For me, it is all about delighting the customer.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST CREATION?
I created Le Tropical ($18) at dB Bistro & Oyster Bar a few months ago to showcase the region’s tropical fruit flavours.
The plated dessert has various tropical components, including mango gel, coconut water agar agar, fresh Thai mango and a petit gateau with passionfruit mousse.
There is also passionfruit-banana sorbet, yogurt sponge and cookie crumbs for texture.
I included herbs for an additional dimension because basil, which I have made into a gel, and lemon balm pair well with the dessert’s tropical flavours.
HAVE YOU HAD KITCHEN DISASTERS?
When I started baking, I did not know the difference between baking powder and baking soda – I thought they were the same.
They both work as leavening agents, but when too much baking soda is added to a cake, the cake will taste bitter.
And for someone with a background in chemistry, I was very upset with myself because I should have known better.
WHERE ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVOURITE FOOD HAUNTS?
On my days off, I like to go to hawker stalls such as Ah Ter Teochew Fishball Noodles and A Noodle Story at Amoy Food Centre.
Cantonese Delights at Hong Lim Food Centre does a great chicken chop and I also like the bak chor mee from Tai Wah Pork Noodle there.
For dessert, I head to Qoolco at China Square Central for its coconut slushie.
Japanese food is also my favourite – I go to Teppei at Orchid Hotel in Tras Link twice or thrice a month.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING PASTRY CHEFS?
Think carefully before you enter this field. It is not glamorous and things in the kitchen are not as rosy as you think. You have to work hard and, if you really want to go places and learn new skills and techniques, you have to put in the extra hours to prove you have what it takes.
DO YOU HAVE A SIGNATURE DESSERT?
The Coffee Napoleon ($18) is one of my signature desserts. It is a collaboration between dB Bistro & Oyster Bar’s executive chef Jonathan Kinsella and myself. It is also my favourite creation so far.
The dessert is served in a glass with coffee cream at the base, followed by a layer of chocolate crumble. I have also included filo dough, cacao nibs and hazelnut tuile for added crunch.
There is a smooth, rich coffee chocolate praline cremeux as well as coffee sponge for a touch of lightness.
Each glass also has a scoop of housemade gula melaka ice cream.
Sitting on top of the glass is a delicate praline feulletine disc topped with chocolate crumble and praline powder and sea salt to balance the sweetness.
You have to crack the disc with your spoon before you tuck into the dessert.
IF YOU COULD SERVE DESSERT TO ANYONE, WHO WOULD IT BE?
My late paternal grandfather.
He was very loving and took great care of me when I was young. He gave me my first box of chocolates when I was three years old – this sparked my love of sweet treats.
He died when I was 10. If I could, I would really love for him to taste my desserts and show him how far I have come.
Story first appeared on The Straits Times.
HEADER PHOTO Chew Seng Kim / The Straits Times