Talking Cake with Star Baker Pichet Ong

By Jessica Wolfrom, photography by Jennifer Chase

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

There’s no need to save room for dessert when you can make it the star of the meal.

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

Ong has made a name for himself reinterpreting classic desserts and infusing them with Asian ingredients from his childhood, like the Ovaltine Kulfi or the Vietnamese tapioca coffee affogato he created for Spice Market in New York.

But cake has become a constant in his current role leading the pastry team at The Line Hotel’s Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English. And these aren’t just any cakes. They are pillowy, meringue-based confections with multiple layers. Even for those who foreswear sweets, Ong’s cakes have proved hard to resist.

Cakes are celebratory, but Ong shows us that they can also be cerebral.

This June Edible DC is celebrating its fifth anniversary and we thought there was no one better to cut into a birthday cake with than the master himself, Pichet Ong.

Edible DC’s fifth birthday cake, made by the master Pichet Ong himself.

Edible DC’s fifth birthday cake, made by the master Pichet Ong himself.

What makes the perfect birthday cake?

When I make a cake for someone, I try to incorporate the personality and emotion of that person into the cake. Cake has a long history and different purposes, but for me, I want it to be celebratory—something that is meaningful.

How did you think about creating Edible DC’s birthday cake?

In the process of making the cake for Edible, I wanted to do something seasonal and very current. Edible DC is a publication about food, but not just food—it’s also about the history of food, about agriculture and the local food scene.

And certainly, the emotion and the feeling that evokes from using these strawberries, I wanted it to taste and feel like spring.

I used a layering structure on the inside and a very simple covering on the outside so that there is an element of surprise. I want people to be, like, ‘Oh, wow, there is so much going on inside the cake.’ Which is maybe also how my personality is—there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

You make cakes every day, and I’ve heard you eat sweets to start the day. What’s your philosophy when indulging in dessert?

I grew up in a culture of eating desserts. I’m Chinese, but I lived in Thailand for a little while with my dad and my mom. There weren’t particularly strict rules with eating, but there were very strict rules with everything else. My dad had a very eclectic habit: He liked to start the day with some kind of sweet item.

I see dessert as food, as sustenance—as a meal. That’s why I keep the ingredients fresh and real. I think real desserts should be highly perishable, like salads or seafood.

The best desserts often provoke nostalgia—they remind us of our favorite childhood foods. How important is nostalgia to you, and how do you play with this idea in your desserts?

If you look at every dessert I’ve done, it’s always based on something that’s intended to be reminiscent of something you’ve had before. Ironically, it’s extremely challenging to do a dessert that you’ve had a million times before and make it as good or as interesting.

Take apple pie or strawberry shortcake, for example. I am telling you, it’s very hard. To duplicate that emotion or taste is not easy.

But I use that as a jumping off point to create a new dessert. People like being reminded of the familiar. But then, to make it my own, I’ll add saffron or spices into it and make it something new.

What is the most underappreciated ingredient or flavor when making dessert?

I like savory ingredients a lot. I think savory flavors can be successfully translated into desserts. Probably the most extreme example would be onion or shallot. If you caramelize shallots or onions, they become sweet and complex and very aromatic.

Crème fraîche ice cream with caviar was something that I kept on the menu at P*ONG in New York. I’ve also made black garlic ice cream. It was a true blend of a sweet and savory and people remember it.

Here at Brothers and Sisters, I love saffron. Typically, when people think of saffron, most think immediately of risotto, seafood and paella. But it’s beautiful in dessert. I like to take a very popular item and add something like saffron. Right now, we have a molten chocolate cake with a white chocolate ganache center that I have infused with saffron.

 ou’ve become famous for eschewing super-sugary desserts and focus instead on flavor and structure. What is your attitude about sugar and fat these days?

Sugar and fat are first and foremost a seasoning ingredient. Because I do pastry, I need to use sugar for chemistry. For all the recipes, I use enough for it to interact with the yeasts in the bread and doughs. Same thing with salt. It should enhance but not overpower. I am not a big fan of extreme tastes or foods with one note. You need balance.

Speaking of structure, you got a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. How does this expertise play into your desserts today?

I do think about structure but it’s not the focus. But what I learned most from architecture is the idea of the contextual. That everything you do needs to make sense—in terms of style. It has to be tasteful and cohesive. It is the same thing when you dress [or cook]. It all needs to go together.

I’ve heard you were a self-taught chef. Who influenced your desire to cook?

My mom and my aunt who taught me how to cook. I was surrounded by women in my family who cooked. I think I’ve always had a knack for cooking and I’ve always had the palate. My parents used to tell me at a very young age that I was an adventurous eater.

Often when we think of pastry chefs, we assume they are women. Do you see this norm changing? How much does your identity matter in the kitchen?

Now, it’s not as relevant, but when I first started, things were different. There were more women than men in pastry. Now it’s not so much an issue.

But the most drastic difference is in diversity. We have come a long way, especially in management. There is more and more representation and it isn’t just about race. Now there are more gay chefs, and women chefs, too. But we still have a long way to go.

On Twitter, you are a self-proclaimed “food pimp.” Can you tell us what that means?

I am a big fan of OPD—Other People’s Desserts. Pastry chefs, and chefs in general, can often get closed off in cliques. But I am a fan of stepping outside of that and just showing up and elevating other people’s work.

Speaking of Other People’s Desserts, what is the best dessert you’ve had in DC that you haven’t made yourself?

I don’t want to pick! But I Like Caitlin Dysart’s desserts at Centrolina.

When you crave foods, do you crave sweet or salty?

Both for sure, but I would say mostly salty. My ideal meal is always raw fish, steak and cake—in that order. So, like a sashimi starter or a seafood tower, followed by a steak and then finished with some sort of creamy cake.

If you could make dessert for anyone, who would it be?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’d just want to sit down with her and share a conversation and a piece of cake.

What’s your favorite cake?

Strawberry shortcake.