As a baker or pastry chef (or whatever people want to call me), I struggle with defining what my style is. I know where my passions lie and the chefs that left lasting memories in my career, but how do I depict that in the final course? Did I set myself up for failure by coming out the gate with a cake that I did not intend to rival carrot cake with cream cheese? My food must complement Justin’s food. Should it always include vegetables, since Justin is known as the “vegetable whisperer?” (I didn’t coin it – a good friend at Greenway did.) The desserts must match the savory’s level of attention to detail. It may never outshine Justin’s food, in my opinion; but, if it does, please don’t tell the chef. And if it does, it’s probably because of the pairings.
Growing up in a Cantonese household, we didn’t eat much sweets growing up. The only memories of sweets that I have are the singular texture of Chinese mousse cakes. Lucky for me, I had a neighbor who would fill our house with homemade pecan pies with pecans from the yard and hand-picked dewberry jam. If pies were acceptable for finishing a meal at Oxheart, I would totally make pies. All day. Every day. I love pies. And carrot cake.
As Oxheart continues to evolve, so does my style of bread and desserts. When it comes to desserts, I tend to try to over simplify everything because I am afraid to have too many flavors or components on the plate. Not that they won’t all go together, but rather they won’t let each other shine they way I intend. I learned at the French Pastry School that you can only move forward when you perfect the basics. Every “fancy food” should have a strong foundation in the basic/”simple” food. At Oxheart, this is where I’m starting, and I can’t wait to see what I will be making a few weeks, a few months or years from now.
Something that is as simple as a well-made tart or cake can be just as memorable as all the gels and foams in this world. My favorite technique is folding, and this came out of my friend, Laura Knapp, who in pastry school told me she just wanted to watch me fold. (I went from folding batters to doughs when I decided I wanted to really become a baker.) I scour the Internet for food porn as one may call it and those beautiful plates do inspire me. I envy and respect the chefs who turn white plates into something that could be hung at the Menil. But my aim is to finish your meal with something that is simple, clean, not-too-heavy, memorable and hopefully refreshing. It must be my Chinese side coming through (where fresh fruit was enough to invoke satisfaction).
It is hard for me to read the Yelp reviews and not take any of them slightly personally. I never said I mentored under Thomas Keller. I worked for Courtney Schmidig, not Thomas Keller. I baked with Matt McDonald, not Thomas Keller. I learned to appreciate more than just a baguette with Ben Hershberger. I learned how regional flour can be at Meyer’s bakery in Copenhagen. My baked goods are a reflection of what I like to eat and how I like to eat it now, not then, not tomorrow.
Breads are more comfortable for me to explore different boundaries, as I have been actively pursuing learning from the best bakers. The “pedestrian table bread” as some may call it, actually took 3 days from start to finish to get to the table. I am obsessed with fermentation. Sourdough starters or other pre-ferments will find a way into almost all breads I serve at Oxheart. I love the uniqueness each batch of dough has. The staff can attest to how excited I get when I’m super pleased with the final product. As much as everyone loves the pretzel rolls and mustard butter, I do believe I can top that experience with something else yeasty.
I thank you all for the kind words of encouragement as I never felt ready to fit the position Justin had for me. I could never imagine that my desserts or breads would even be up to Justin’s standard or the bar that Houston as set out for Oxheart. I still don’t, but I do push to find that perfect food. (The perfect food that really isn’t obtainable because if it was obtainable, then there would be no where else to go but down.)