Bakers Journal

Sweet ride

September 17, 2009
By Brian Hartz

Rich, but not heavy. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? Not to Ong, who
trained as an architect at the University of California and so is
accustomed to finding ways to make bulky, heavy things – like buildings
– seem graceful and light.

Pichet Ong presenting a pastry demo at the International Culinary Center in New York.
 Photos courtesy Ryan J. Burke/Ryan Johnson DigitaL.


Good food is rich,” says Pichet Ong. “Rich is good, but you don’t want it to be heavy.”

Rich, but not heavy. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? Not to Ong, who trained as an architect at the University of California and so is accustomed to finding ways to make bulky, heavy things – like buildings – seem graceful and light.

 Almond, Pear and Salted Caramel Cupcakes  
 Almond Açai Truffles


A veteran of popular TV food shows such as “Iron Chef America,” “Martha Stewart Live,” “The Fresh Grocer” and “Emeril Live,” Ong has been named one of the top 10 pastry chefs in America by the magazines Pastry Art & Design, and he’s worked in renowned kitchens from coast to coast, including La Folie in San Francisco; Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.; Olives in Boston; and Jean Georges in New York.

In 2007, he opened his own dessert hotspot, P*ONG, in New York’s Greenwich Village. It proved so successful that a year later he was able to open Batch, an Asian-inspired bakery, right next door to P*ONG. Somehow, during that frenzy of activity, he managed to co-write, with Genevieve Ko, his first cookbook, The Sweet Spot, which was named one of Gourmet magazine’s top 10 cookbooks of 2007.

If you’re wondering how Ong went from studying architectural design to being one of North America’s top pastry chefs, well, so were we.

“I was a very good student in college, and had the opportunity to go to grad school, but I didn’t want to spend all the money,” he says. “I love architecture; it has everything. There’s history, art, science, philosophy, sociology, psychology. It made sense to study architecture even though I knew that I wanted to work with food. But in the workforce, everything had become computerized. There’s no more freehand drawing and modeling [in architecture]. That was all gone.”

Ong parlayed his affection for design into artisan breads and fine desserts. The way he sees it, the two disciplines are closely related – and not in the way you might expect.

“Generally speaking, they’re similar in that you work with your hands,” he says. “But on a deeper level, the intellectual thought process is conceptual and very much in context. Being an architect of a building is similar to what being a chef of a restaurant is all about. You have your guidelines and your context, your owner and your clientele. You make adjustments to your menu based on the needs of the job.”

With his glittering resume, Ong would seem to be the embodiment of the modern celebrity chef, but you would be hard-pressed to find a softer-spoken, less flashy representative of this cultural trend. And unlike some of his more esoteric colleagues, he’s not using his profession to make statements – just great food.

“I want to make food that appeals to everybody,” he says. “I’m not doing everything for originality; I do it because I think it will have a broad appeal. It’s food; it shouldn’t be purely experimental.”

Ong’s broad appeal might have been why the Almond Board of California chose him for its recent pastry demonstration in New York City. Co-sponsored by the online magazine, the event gave journalists from North American food magazines, including Bakers Journal, a first-hand look at how great culinary minds, such as Ong’s, operate when asked to come up with new recipes based on a common ingredient – in this case, almonds.

“Be sure to use softened butter as it will produce a lighter and fluffier product,” he said as he prepared a batch of almond cupcakes. “And always use unsalted butter. Salt interferes with the bacteria that produce the butter flavour.”

Ong’s stage was a classroom at the International Culinary Center on Broadway in the heart of New York’s ultra-hip SoHo neighbourhood. Multiple cameras mounted on the ceiling provided a detailed view of what he was doing throughout every step of the demonstration. At the outset, we were given a folder containing all the recipes he was going to make: the cupcakes as well as proteinized almond butter cookies and almond Açai truffles.

As he moved comfortably around the classroom’s work area, measuring and mixing ingredients, Ong offered a stream of advice about how to improve and add variety to your desserts.

“You want as much air as possible in your butter cream,” he says, reinforcing his statement above pastry being rich but not heavy.

And you can rarely go wrong with fillings: “I really like fillings inside cupcakes, especially fruit. Cupcakes are popular but they can get pretty boring; that’s why I like to give them some filling.” In the almond cupcakes he prepared, Ong used a delicious pan-roasted Bartlett pear filling.

Moving on to the truffle, Ong said appearance can make or break a dessert’s appeal to customers – and that adding a nice layer of sheen is a great way to beautify your products.

“Shininess in food is really, really important,” he says. “The best food is always shiny.”

Although the dishes he prepared at the Almond Board event were fairly traditional – or Western, if you will – one of Ong’s missions as a pastry chef has been to bring Asian desserts to North American diners.

Also, the notion of dessert as always being served after the evening meal is very Continental and entrenched in North American culture, according to Ong, and that is something that needs to change.

“The past few years I’ve wanted to promote Asian ingredients,” he says.
“Much of what I’ve done is simply based upon what you can take from classic street Asian desserts, using Asian spices and flavours that you can apply to cooking both sweet and savoury items. In Asia, desserts are not necessarily something you eat at the end of the day, after dinner; it can be an all day snack as opposed to being after dinner, or sometimes consumed with dinner or as a beverage. These are all inspiration points for chefs.”

Almonds in baked goods
“You can use almonds in many, many things,” says Pichet Ong. “You can use them in baking of course and also savoury cooking. It’s already the most popular nut in the world it’s not a tough sell.”

  • Between 2001 and 2007, global almond product introductions in the bakery category increased by 44 per cent.1
  • Almonds are the top nut for global new product introductions in the bakery category.1
  • Almonds drive strong usage across desserts, salads,
  • sandwiches, entrees and bakery. 2

  1. Mintel Global New Products Report, Sterling-Rice Group, 2008.
  2. Mintel Menu Insights, Sterling-Rice Group, 2008.

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