Les Amis Group’s pastry chef Cheryl Koh was resolute in her decision to embark on a career in the culinary arts, and boy, are we glad that she did.
The daughter of an aircraft engineer father and a travel agent mother, Les Amis Group’s pastry chef Cheryl Koh comes from a large Teochew family where the enjoyment of food is a big part of their lives. “My dad cooks very well, while my mother, who doesn’t cook, loves to feed people.” You’d expect her to be the family’s baker, whipping up gorgeous cakes for birthdays and celebrations. Instead, she admits that she wasn’t a leisurely weekend home baker. She went into pastry because she just wanted to work.
From the get-go, the St. Nicholas Girls’ and Catholic Junior College alumnus was clear that being in a kitchen environment was what she wanted. “I studied Food and Nutrition for the O-Levels and really enjoyed the atmosphere and dynamics of being in a kitchen. When I got into NUS, I thought that equipping myself with enough education and knowledge—getting a degree in geography and European studies, and learning French, all subjects that I loved—was the best path to get me to France, to work.”
Her first foray into F&B was in the early 2000s when chefs Jean Paul Naquin and Julien Bompard were helming Raffles Hotel. “I met Edith (Bompard’s wife) and it was through her and Chef Julien that I got a job at Raffles Hotel,” she said. Koh was assigned to the Marketing Communications department initially as they felt her academic qualifications better suited her for that role. “But I told them that being in the kitchen was where I wanted to be, so they transferred me to the pastry department. That’s where I started, and I’ve remained in pastry ever since,” she said.
“The other thing I had always wanted was to do fine dining, to experience luxury at its highest level. I wanted to work in five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, and I knew that France was the place for me to be next.” So she left for Paris after her stint at the Raffles Hotel, and eventually landed a job at the two-Michelin-starred Lasserre.
A JOURNEY WELL TRAVELLED
It wasn’t a breeze though. She had to find a way to make herself eligible for part-time work and did so by enrolling herself in a language class in one of the French universities, fulfilling a minimum of 20 hours of school a week. This meant that she’d be in class from 8am to 1pm, and in the kitchen by 2pm to prepare for dinner service. But her grasp of the French language was barely sufficient for her to get by in a fast-paced kitchen environment. Though the going was hard, she forged on. “I just knew I couldn’t come back. I wanted to stay there and make it work,” she recounted.
After two years in Paris, she packed her bags for Dubai to work alongside Naquin once again, this time at the seven-star Burj Al Arab. Her next move brought her to Macau, where she worked with two Michelin-starred chef Alfonso Iaccarino at Don Alfonso 1890 in the Grand Lisboa, after which she followed him to Sorrento, Italy, to work at his farm-to-table restaurant. A decision to move closer to home then brought her to Hong Kong, where she joined The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, followed by the now defunct Cépage, where she met Chef Sebastien Lepinoy. Six years on, the pair still work well together, with Lepinoy running a tight ship at Les Amis as Executive Chef, and being a huge influence to Koh.
Tarte by Cheryl Koh is the very successful spin-off from Les Amis that sells only tarts—in all the delicious varieties dreamt up by Koh. “It wasn’t that I passionately wanted to do tarts,” she confesses. Tarte’s current space between Caveau and La Strada was actually a stairwell that had become redundant (after an escalator was constructed for that part of the building). Within that tight space, the management decided to do a small takeout concept. “The team felt that I made very good tarts and the tarts could go somewhere. So that was how we started—making simple but fine tarts with the thinnest crust and the best ingredients.”
Seemingly simple, we have to add. “Anyone who steps into the kitchen and sees us just putting the dough into a pastry ring might think it’s easy. However, making a nice tart involves many things, starting with really good ingredients. If it’s a fruit tart, the fruit must be very fresh; if it’s a chocolate tart, the chocolate must be the finest.”
A really good tart is one that’s freshly baked. “You can tell just by its flavour and aroma,” she remarks. It’s also perfectly constructed and evenly shaped from the sides to the bottom. Texture-wise, it’s crumbly when you eat it, but not overly so, and it should not be too thin, so that it has a nice crunch when you bite into it.
With Koh at the helm, you won’t find deconstructed tarts or desserts with complicated flavour pairings at Tarte. She prefers her tarts simple, and tells us that her favourite pairing is a classic one: chocolate and raspberries. “We are not trendy people,” she declares. This season sees the bakery’s artisanal pastries crowned with fresh Reine Claude and Mirabelle plums, and Solliès figs, alongside its signature dark chocolate, pistachio and hazelnut caramel offerings.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Within a year of Tarte’s opening, Koh was crowned Asia’s Best Pastry Chef at the 2016 Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants awards ceremony. “I’m very grateful but hardly deserving of it. I don’t see myself as very special,” she says humbly. Instead, she credits her kitchen crew and bosses. “I’m very fortunate to be in a very unique and special environment where I work with a very strong team of colleagues and bosses. And I’m honoured that there are enough people within the industry who would choose me for the award.”
Fans can certainly look forward to more ambrosial treats from Koh as there are plans to expand the offerings at Tarte, with the addition of small cakes and an afternoon tea set for customers to enjoy at Caveau Bar with coffee and tea.
While she was invited to represent Singapore along with two other chefs at the James Beard Foundation 30th Anniversary Fall Gala in New York City last November she isn’t actively looking for overseas engagements, preferring to spend most of her time at Tarte and at the restaurant. “If customers come, I want them to know that we are here making tarts and desserts for them,” she said.
Her advice to those embarking on a career in food and beverage: be patient and very resilient when starting a career in F&B. Don’t underestimate the amount of hard work that is needed to get you to where you want to go. “I’m often asked what it was like working abroad. I’d say it’s the same as what we go through here. I used to think that what they did in Europe and the U.S. were at a much higher level than in our part of the world, but there are just as many lousy cooks and unmotivated people there—and just as many really good chefs and cooks,” she said.
So what drives her each day? “I work towards baking pastries for people who appreciate that they are well-made, so that when they step out of Tarte, they say that this is the place to get fine, artisanal tarts because we make some of the best that they’ve tried.”
“Beyond that, I don’t need a lot of external motivation. I’m doing something I love, making very good experiences and leading the life I want to have. I’m not working to do something else, to get enough money or to get somewhere.”
Breaking into a smile, she concludes, “I don’t think I will retire from a job like this. This is my life.”
Cover: Cheryl Koh
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s November 2016 issue, ‘A Sweet Life’