Meet Chef Zoee Wong

Where taste meets grace, that’s where you can find Chef Zoee Wong. Born and raised in Malaysia, her inspiration is often drawn from nostalgic memories of home. Nothing beats home cooked meals, laced with the umami flavour of a mother’s love. Her baking journey began at 8 years old where she baked treats for her parents to sample. Their support for her childhood hobby cultivated her curiosity with food which now is her 9 to 5. 

The field of culinary arts is lonely for Asian Women despite often being the cooks at home but Chef Zoee Wong without haste has her foot at the door by working in Michelin Starred restaurants all over the world. Her journey has just begun as she hopes to shape the food system advocating for sustainability. In this story, Chef Zoee Wong unravels the secrets under a chef’s hat. With these tips, you can find yourself levelling up your baking skills.

Hi everyone, Zoee here!

I have been preoccupied by the subject of food for most of my life. I’ve spent a probably alarming number of hours reading and thinking about it, making and eating it. Having trained in intense, high-performing kitchens, I’ve also spent plenty of time around similarly obsessive individuals. While we all appreciate a good baking tip or kitchen hack, one of the most fascinating aspects of the job for me has been realising that the truly brilliant, talented, original chefs I know have frameworks for thinking about food and creating dishes. 

Through this story, I’d like to share some of my approaches – the considerations that are useful to me as they transfer across sweet and savoury applications, different cuisines, styles of cooking and menus. I hope that this will give you greater versatility in navigating recipes and will help you figure out your own way around the kitchen. In this first part of the series, I’ll be sharing three things that are crucial to what I do as pastry chef:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Textures and Flavours
  3. Techniques

I developed a dish – Call Me A Tai Tai – to illustrate these points. The recipes can be found here and I encourage you to use them as a foundation for your own explorations.

Call Me A Tai Tai

1. How to find inspiration

This is a big one. For me, inspiration isn’t something that strikes out of a void. Instead, I believe that it is mostly derived from cultivated input – that I am more primed to have interesting food ideas (and ideas in general) when my mind is filled with images, sounds and words that coalesce and form jumping-off points for ideas. 

In an obvious way, cookbooks, food magazines, websites and food/restaurant-related accounts on social media are excellent sources. Of course, the quality of the media that is consumed matters. I enjoy seeking out content that may be slightly off the algorithmically-determined path because I find it challenges my usual patterns of thought and opens up new avenues.

In a non-obvious way, I draw a lot of inspiration from non-food related content. I love art (abstract, Impressionist and Minimalist art in particular), dance, music and poetry. These other mediums of expression offer different angles at which to approach food.

The Poem that inspired the dish

This dish came after a conversation with my partner during which we touched on my lack of enthusiasm for using coconut in sweet applications (weird for a Southeast Asian, I know). In thinking about using it as a primary ingredient, pulut tai tai (pulut tekan) came to mind as it is one of my favourite coconut-heavy sweets. Also floating around in there were some paintings by an artist I love – Jean-Baptiste Besançon.

Artwork of Jean-Baptiste Besancon

He has these pieces that are gorgeous tonal swathes of paint punctuated by dashes of unexpected colours. I wanted to create a dish that felt the same way. He also uses a lot of blues, which is fitting given the use of butterfly pea flowers as a colouring agent in pulut tekan. I’ve also recently been flipping through an old issue of Toothache magazine that had a feature on foams which made me want to experiment with gelatine-based foams aerated using a siphon. Evidently, this dish is where those thoughts converged, which is often how it goes when I’m conceptualising a dish.

2. How to think about flavours and textures

Once I have the basis of an idea, I begin thinking about its composition from a more sensorial standpoint. Think about sensations you’ve experienced when eating – mindful eating is fantastic for many reasons; being able to analyse why dishes work or don’t work for you is one of them. I tend to consider things like: 

  1. What is the first impression that I want an eater to have of the dish? What is the visual impact? Does a smell hit first? 
  2. What kind of textural experience do I want to create (light and smooth/contrasting crunch/bits of chewiness)?
  3. How do the temperatures of the components play off each other?
  4. How can I add interest to the dish so that every bite is a little bit different?

Flavour combinations are a great way to add dimension. A fun way of thinking about this is to draw from classic pairings and expand from there. Let’s take bananas and peanut butter. Bananas are creamy, sweet in a non-complex way, a little bit floral. Peanuts are fatty/oily, nutty (that’s an obvious one) and toasty. What else might occupy the same sort of flavour spectrum as peanuts? How about tahini? Bananas and tahini could work, especially if the bitterness of tahini is tempered by something like honey or vanilla. 

With Call Me A Tai Tai, I wanted a blanket of coconut foam to conceal the other, more colourful components of the dish, emulating Besançon’s paints. I find something very appealing about more subtly beautiful dishes – they have their own intrigue and are an invitation to eaters to delve a little deeper. I chose to keep the flavours classic so that the focus could instead be on the rich mouthfeel that coconut milk adds to a lot of Southeast Asian dishes. I considered a crunchy element (toasted coconut streusel or nut brittle), but decided against it, choosing to exaggerate the creaminess of the foam and parfait by contrasting them with the less aggressive option of pulut’s satisfying chew. Serving the dish cold (in a chilled cup) helps tone down the sweetness and emphasise the silkiness. A warm sauce with a slight savoury hint keeps everything in balance and is a playful nod to hot fudge on a sundae.

3. How to refine your baking techniques

Having a chef’s intuition and taste is one thing, having the technical skill to execute on them is another. Coming up with ideas for a dish is a satisfying exercise in and of itself, but it feels even better to make those ideas tangible and edible. I’ve often found that the limiting factor to actually doing so (to a satisfactory level) is a gap in knowledge or skill. Closing that gap requires time and effort; analysis, failure and adjustment.  

Pastry chefs spend years getting the foundational techniques down. We memorise and practice recipes and procedures to help us work more efficiently and to develop muscle memory. We learn to look for cues that eventually become instinctual – the texture and shine of a meringue, the colour of a pâte à bombe. This frees up our mental capacity for more ambitious recipes and allows us to multitask.

Another habit that many pastry chefs have is to break down recipes to understand why things work and to troubleshoot when they don’t. This is crucial to achieving consistency – an underrated pinnacle in kitchens. I would recommend tapping into all the resources we have in people, books and websites to learn more about the functions and properties of different ingredients. This has been fascinating to me since I was an eight-year-old using boxed cake mixes and it’s something I’ve carried with me long after graduating to developing recipes for starred restaurants.

Much of the work of being a pastry chef is about being thoughtful, meticulous and disciplined. We learn so much more when we’re intentionally engaged with what we’re doing. So, if I might suggest one thing to take away – give all your kitchen tasks an extra moment of consideration and attention, from planning to execution. You’ll soon be working with greater confidence and finesse – just like a pastry chef.

This isn’t the last of Chef Zoee Wong. She will be sharing more baking tips next in our Dear Chef food stories. If you have any baking questions, or tips you would like to ask Chef Zoee Wong, email us at kuali@thestar.com.my

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