A new wave of passionate and talented young Singaporean pastry chefs are making their mark with their refined, sophisticated treats. BT Weekend tracks them down.
Think afternoon tea and the dazzling Palm Court at The Langham, London pops to mind. But here's a little known fact: the chef behind the exquisite confectionery at the famed hotel is a born and bred Singaporean. Cherish Finden studied pastry in Shatec and cut her teeth at Pan Pacific Hotel Singapore and Raffles Singapore before moving to London 15 years ago to carve a niche for herself.
Today, the award-winning pastry chef is one of the most recognisable names in London. The executive pastry chef for The Langham, London (since 2009) led the hotel to take home the prestigious Tea Guild's Top London Afternoon Tea award in 2010 with an afternoon tea set inspired by haute couture jewellery brands such as Cartier, Bulgari and Asprey - yes, they were among the first to do that. The hotel also started the trend of dusting diamond powder onto their cakes. And those cocktail flavoured macarons that are so popular right now? You probably have Finden to thank for boozing up the French confectionary five years ago.
"Afternoon tea is such a big thing in the English culture and there are many Michelin-starred pastry chefs who visit to see what we're doing at The Langham, London. We've set the bar very high to be ahead of our competitors," notes the pastry chef with more than 20 years of experience. Ever the innovator, she's recently worked with Wedgwood to produce Instagram-worthy desserts that pay tribute to the luxury fine bone china company.
Indeed, Finden is baking up quite a sweet success story in London. After taking home the Dessert of the Year award in 2001, she returned as a judge in 2014. Her long list of accolades also includes being named Craft Guild's Pastry Chef of the Year 2012. Heston Blumenthal has given her afternoon tea creations his stamp of approval by featuring them on his show, Heston's Great British Food. Besides appearing on BBC's Masterchef and Junior Bake-off, she was invited to judge the MasterChef final competition in the UK alongside French pastry masterchef Pierre Herme. To date, she has won 25 medals, including 18 golds, at international competitions such as the International Culinary Olympics.
"You need to be quite tough and fight your way through especially when you come from Asia," says Finden. When she first moved to London, she downgraded from being the executive pastry chef in Sheraton Singapore to a junior position in the Great Eastern Hotel. Undeterred, she clawed her way back up. The gutsy chef also showed that she was not just sugar but plenty of 'spice' when she challenged the decision of the judges who only awarded her a silver medal for her flawless petit fours in a competition. She later received a revised perfect score.
Finden is reluctant to say that there are better opportunities in London but admits that there was less emphasis on pastry in Singapore 15 years ago. She flew under the radar even though she was representing Singapore in international culinary competitions back then. Now, she observes that the local dessert scene is becoming trendier. "Every time I come back I see something new but there are also many generic pastry shops selling macarons and eclairs. When someone does something well everybody rushes to copy," she adds. For Finden, one needs to push the envelope to stand out.
"There is always a story behind my desserts," shares Finden. Sweets have become a form of art. Her newest 'a-maize-ing' creation is full of clever puns - crunchy popcorn meringue, salted caramel, sous vide apple, cloudy apple juice gels, chocolate sticks, and cinnamon sponge cake are meticulously arranged into a swirly maze-like pattern.
"A lot of pastry chefs will make things very pretty and use all sorts of complicated techniques but I think they have forgotten that taste is the most important thing," adds Finden.
Perhaps what gives Finden an edge is her Asian background. Consider her classic Victoria sponge infused with sake plum and sakura, or the airy mousse with silver needle jasmine tea and apricots. She's also made pandan panna cotta and added pulot hitam to Swiss rolls.
After missing the action in Singapore for so many years, the chef will be returning to be a part of the upcoming World Gourmet Summit 2015 in April. And after that, who knows? Finden might just find herself with a bigger local fan base.
By Tiong Li Cheng