Foodie Confidential: Small hands, great pastry

Delicate fingers and small hands determined the culinary path of pastry chef Ariana Flores.

She started out as a cook in the savoury food section of a catering company in Los Angeles for two years. Then she was roped in to make a dainty pastry whose name she has since forgotten.

She recalls with a laugh: "I was the only one with small hands that could do the job and then I was told, 'Okay, that's your job.' It's a silly story."

Now 34, she is the executive pastry chef at Italian-American restaurant Angeleno in Gemmill Lane, which opened earlier this week. The 42-seat restaurant is named for the inhabitants of Los Angeles. The Californian city is where chef Flores and the restaurant's head chef and co-owner, David Almany, are from.

Ms Flores, an American of Mexican parentage, says that her desserts are traditionally Italian, but they marry flavours and inspirations from the multi-cultural City of Angels and her Mexican heritage.

The treats include Meyer Lemon Semifreddo, made with the citrus fruit which is now in season, and Coconut Panna Cotta, which features tropical fruit used in Mexican cuisine.

She was part of the opening team for Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles in 2006. The restaurants were started by celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton and restaurateur Joe Bastianich.

The pastry chef relocated here five years ago as part of the opening team for the Mozza restaurants at Marina Bay Sands and headed their pastry section.

She says she did not learn to bake at home growing up. Instead, she started cooking after school at age 15, making staple dishes such as Mexican rice and pinto beans when her parents were out.

Her mother is a housewife and her retired father used to co-own a furniture business. She has an elder sister.

Cooking at home piqued her interest. At 18, after completing high school, she found a kitchen job.

Her unexpected brush with pastry-making captivated her and she applied for a job in a bakery. There, she was mentored by chef Colleen Johnson, who is now a lead baking and pastry instructor at The Art Institute of California - Orange County.

Ms Flores, who is single, says: "I had a good teacher. She was patient in explaining baking steps and showed me what would happen if things aren't done the right way."

What was the transition from cooking savoury food to making pastries like?

I love anything that involves the kitchen, from cooking to feeding people to loving the feeling when someone says your food's great. As long as you understand food and what the ingredients do to each other, you are okay.

What are your favourite pastries to make?

Morning pastries such as muffins, puff pastries, doughnuts, scones and cakes that go well with a cup of coffee. The scent of warm bread from an oven is so gorgeous. I love anything with chocolate, be it a cookie, brownie or cake. It is exciting to use seasonal fruit such as peaches and strawberries and I look forward to seeing how their quality changes each season.

How do you celebrate Christmas?

My Christmas celebrations have ended since I started working here. But I still make some of the festive treats that I grew up with. They include tamales (corn-based dough filled with meat and steamed in corn husks) and bunuelos (fried dough topped with cinnamon and sugar).

What is the most challenging pastry to make?

Bread. If you don't know the reaction between the ingredients, you will not be successful. It is a product that depends on many factors such as humidity and temperature. You need to know what's going on with the dough just by looking at it.

What are your favourite Singapore foods?

I love anything that involves curry, especially fish-head curry. I like the dish from Indian-Muslim eateries in Geylang Serai. I also enjoy fried cereal sotong from a Chinese restaurant in Katong that opens till late.

Where's your favourite place to go for Mexican food here?

My home. My favourite Mexican foods are mole, a rich and gorgeous sauce made of chilli and chocolate; enchiladas, which are tortillas stuffed with chicken and cheese; and sope, a Mexican corn cake topped with cheese, meats and lettuce.

What are your must-eats when you return to Los Angeles?

I go home twice a year. I have to visit the taco trucks there. It is a heavenly experience to watch a nice and hot taco made in front of you and it is topped with lots of coriander and onions. I eat a lot at home as the best meals are usually cooked by family. My favourite dishes cooked by my mum are mole sauce and tamales.

What is the most memorable meal you have had?

Gulai curry, an Indonesian dish that a friend's mother cooked four years ago. It is made with chillies, ginger, garlic and chicken. It opened a window to South-east Asian flavours.

Share with us a kitchen incident that you still remember today.

During my younger days, I was told to de-feather a tub of 30 to 40 chickens. I didn't know why I was made to do it repeatedly. Only a few weeks ago, I made my intern do a lot of puff pastry in order for her to learn. Now, she makes beautiful puff pastry, which is not an easy thing to do. I realised I was also put through a similar learning experience.

This article was first published on Dec 20, 2015.
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