A pastry chef's journey from McDonald's to fulfilling her dream

Chase Tse Ka-wai is the pastry sous chef at the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel and Towers. She started off as a student baking for her classmates and old people.
PHOTO: Edmond So

"In high school, I took economics and learned how to cook and bake cakes. One time, my classmates and I volunteered to make cookies for the elderly and we chipped in to buy an oven; I kept it at home as I was in charge of baking. The seniors liked them.

"I also tried to make macarons and failed over 10 times. I read many books and online recipes on how to make them, and even took a class, but mine didn't work out. I also learned how to make panna cotta in cups, with layers of different flavours but the flavours didn't match so it didn't taste good.

"To save up for baking ingredients, I started working part-time at McDonald's when I was 15 years old. I liked baking because I gave the finished products to my classmates who praised me.

"I felt like I had achieved something. If my cakes or cookies didn't work out, then I didn't take them to school and gave them to my dad to eat instead. He didn't mind."

Pastry made by Tse. PHOTO: Chase Tse Ka-wai

Where did you learn your pastry skills?

"I didn't have the grades to get into university, so I applied for the pastry course at the Vocational Training Council. My dad was very open-minded and let me pursue this path.

"The two-year course is called Western pastry, bakery and confectionery and they teach fundamentals like how to make bread. For desserts, they teach how to make panna cotta and what sauces can accompany it.

"I studied at the Kowloon Bay campus, but we didn't have much access to guest chefs, who did more demonstrations in the Pok Fu Lam campus because the space there is much larger."

What was your first job after graduation?

"When I was 19 years old, I started work at Patisserie Tony Wong, where I stayed for 1½ years. I enjoyed it a lot. One of his apprentices patiently taught me, one on one, how to design a new cake or how to write Chinese calligraphy in chocolate. He didn't mind if I asked many questions.

"During my time there, I got promoted twice, the second time to open a shop in Yoho Mall, in Yuen Long [in the New Territories]. While I learned about the challenges of opening a shop, the business side is not really for me; I prefer focusing on making desserts.

"One day, I posted on my Instagram stories a video showing my chocolate calligraphy skills and executive pastry chef Andy Yeung Cheuk-yin messaged me, asking if I was interested in joining the JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong [on Hong Kong Island], where he was working. I had never worked in a hotel before and wanted to try it.

"This is where I started working in chocolate and fondant."

Chase Tse Ka-wai, pastry chef of the Sheraton hotel, poses for a picture at the Sheraton hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui. PHOTO: Edmond So

What’s the difference between a cake shop and a hotel?

"In a hotel, we supplied desserts or sweet items to many outlets, so I couldn't focus on one thing. I had to answer the phone and make sure the buffet was well stocked. Sometimes I would be called to do something urgent, like take baked goods out of the oven while I was tempering chocolate, so by the time I came back, the chocolate had set and I had to start all over again.

"After 1½ years, I wanted to focus more on fondant, and online cake shop Pandora in Tsuen Wan found me on Instagram and asked me to join them. I learned how to make 3D cakes and taught people how to make them, as well as sugar flowers, one to two days a week."

Pastry made by Tse. PHOTO: Chase Tse Ka-wai

Which do you like working with more, chocolate or fondant?

"I prefer chocolate. Fondant is like plastic, where you can cover up mistakes, but handling chocolate requires skill. It's hard at first, learning to temper it and make it smooth, whereas there is not much technique involved with fondant.

"Also when you make a big sculptural piece using fondant, you need wires and other supporting material, so you can't eat it, whereas with chocolate, if you calculate the weight properly, you can just use chocolate to make a sculpture, which makes it very pure and completely edible.

"Also, if it breaks or you make a mistake, you can still save your chocolate piece, but with fondant, when it's dry, that's it - you have to start over."

Pastry made by Tse. PHOTO: Chase Tse Ka-wai

Where else did you go?

"I spent five months at Pandora, and then the Mandarin Oriental [in Central] asked if I was interested in making displays for the Cake Shop. I joined right away because Christmas was fast approaching and they needed extra help to make things like Christmas pudding and gingerbread.

"When I was in high school, I wanted to work at the famous hotels like The Peninsula, Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental. And then I had the opportunity to work at the Mandarin Oriental and forgot this was my dream. It was my dad or older sister who reminded me.

"I had to come up with designs and then make sculptures for the Mandarin Cake Shop display and change them periodically. I could use whatever materials I needed.

"When I showed executive pastry chef Christophe Sapy what I was working on, he gave me some feedback, saying mostly, 'Wow! Good!' But when it came to edible desserts for the buffet then he gave more comments."

Pastry made by Tse. PHOTO: Chase Tse Ka-wai

What do you do now?

"When I was 24 years old, chef Andy [Yeung] moved to the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel and Towers [in Tsim Sha Tsui] and asked me to join him. Here, my title is sous chef, so I need to do some paperwork, make sure we have enough supplies, discuss what we are going to do for events. I have more responsibilities and can't just work on my own things.

"When the latest afternoon tea menu is confirmed, I teach my colleagues how to make it. Even though I'm young, I don't think about my colleagues being older than me, I just teach them how to make the desserts and if they have questions, they can ask me."

Pastry made by Tse. PHOTO: Chase Tse Ka-wai

What ingredients do you like to work with?

"I like tea flavours because they can taste rich or light. It's not like citrus, which can overpower the dessert taste. Oolong goes well with fruits, and in general tea flavours are good with chocolate or fruits, and few people say they don't like tea flavour. I prefer oolong or jasmine, as they have clean flavours and when you taste them they are easily identifiable."

What are your goals?

"I want to compete in the World Chocolate Masters [a competition for professional chocolatiers]. This year Tsz Chung-lung, a pastry chef from Hong Kong, won the China selection. He will go to France to compete in the finals and I will assist him.

"The Hong Kong Chefs Association is supportive, as long as your company allows you to participate. You need a space to practice and the materials because it involves a lot of time and effort to practice. The competition is next summer. I hope to compete one day, but I'm a sore loser."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.