San Francisco’s Pastry Star
Melissa Chou has presided over pastries at San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Aziza for the past five years, creating impressive desserts that wowed the folks at the James Beard Foundation (she was a finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2012 and 2013) and San Francisco Magazine, which named her Pastry Chef of the Year in 2010. Melissa talks about developing new desserts, experimenting with sunchokes and parsnips, and her favorite spots for sweets in the city.
AndrewZimmern.com: Who has been your biggest culinary influence?
Melissa Chou: I grew up watching Jacques Pepin on PBS and he was my first exposure to the craft of cooking. There’s an episode all about choux paste where he makes gnocchi, gougeres and little swans in a caramel cage. The idea that one recipe could have so many different applications, both savory and sweet, seemed pretty profound to me when I was young. On a more personal level, I have been lucky to have an incredible relationship with the chef at Aziza, Mourad Lahlou. He has been instrumental in helping me navigate my career, as well as really teaching me how to construct dishes and ultimately put together a whole menu. He tastes everything I put on the menu and we are constantly discussing textures and flavors, what works and what needs tweaking. He’s really helped me understand and unveil a style of dessert making that is true to myself.
AZ.com: How did you land your current gig at Aziza?
MC: I answered an ad on Craigslist!
AZ.com: Tell us about your process for developing new desserts.
MC: I usually start with a flavor or ingredient I want to use. If there’s great fruit at the market, or an herb or spice I want to showcase I start there and brainstorm two or three other complementary flavors. It’s a bit odd, perhaps, but I think in colors, and often, the ingredients I match together will represent complementary colors. For example if I want to use plums, I’ll want to match that deep purple with something bright red, like strawberry or raspberry, or even rose. Once I’ve determined the flavors I want to use, I’ll work on textures – having a range of texture is very important to me. I like desserts to have something creamy, crunchy, crispy and light. Then Mourad tastes it and we determine what needs fixing and play with different ways of plating the components.
AZ.com: Most underrated ingredients for desserts?
MC: White chocolate! It’s fallen out of favor, but I use it as a background flavor for many things – in most of the applications it would not even be recognizable. I’ve been exploring vegetables such as sunchokes, peas, corn and parsnips which are all very sweet. Salt is also very important to help season things like eggs and cream, and can really help balance and stabilize sweet flavors.
AZ.com: What’s the one no-fail dessert recipe all cooks should master?
MC: You’ve always gotta have a great birthday cake (I like chocolate). Or pate brisee. Being able to make a great brisee is indispensable. You can make a batch and keep it in the freezer for anytime you have great fruit lying around and put together a galette pretty quickly. Always delicious and impressive!
AZ.com: What do you hope your career looks like in 10 years?
MC: I don’t usually like to make those kinds of projections – this was not the career path I started on, and the job has taken me on many adventures so I’ve learned to follow it where it takes me rather than make plans about it!
AZ.com: Favorite spots for sweets in San Francisco?
MC: I’m addicted to Bi-Rite ice cream, I always get coffee toffee with either malted vanilla or banana. Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous is great for ice cream too. Also, I love the morning buns and almond croissants at Tartine and the kouign amann at b. patisserie.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
MC: Sparkling water, whole milk, 2% milk, nonfat plain yogurt, at least five various cheeses, four different open jars of homemade jams, lots of produce (it’s the summer! squash, eggplant, lettuces, kale, apricots, blueberries, plums), mustard, salt-packed capers, light and dark soy sauce, plum sauce, shaoh xing cooking wine, chili paste.
Melissa Chou has been the pastry chef at Aziza for five years. A native San Franciscan, she left for the East Coast to pursue a degree in Art History at Vassar College, but eventually returned west and took pastry classes at Tante Marie’s Cooking School. She began cooking at Quince and then The Presidio Social Club. In 2007 Melissa became the pastry chef at Aziza, and then in 2009 she was named a San Francisco Chronicle Rising Star; later that year Aziza was awarded its first Michelin star. In 2010 StarChefs.com named Melissa a Rising Star Pastry Chef and San Francisco Magazine selected her as Pastry Chef of the Year. In 2012 and again in 2013 she was a finalist for the James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef.