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THE SUGAR CHEFChef Pichet Ong never realized how far his career would take him after being hired by superstar restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten. From working as a savory chef at Jean Georges, the four-star restaurant located in New York’s Trump Tower, Ong's passion for desserts rocketed him to co-opening high class eateries in New York, Boston and London and garnered him an invitation to participate in one of Oprah Winfrey's events.
How did the Oprah gig come about? Winfrey recently completed a project for one of her Oxygen network shows on the topic of African-American Legends. As part of the celebration, Oprah invited her friends to dinner at her home in Los Angeles. She turned to her long-time friend Colin Cowie, known for his fabulous event planning, and requested a top chef. Cowie, having been involved with Vongerichten's wedding, recommended him as chef. Vongerichten in turn chose Pichet Ong for the pastry chef position. In Ong's case, a strict interpretation of the word “pastry” is not appropriate, given the playful and innovative creations he develops.
What makes Ong's desserts distinctive? He gets inspiration from food that he ate as a child — Cracker Jacks, Rice Crispies and Ovaltine — along with his style of French cuisine with an Asian flavor. “Desserts are an indulgence,” says Ong, “and should be addictive. I enjoy creating fare that is ‘chewy’ so that one can savor it, as well as working with fruits that are light on the palate.”
One of Ong's most popular creations is his version of kulfi. Traditional kulfi is Indian ice cream made with boiled milk. Ong's kulfi combines goat’s milk, cream, Ovaltine and chocolate. Once the kulfi is plated, malt chantilly made of cream and malt powder is poured over it. The dish is then garnished with clusters of spiced caramel popcorn, a concoction that uses fried mung bean puree in its recipe. Finally, a chocolate sauce of evaporated milk, condensed milk and milk chocolate is poured over the top. Bliss!
The 36-year old Ong was born in Thailand and grew up there and in Hong Kong and Singapore. At the age of 14, Ong immigrated to the United States with his mother, Ruby Wong. He lived in New York until he went to college at Brandeis University. When it came to his graduate education, Ong chose San Francisco. Although studying architectural design at U.C. Berkeley, Ong managed to find his way into the kitchen, where he found it quite nurturing to work with gay chefs.
After securing his masters degree, Ong worked in a series of bakeries and restaurants, including a position as pastry chef at La Folie. Drawing upon his experience in commercial kitchens, he was able to contribute much of his energy to Project Open Hand, a San Francisco organization that prepares food for people with advanced AIDS.
In 1997 Ong decided to return to New York, and it was then that Vongerichten hired him to join the staff at Jean Georges. As much as Ong enjoyed the reputation of working at this high-class restaurant, the position had him preparing a fish menu. He says the lingering smell was a deterrent to his social life!
He left Jean Georges and gained additional experience at a few other restaurants. He opened two Vietnamese restaurants called Pho in Boston. Eventually Ong was hired back to join Vongerichten where he feels he can fully explore his passion and creative talents. Ong is currently pastry chef for Vongerichten's Spice Market and 66 restaurants.
Ong resides with his lover, Stuart Brill, an immigration lawyer. Although the chef never found it necessary to be in the closet, what he did find in New York was that the community of gay chefs was small. “Most gay people didn’t stay in this industry but went to the catering end of it or working the dining room. Restaurant kitchens are quite a macho thing, and I haven’t found them to be very gay-friendly. In fact I have experienced a number of anti-gay remarks coming from the kitchen. Now I am at a point where people respect me and I find that it makes a difference.”
Ong sees himself as a role model for gay youth and says that he makes an extra commitment to encouraging a gay younger generation of cooks, especially those who are new to the industry.
Chef Pichet Ong shares one of his creationsSteamed Strawberry Pudding
(nine 4oz molds)
180 g whipped cream
2 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt
100 g strawberries
June 01, 2005 - Pink Magazine
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