Recently opened Singapore-import Cé La Vi in the California Tower opened with a star-studded team, including celebrated pastry chef Jason Licker. Having traveled the world following his passion for pastries, Licker explains how he shook his sugar cravings and divulges the secret behind his otherworldly creations.
A little background
Licker moved to Asia 11 years ago and boasts a pedigreed resume, having worked at The Peninsula New York, Jean-Georges, Nobu Miami, The Westin Bund Center Shanghai, The Venetian and the JW Marriott Hong Kong. He’s also been named a Star Chef’s Rising Star and took home the gold on Iron Chef Thailand. Licker is currently working on his first book, which is set to publish in summer 2016.
Are you one of those pastry chefs who hates sweets?
I used to have a sweet tooth but I don’t eat them anymore. I’m from Long Island, New York. I was pretty fat growing up. My family was stereotypically American and we consumed anything that came near us — especially fast food. There was a lot of dining out and my mom never really cooked and I even hid Rice Krispies in my pillows — some really sick stuff.
I was 150 pounds in 6th grade and you could roll me around, so I got over [eating sweets]. Some girl in 7th grade said I was funny, but I was fat. And I thought, ‘I am going to show you one day’ and started working out a little bit. A lot of kids have that fat moment, and luckily I grew out of it.
So then why become a pastry chef?
My mom was diagnosed with cancer and had to go on a special diet of no sugar or gluten and so we started baking. Back then there were only one or two things like Snackwell’s, so we started messing around using butter replacements like apple butter, plum butter and almond butter.
Things started tasting remotely decent and I thought if things could taste this good with substitutes, then using butter and sugar would be great. And I was just hooked on baking. The worst part is that my mom passed away and she never knew that I became a chef.
How’d you originally find yourself in Asia?
After working for several years in New York and Miami, I made the jump to Shanghai. I actually applied for [a job] like a joke, but The Westin Bund Center Shanghai called me up, flew me out, did a test run and offered me a job on the spot. We made everything from scratch — I had 30 pastry chefs and no one spoke English. It was a lot of fun.
What was your next stop?
The executive chef there left to go to The Venetian Macau and took like all the sous chefs, and I have never seen anything like that. After going back to San Diego to work for a while, I then moved to The Venetian Macau too and was like, ‘What the hell is this place.’
It was the second biggest building in the world at the time, and on my first day at work they were like, ‘Follow the yellow tape to the kitchen.’ After following the tape for 24 minutes, I realized I was on the opposite side of the hotel. And then I had to walk 50 minutes in the opposite direction just to find the pastry kitchen.
What’s the big deal about your desserts? People are raving!
My angle on desserts is to make something balanced so you fully utilize your palate, including sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. I don’t want you to come here and feel like you ate a bomb and you want to go to sleep and can’t even get up.
I want to use a lot of Asian ingredients, especially acidity — yuzu from Japan, calamansi from The Philippines, lime from Thailand and Vietnam — or a little bit of bitter, like kumquat peel to balance out the sweetness.
How do you think being a pastry chef compares to regular chefs?
I think it’s completely different. Pastry is the most disciplined of all the types of cooking. Because you measure by the gram and it’s so religious. If you are a few grams off, 5 to 10 grams will make a huge difference. Technique has to be spot on.
You’re great at mingling with guests. What are the best comments you’ve heard?
Someone told me one time that I look like Kojak from the TV show, or Mr. Clean. I am like… ‘Thanks buddy.’ One guy said he’d never tasted anything like my dessert, so I felt really proud of that. That’s the best thing I could possibly hear.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.