Pastry Chef Melissa Chou’s talent for sweets belies her five years of experience in the kitchen. The one-time Vassar College art history student intended to pursue a career in art, but instead chose to indulge her artistic interests in cooking. She packed her bags and moved to San Francisco to enroll in a part-time pastry program at Tante Marie’s Cooking School.
Soon thereafter she took her first culinary job at Quince, where she worked for a year before moving onto The Presidio Social Club to be the pastry sous chef. It was here that she met her mentor, Consulting Chef Phil Ogiela. It wasn’t long before Chou was tempted by a want ad for a pastry position for well-known San Francisco Chef Mourad Lahlou; Lahlou, already familiar with Chou’s pedigree, hired her to be pastry chef at Aziza, where she has been working now for three years.
At Aziza, Chou eloquently slips nuances of Moroccan flavors (rose water, honey, and mint) into her dishes that are natural finales to Chef Lahlou and fellow 2010 Rising Star Chef de Cuisine Louis Maldonado’s entrées. In 2009, Chou was named a San Francisco Chronicle Rising Star, and later in the year Aziza was awarded a Michelin star. As for the future, Chou has her sights set on eventually landing a gig in Paris and inevitably having her own restaurant.
Interview with Pastry Chef Melissa Chou of Aziza – San Francisco, CA
Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Melissa Chou: It's not what I was supposed to do. I went to college in upstate New York at Vassar and studied art history. My boyfriend was living in St. Louis at the time when I graduated, so I moved there and was so unhappy. I cooked a lot when I was there. When we moved back to San Francisco, I went to a small part time pastry program to see if it would work out for me and really liked it and have been doing it ever since.
KM: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
MC: Right out of culinary school I worked at Quince and was there for less than a year. Then I moved onto Presidio Social Club. There, I met this guy who ended up being my mentor, Phil Ogiela, who was consulting there. I decided I didn’t want to work at Presidio anymore. On a whim, I answered an ad on Craigslist for Aziza and Mourad gave me a chance. I've been here for two years now. The pastry chef I worked with while at Quince was here while Phil was consulting, so Mourad knew my pedigree pretty well.
KM: Did you go to culinary school? Do you recommend it?
MC: The culinary school I went to was low key, really basic, and I kind of just did it to have it as a starting point. I tried to get jobs without it and it was really hard for me. That kind of experience I would definitely recommend, just to give you a taste of what this job is. Not sure I would recommend full-on CIA or anything like that.
KM: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
MC: I think eating, doing a lot of eating, really developing your palate and figuring out what you like and going to the markets and self-education. That way is the best thing you can do—indulging your passion. I personally don’t intellectualize too much. I make things that I like. I'm aware of the other styles out there, but I don’t try to push myself to be a certain way. I've figured out my groove at this point. Allow yourself to grow and experiment too, but just be comfortable in your own taste.
KM: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
MC: I love the hibiscus, rose, and mint combination; the mint is key, it’s really fresh and light.
KM: Where do you like to eat pastry in San Francisco?
MC: Tartine has really amazing pastry, really solid. Michelle at Range is technically very good. I also like Carlos over at Commis.
KM: What is your pastry philosophy?
MC: I like to have people end the meal on a lighter note. I don’t want them to feel full, uncomfortably full or weighed down at end of meal. Try to be light in texture or more on the acidic side just to have that freshness. I really think it’s important to use a lot of fruit. The fall season right now is difficult, and especially in a place like this where Moroccan desserts are kind of non-existent. Mourad was like “fruit is what we eat in Morocco” and I was like “That’s good—I like fruit!”
KM: What goes into developing a dessert?
MC: I look at the menu a lot and look [in the kitchen] a lot. Sometimes, honestly, I just stand and stare at the spices we have and think about the ways we could use those and what we already have in the restaurant and how I could use the dried fruit and spices. And then I think about what’s going to bring out those flavors the best, what texture, what temperature, and then try to balance everything out accordingly to make sure you get all kinds of textures and flavors on the plate, sweet, sour, bitter.
KM: Where do you fit into your local culinary community?
MC: I'm here all the time. I did used to go the market, but I don't go as much any more. I used to go a lot though. Pastry chefs are kind of sidelined in this whole thing. People don't really come to me asking. I've done some events but mostly they're looking for savory guys.
KM: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
MC: For sure, being confident in your palate and your style, I think that’s really important. Not trying to make things too complicated. There’s a lot of different styles out there. Allowing yourself to absorb that information without being too dictated by that. I have to say Yelp.com and online reviews have been really helpful, although they can be frustrating. But sometimes you can get a general sense about how people are feeling about your food. I was going through a weird phase with lots of vegetables and people weren’t feeling it and it wasn’t me either. I’ve moved away from that which is a good thing. Just educate yourself, read as much as you can and look at menus. And going out to eat is so key, you can only look at pictures for so long and figure out what works on a plate in front of you. Eat your own desserts too. Sometimes the last thing I want to do is eat them, but for me, I like coming in and having a full dinner and having my desserts the way my diners would experience it.
KM: What’s next? Where will you be in five years?
MC: I don't think I've even been doing this job for five years. I graduated college five years ago. I don't know, of course, secretly I have a dream of opening my own place. What capacity that is, I'm not sure, not sure what it would be. I love working in restaurants. I don’t really envision myself in a bakery. If I could somehow have a restaurant that was mine, I would. I'd also love to move to Paris—you can put that in my five year plan!