Kathleen Culliton: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Chris Leung: It never occurred to me I could do it as a career. One day in college, my girlfriend got lost trying to hand in a paper and ran across the school culinary department. For my birthday, she signed me up for a pastry class and from the first day I was hooked. I have a science background, so it intrigued me—I always had liked the labs more than the classroom, and with baking, everything is hands on.
KC: When and why did you start cooking?
CL: I've been doing this for a little over three years. Before that I was in college for a chemistry degree. I took a semester off from school, started watching the Food Network, and wanted to try my hand. I’ve always been intrigued by the kitchen, even when I was little.
KC: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
CL: I had a great mentor at Houston Community College, Chef Eddy Van Damme. He didn't say you have to do these classes; he let me experiment. Alex Stupak was a huge influence on me. Albert Adrià and Paco Torreblanco, they’re big influences, too.
KC: Where else have you worked?
CL: After graduating from Houston Community College’s pastry program, I started working at the Houston Country Club. The chef there didn't impose his style on me. He let me do what I wanted to do, which is sometimes good and bad. I learned from the mistakes that I made.
KC: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
CL: Work in a professional kitchen. Work hard. In the kitchen, in the beginning, a lot of it is about effort. A lot of people have passion, but what separates you from the other cooks is your hard work and effort. When you clock out after work, your work should do research and read up as much as you can. Basically it’s a 24-7 kind of thing.
KC: Is there an ingredient that you feel is particularly under-appreciated or under-utilized?
CL: In desserts, definitely I think it’s salt. A lot of times just a small amount of salt can balance a dish.
KC: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
CL: Buckwheat, miso, and grapefruit. It’s something I’ve been playing around with. I don’t think many pastry chefs are using miso or buckwheat. More traditional is lime and coconut, which is one of my favorites.
KC: Please describe a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way.
CL: One of my first ever techniques that I had a problem with, I got it off of your website. Frozen Blood Orange and Amaretto Capsule with Bitter Almond Cream and Coffee Streusel from Pastry Chef Rick Billings of Clio – Boston, MA. [Assembling capsules] is one of the techniques I’ve always had trouble with—I just couldn’t get it right. I got it right only once and put it out as a special.
KC: Where would you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
CL: I would have to say, oh, between Japan and Spain. But I’d have to say Japan because the pastry is very clean and modern. The thing that gets me the most is the cleanliness of their pastry, the lines. It’s not too cluttered, very to the point, with a very modern look. And the seafood, the sushi there is incredible. And Spain, for flavor combinations and techniques, they seem like they’re always a step ahead. Chefs always seem to do stages at a few particular restaurants in Spain.
KC: Where do you like to eat pastry?
CL: I like what Rebecca Masson does, and Jody Stevens. Rebecca owns the online bakery, Fluff Bake Bar. They serve more traditional desserts, more comfort food, what you grow up eating. Jody at http://www.jodycakes.com/ "target="_blank">jodycakes.com
does like killer cupcakes with unusual flavor combinations.
KC: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
CL: Trends are kind of hard. What we do at our restaurant is use what we have around us. We use modern techniques, but we’re not showcasing modern techniques. We try to change the texture of the ingredient without shoving the technique in the customer’s face. Rather, we showcase the ingredient, whether it’s foraged mushrooms or greens, or whatever. It isn’t necessarily a trend but is just right; it should be done.
KC: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
CL: Work clean, always taste, and don’t be afraid. I remember students at school would be afraid of tempering chocolate, and they would be hesitant. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes. Don’t be afraid of new techniques. If you want to try it, go ahead and try it.
KC: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
CL: In the long term, success for me is to own my own pastry shop where I could influence other young cooks and put out the best product and be the best in Houston or the state of Texas.