Heather Sperling: When and why did you start cooking?
Vera Tong: My grandfather was a prep cook and so was my dad, so they led the way. I grew up in Queens and started working in restaurants at age 19. I went to college for 6 months and then realized that wasn’t what I wanted. I went to culinary school – I knew that I wanted to do pastry, but wanted to keep the option open and get a better understanding of the kitchen. When you’re in pastry, you’re in your own little world. I did my internship at Le Madri, which was owned by Pino Luongo – I started in savory and switched to pastry.
HS: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
VT: I worked at Sushi Samba as corporate pastry chef, at Compass with Cesare Casella, at Beppe and at The Russian Tea Room.
HS: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
VT: Yes – it gives you a basic understanding of what’s going on, but you have to keep your eyes and ears open at all times.
HS: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
VT: John Fraser [of Dovetail] – he’s taught me to keep it basic and simple. Just because you have a ton of ingredients on the plate doesn’t mean it tastes better. Just because it sounds interesting, it doesn’t mean it tastes good. He taught me to keep the flavors true and keep everything seasonal.
HS: Is there an ingredient – seasonal or otherwise – that you feel is underappreciated in pastry?
VT: I’m into avocado right now – not a lot of people use it. They don’t see it as fruit, which it is, and I think it’s underappreciated in dessert. It’s difficult to handle because of oxidation, but it’s used in Asian cuisine a lot. Filipinos use it in a shake, and I had it and thought ‘I should do something with this!’ I use a little citric acid to help with oxidation and to make it taste fresh.
HS: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
VT: Right now it’s strawberry, cheesecake and beer.
HS: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
VT: A silicon spatula – it’s perfect for everything: cooking, folding, and spreading.
HS: Any kitchen tricks you can share?
VT: Two things: First, I find it’s better to keep your egg whites at room temperature and uncovered, so that the water evaporates from the whites, which produces a better, more stable product. Second, I find it much easier to blend cream cheese and butter together when the butter is softened and the cream cheese is cold. I’ve tried it every which way, and this works best.
HS: What are your favorite cookbooks?
VT: Alain Ducasse’s Desserts and Pastries, Frederic Bau’s books, and Chocolate by Ramon Morato
HS: If you could go anywhere in the world for culinary travel, where would you go?
VT: Spain – I think their desserts are so beautiful. Their techniques are interesting – they aren’t highly incorporated into my repertoire, but I think it’s amazing what they do there.
HS: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
1. Use everything seasonal
2. Go out to eat often
3. Be the most positive person that you know in the kitchen, because without that there’s not leadership.
HS: Where do you like to eat pastry?
VT: Gramercy Tavern, Gilt, and Café Gray (now closed).
HS: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in New York?
VT: I like to go to Joe’s Shanghai – I get the crab and pork soup dumplings and then walk over to Ping’s for the meal – I get the steamed fish and pineapple fried rice.
HS: What’s next for you?
VT: Opening a bakery. Not right now… but someday!