Interview with Pastry Chef Kady Yon of Boka – Chicago, IL

January 2011

Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to first pursue cooking professionally?
Kady Yon: It’s magical what food does—the feeling it evokes without having to say anything. Food is a common thread that everyone shares. It doesn't matter where you're from, and it’s usually the thing that brings people together. Hopefully it translates to the guest.

FV: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
KY: I majored in International Studies and Law at the University of Iowa. I don't have a preference. I think, more than anything, it’s the attitude. I think you can teach anybody technique and skill and people adapt, but they have to have a great attitude to survive in any kitchen.

FV: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
KY: Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, The Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago, and Le Lan.

FV: Who were your mentors and what did you learn from each of them?
KY: I learned a lot. At Charlie Trotter’s, Della Gossett was the pastry chef for almost a decade. She taught me about virtue and patience, and you know how sometimes when you’re in the kitchen things don't go as expected, and people lose focus? They don't treat each other with the same care as they would in a different environment. It’s very important with all the work that we do to somehow maintain a strong relationship with everyone that we work with and have that experience carry over. She taught me about respect and patience. She’s the most influential, for sure. She’s an instructor at the French Pastry School now.

FV: What’s your favorite interview question, and how do you expect successful candidates to answer?
KY: What are your goals? It’s not specific answer, but that they can provide an answer means they’re serious and ready to take the necessary steps to get there, because when you have a goal in front of you, you have something to work for. You can see it in their work ethic.

FV: What is your pastry philosophy?
KY: There’s a tendency to add too many elements or too many components on a plate. The most important thing is that it’s clean and straightforward and provokes somebody to think, while staying true to its form. If it’s supposed to taste like yogurt, it tastes like yogurt. If it’s supposed to taste like caramel, it tastes like caramel, not vanilla with a hint of caramel.

FV: Where do you fit into your local culinary community?
KY: Chicago’s located in the heart of the Midwest and sometimes people want familiar things. Chicago is a melée of something that’s familiar and something very unfamiliar, such as Alinea, but it’s a beautiful thing, that mixture. What I’ve noticed is that we’ve all focused on using local sustainable farms and trying to practice making the earth greener. Waste is inevitable, but we try to reduce that as much as possible by using recyclable containers and so on. We do our best, and we try and order from local farmers except when the weather prevents us. We don’t order things from California if we can get therm from a farmer in Michigan.

FV: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
1. To have a great attitude. That comes with patience, obviously.
2. Do things properly. Don’t take any shortcuts because it will show in the long run.
3. Always taste your food. Period.

FV: Where would you like to go for culinary travel?
KY: Hong Kong. I was born there. I came to the United States when I was 3, but I don't really have much knowledge of my culture and their practices when it comes to food, so it’d be nice to have a stronger connection.

FV: What advice would you offer young cooks who are just getting started?
KY: There are going to be people who question you and your capabilities. Never give up and trust yourself.

FV: What are your most essential tools and why?
KY: Scales, to have consistency over and over and over again. Offset spatula, I don't know any pastry chef that can live without an offset, and spoons for tasting and quenelling.

FV: What is your favorite pastry resource?
KY: Probably websites. What always really helps me are my colleagues. We might be fascinated with one ingredient that comes in, and we seek insight from one another, and we want to take it in another direction. I love Oriol Balaguer’s Dessert Cuisine book, chef Trotter’s dessert book—that was the first dessert book I ever owned, and it changed my life. Somebody had given it to me in the late 90s. I wasn't working as a pastry chef at the time. Just reading the book, it made such an impact. You can't fathom ever replicating something like that—just the beauty of it and the expression and how precise everything has to be done. Certain ingredients you have never heard of catch your eyes.

FV: Where do you like to go to eat pastry?
KY: There’s a bakery called St. Anna’s in Chicago’s Chinatown, and it’s something I've been used to since I was a child. They have very similar pastries to the ones they serve in Hong Kong, egg custard, breads, and so on.

FV: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
KY: One of the desserts that you had was apple and curry with pickled walnuts, which is very weird but it’s one of my favorites. I like black sesame with a touch of citrus—Meyer lemons or kumquat. But [sesame] has a fatty element to it so a Buddha’s hand citron really balances that out.

FV: What do you think you’d be doing right now if you weren’t a pastry chef?
KY: I have no idea. I don't know if I could ever answer that.

FV: What’s next for you?
KY: Hopefully, I'll be working in the States and overseas. I plan on taking two to five years traveling and experiencing food and cultures and just opening my eyes.