Interview with Chef Belinda Leong of Gary Danko - San Francisco

June, 2007

Antoinette BrunoWhen and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Belinda Leong: My family manufactures sausages for the Chinese market, so we have history of working with food, but it wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to have a career in when I was younger. I started out studying graphic design at San Francisco City College but then I shifted to culinary interests. I started with savory and then moved on to pastry.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
BL: I had an internship for eight months in 1998 working under Pastry Chef Jason Gingold at Aqua. When I was still in culinary school I got an internship at Gary Danko and I’ve been there ever since. I also worked at Restaurant Daniel, Aureole, Fauchon, and Citarella Restaurant, all in New York, and Thomas Haas Chocolates in Vancouver.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
BL: I went to culinary school at San Francisco City College which was a worthwhile experience, but I am pretty much self-taught so I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
BL: Gary Danko – he allowed me the freedom to learn and make mistakes in his kitchen.

AB: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential?
BL: I staged with Michael Mina at Aqua in San Francisco. In New York I staged with Eric Bertoia at Café Boulud, Bill Yosses at Citarella, and John Miele at Aureole.

AB: What question gives you the most insight into a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
BL: I ask what their style is in their dessert making approach, because I want to hire someone who keeps with my style and ideas.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
BL: Speed and consistency are gained through experience. You have to be driven and really strive for success. Above all, a chef should be responsible and take pride in what they’re doing.

AB: What are your top 3 tips for pastry success?
BL: First and foremost, be consistent. Second, focus on just a few flavors so as not to confuse the diner’s palate. Lastly, remember the three most important components for a good dessert are technique, temperature, and texture.

AB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
BL: I like the texture of feuillatine, playing with cocoa nibs and fruit purees.