"We celebrate a lot through food in Chinese culture, and with each celebration there's a lot of baking involved. The act of baking was communal and a bonding factor, so I grew up around a lot of strong culinary women."
Chef Pichet Ong of Sugar and Plumm is a lot of energy to keep up with. He's all awash with warm hospitality and purpose, managing to keep his Upper West Side location running while requesting plate after plate of food to our table and answering our questions with as much focus as he can muster. His plates combine sweet and savory in delightful ways—a touch of salt wandering its way through a cookie or massive slice of cake, or the sweetness of shrimp wrapped in a gluten-free buckwheat crepe.
Sugar and Plumm has a lot going on; a retail section of sparkling sweets and toys, an upscale chocolate bar, a coffee bar and café table up front, a huge case of desserts, and a full sit-down menu that's equally loved by adults and their squirming offspring. The cocktails are just as potent as the ice box cakes are intense. They recently opened their Bleeker Street location, which welcomes guests to sit with a coffee and sweet and enjoy watching the neighborhood foot traffic.
Pichet's energy goes beyond the kitchen—he has a bachelor's degree in English literature and mathematics, a masters degree in architecture, and he designs his own (incredibly stylish, highly functional) aprons. His cookbook is beautiful, and he seems to be consulting with a new restaurant every eleven minutes. We caught up with this super-sweet chef on where this all comes from and what's most important to him now.
You seem to have worn many hats when it comes to both studies and what you do within the culinary world. Were you always highly creative as a child? I was a very active child and I've had many, many interests since I was young. I love science, and I grew up in a family when education was important—in an Asian culture the best of the students study math, physics, biology or chemistry, so at the age of six or seven I decided to become a scientist, not knowing what that actually means. But I also loved to make things with my hands, so in elementary school I took classes in woodworking and metalworking, too.
Where did you grow up? I was born in Thailand and then I left for Singapore, because my mom is a Singaporean citizen and they have some of the best schools.
Yeah, not many schools offer wood and metal working as well as a competitive scientific programs... Wood and metal working are kind of like craft, and similar to sculpture, so I tried to take some of that too. But it was difficult for me to embrace fully because it's all very subjective, right? I never understood the grading system, and the first B I got I was like, "This isn't for me!" I was upset that I didn't an A, so I went more in the direction of what I'm most comfortable with because I wanted to make good grades to get in a good school—college was very important to me.
What does pastry fulfill for you that those other ways of working with your hands don't? I grew up in a family with more women than men, and most of them cook for their family and friends. We celebrate a lot through food in Chinese culture, and with each celebration there's a lot of baking involved. Those are the best times, really, because it's always a group effort, otherwise it's monotonous. It's like dumplings (which are considered pastry for us; a dumpling chef in a Chinese restaurant is considered a pastry chef); uniformity, precision, shaping things and making them look pretty. The act of baking was communal and a bonding factor, so I grew up around a lot of strong culinary women.
Did you inherit any particularly fun family recipes? They weren't professionals, but the whole thing with secret recipes was really big. My mom would always say she had a really good recipe for something, and then my aunt would say that she had a better one, and then they pulled out these secret recipes and I'm the lucky one to know both of them because they wanted me to choose which one was better. So I grew up doing that a lot.
Do you still find that sense of community in the kitchen now? Absolutely. Sugar and Plumm is sort of full circle for me in my career because I'm making things that are very basic and elementary—not in a way that's Baking 101, but more things a pastry chef must know, like different types of cookies that are very basic but presented in a new light. I started baking in the late eighties and now have to present things in a different way...
How so? There are better ingredients than we used to—everything just got "better." But also in technology and volume. Bakeries used to be very small and everything was baked on premises. A lot of that is changing. At Sugar and Plumm we do a lot in volume; we make 900 cookies at a time and enough crepe batter for 800 crepes, for example.
I always press to my cooks; you can't do that alone. It's overwhelming. The machine is huge, and I don't want you to break your back doing it. So we have two or three people making the cookie batter and then when we scoop those 900 cookies. We do it all together, and that's when we bond; "How is your day?" "How's your love life?" "How's your mom or your dad?" "How's your car?" Everybody has a life beyond work, and I like to get to know them and integrate it. It's the same back to the way it was. And talk about myself. I love to do that.
Sugar and Plumm is also a very family-centered restaurant. Lamia Jacobs, the principal of company, wanted to do a modern family restaurant. I think this is the most updated version.
I honestly wasn't expecting such high-quality food for a place that also caters to children's products in such a wide fashion. It seems like a place adults can sit and truly enjoy alongside their kids. I like it for dates too. For this dish we use organic buckwheat flour, we smoke our own salmon, our shrimp is gulf shrimp—we use really high quality ingredients. So for me as a chef and eater it distinguishes us from similar kinds of restaurants. It's not something we talk about enough, unfortunately— it's overwhelming when you walk in, so sometimes small details get lost like that. So I want to emphasize that that's really important to us—as consumers we're going in that direction of eating better ingredients across the board, and we do that here.
A lot of young chefs are moving pretty quickly in the culinary world nowadays... Oh my god, I have so many young chefs who are nominated for James Beard awards already, it's amazing! I was actually one of those myself; 20 years ago I was a chef within six months of working, and I see a lot of those chefs now. And kudos to them, really.
Was that climb a lot different for you 20 years ago than you see it being today? It was a different market back then, I would have to say. I worked under many great chefs who gave me shape and direction, and I'm completely indebted to cookbooks—before the internet we had cookbooks! I basically learned how to make moules, crème brulee, croissants... all the basics from books and pictures. I think that's an interesting challenge from then to now; it took longer for you to do research, to find out what a product was supposed to look like, and how you were supposed to make it then. Now I think it's very exciting and I'm glad I lived through the peak of both generations. I'm not so old that I can't figure out how to do something by Googling.