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How bold flavors made Cheryl Koh one of the world’s best pastry chefs

Asia's Best Pastry Chef 2016 is making Singapore and the rest of Asia a little sweeter with her creations

Can you compare a fast food chain’s sundae and a raspberry-topped mille-feuille? It might seem that they exist in completely different categories. One might even ask whether the flavor in the sundae is in fact from vanilla at all. But turning to Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2016 Cheryl Koh, we are asked three words in relation to both desserts: “Is it delicious?” In her eyes, it’s equal war between the two. For the 36-year-old chef, dessert need not be complicated, but simply enjoyable.

With a focus on the freshest seasonal ingredients, Peak Selections Gourmet & Travel’s 2014 Chef to Watch is tucked away in the kitchen of Tarte at the corner of Shaw Center in Singapore. Listed as Asia’s 13th Best Restaurant in 2015, Tarte is committed to creating what Koh’s philosophy would call classic desserts featuring high-quality ingredients of the current season.

Attention to detail keeps the tarts and carolines, which are made daily and in limited quantity, refreshingly distinct yet elegantly classic, a reflection of Koh’s time-honored French food education bolstered by global and local influences.

Koh was brought up in Singapore noshing on hawker-style food and ais kacang—a Malaysian dessert composed of ice, azuki beans, sweet corn, and red beans, which is akin to our very own halo-halo. Aside from the usual childhood desserts, the occasional artisanal tart proved to be a treat for the young Koh.

Attention to detail keeps the tarts and carolines, which are made daily and in limited quantity, refreshingly distinct yet elegantly classic, a reflection of Koh’s time-honored French food education bolstered by global and local influences.

But before a whirlwind tour throughout the kitchens of Europe, the young “lover of all desserts” found herself in National University of Singapore. “My decision to take European Studies and Geography was not purely motivated by my desire to start a career in that field. Instead, the courses I chose provided me with a platform to learn and grow as a person.”

Perhaps it was this passion for learning that pushed Koh into a trainee pastry cook job at the Singapore Raffles Hotel, where she worked over her breaks from school. The transition to becoming a chef began when she made her way to chef Jean-Louis Nomicos’ two-Michelin-star restaurant Lasserre in Paris, France following her Raffles departure. Here, she trained for two years, finding herself “opened to a new culture, a spectrum of ingredients and work ethics.”

After her stints at Burj Al Arab in Dubai and the two Michelin-star Don Alfonso 1890 in Sorrento, Italy, Koh is back in Singapore, eclectic bag of ideas and knowledge in hand, to create classical desserts in Tarte. Her menu now features a variety of seasonal ingredients like Alphonso mangoes, French strawberries, and Iranian pistachios, playing with elements to create different textures, tastes, and sensations.

A simple attitude to food with the question “Is it delicious?” is Koh’s philosophy for good food even amid a culture pushing it into near unbearable complexity.

While Singapore doesn’t boast four seasons, Koh imbibes this seasonal dependence with her work. Figs and pears for the current season while apples, oranges, and chestnuts characterize the yearend. Currently, one can find everything from French pears baked in almond frangipane to toasted cashew in caramel and milk chocolate on the menu. Add to this the baked lemon tart with clementine and Cacao Barry 66 percent dark chocolate.

Koh, on a journey through Europe, learned the pertinence of adjusting to seasons in favor of fresh ingredients and enhancing natural flavors. At the end of the day, food is there to be enjoyed—in her own words, “cooking, dining, and food are subsets of human life.” A simple attitude to food with the question “Is it delicious?” is Koh’s philosophy for good food even amid a culture pushing it into near unbearable complexity.

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