NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Pastry chef Pichet Ong hopes for sweet comeback after the recession dealt him a bitter blow earlier this year.
After a drop in customers Ong shut his Manhattan restaurant P*ong and the attached bakery Batch less than two years after they opened in 2007.
The Thai native, known for his innovative play between sweet and savory ingredients, is working to relaunch Batch, but has no immediate plans to open another restaurant.
The 40-year-old spoke to Reuters about the impact of the recession on his business and his love of desserts.
Q: How did the recession hurt your restaurant?
A: "Our check average dropped. The number of customers dropped. People going for the longer tasting menu dropped. What really hurt us was the fall and winter when we had expected holiday business. It didn't pick up as people were nervous about losing their jobs. After the holidays, it seemed to have picked up. It was strange, but the numbers turned up but they weren't enough to save the business."
Q: Do you think you over-reached as a pastry chef in opening a restaurant?
A: "No, I don't. There have been plenty of pastry chefs who have gone into the restaurant business. There were some who failed and some who succeeded."
Q: Was it a bittersweet time when you were nominated for a James Beard award (the top U.S. culinary prize) while you were closing your restaurant and bakery?
A: "The two had no correlations whatsoever. The award is not something I think about. I don't doubt I'm respected and well-liked. I do the same thing for my colleagues. I don't expect any less in return."
Q: What are your plans for the new bakery?
A: "It's going to be a larger bakery. There are going to be more individual desserts. Most of the people who came to Batch bought cupcakes and cookies. I usually had 15 different flavor combinations. With puddings, I had four or five at any given time. With chocolates and puddings, they are what I'm looking to expand upon."
Q: What kind of desserts do you order?
A: "When I eat out, I have cravings for chocolate cake, apple pie, lemon meringue pie, key lime pie, which is probably my favorite."
Q: How do you keep fit with desserts around you all day?
A: "I'm really active. I'm on my feet all day. That really burns off the sugar."
Coconut Creme Caramel
1-2/3 cups (257 grams, 9 ounces) palm sugar, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
950 gram (1 quart) whole milk)
800 g (2 cans) coconut milk
400 g shredded coconut
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean
345 g (2-1/4 cups) sugar
110 g (3.8 ounces) evaporated milk
900 g large eggs
170 g yolks
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degree Fahrenheit. Put the palm sugar, lemon juice, and 1/4 cup water into a small saucepan. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a dark caramel, 12 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt and carefully split the caramel among 12 4-ounce ceramic ramekins.
2. Put the milk, coconut milk, dried coconut, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and remaining salt into a medium saucepan and set over medium heat. Warm, stirring occasionally, until bubbles begin to form around the edge, 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and steep for 30 minutes. Cool completely, then add the evaporated milk.
3. Whisk the eggs and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl until broken. Add the milk mixture in a slow, steady stream while whisking constantly. When all of the milk has been added, strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, squeezing the dried coconut to extract as much liquid as possible. Set the mixture in a larger bowl filled with ice and water and cool completely.
4. Divide the cooled mixture among the prepared ramekins and put in a deep baking dish or roasting pan. Carefully pour hot water into the pan without spilling any into the ramekins so that the water level reaches halfway up the ramekins. Bake until the flan is set. The sides should be firm, but the center still quite jiggly, 45 minutes. Cool completely in the pan and serve at room temperature in the ramekins or invert onto serving plates. If the flan seems stuck, run a thin-bladed knife around the edge and then invert. For even better results, cover and refrigerate for up to four hours. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Patricia Reaney