Making desserts is an art – Arisara “Chef Paper” Chongphanitkul
“I think making desserts is an art. Desserts are something that fulfills our life, more than other types of food that we eat every day.”
The “art” behind Thai desserts
When you think of the most popular Thai desserts, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Mango Sticky Rice? Kanom Tuay? Bua Loy? Or sweets in the “Thong” group; Thong Yip, Thong Yod, or Foi Thong?
Meet Arisara Chongphanitkul, also known as “Chef Paper”, who is here to transform Thai desserts, with which we are familiar, to a whole new level.
As she demonstrates the making of “Tub Tim Krob”, or Thai water chestnuts in coconut milk, Chef Paper uses the various techniques, which she learned when she was an exchange student in France, to reinterpret this traditional dessert.
Her inspiration in recreating Thai desserts also came from watching French cooking shows during her time there, when she noticed that even world-famous chefs use exotic ingredients from her home country.
“I saw most chefs using lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger, pineapple, and mangos when they were cooking. [I noticed that] these ingredients are all from my home country and I’m fully Thai, why don’t I use them to make my own desserts, or present these ingredients for foreigners to see what we have?”
Realising that passion
Being a Chef Pâtissière at Michelin-star restaurant Saawaan and the owner of dessert café, ICI, Chef Paper revealed that her passion for pastry-making began with her mother’s mini-oven.
“Back then, my mom took baking classes and bought that oven,” Chef Paper explains, as she talks about her teenage life. “When I saw it, I just wanted to try. So, I took cookies, which were already in small packets, and I mixed them with eggs and put them in the oven.”
After that, she started baking desserts for her friends at school, either for her classmates’ birthdays or for Christmas celebrations. The compliments she received from her peers helped her realise her passion, that she should pursue her studies in pastry-making.
“When I shared my desserts, my friends were surprised that I was baking because, back then, it wasn’t that popular. So, when I baked for them, many people were happy and liked my stuff and that made me want to do more.”
However, what really helped her to develop her career was when Chef Paper studied at the Gastronomicom pastry school, in southern France, and completed her internship at the Beau Rivage Hotel near Lyon. This experience, as she describes, opened her eyes to the world of desserts.
“I noticed that their desserts are beautiful, as they have so many layers and textures. That made me realise there is much more for me to learn about [making desserts].”
Deconstructing Thai favourites
“Many people think that making desserts is easy but, honestly, to make one dessert requires a lot of thinking, tasting and trying different things.”
Being a pastry chef in a Thai restaurant can be a tough challenge, especially when working on traditional desserts, with many of them being all-time favourites. Therefore, Chef Paper pays extra attention with the presentation, to make the desserts more special.
“I do get concerned about how people view my desserts,” she said. “They should have this interaction with what I do and realise what I’m trying to present [through my desserts].”
One of the common techniques that she uses is “deconstruction”, which she used to recreate her first dessert at Saawaan restaurant, Thai pumpkin custard.
“Many foreigners are quite familiar with that dessert. So, I thought it would be a good starting point to make people feel more connected to Thai desserts.”
Not only that, Thai pumpkin custard is also one of the Chef Pâtissière’s favourite things. She then explains to us how to deconstruct the sweet before starting to recreate it.
“I tried to think about the ingredients [of the dessert] first, such as pumpkin, custard, eggs and pandan leaves. Then I would deconstruct them and add more textures to enhance the flavours.”
Despite the numerous steps in recreating the dish, the key for Chef Paper is for people to feel more connected to Thai sweet delicacies.
“Even though it doesn’t look like pumpkin custard [on the outside], people will realise, when they taste it, that it is pumpkin custard, but in a different form.”
Who cares about gender?
Regardless of how tough it is to be a chef, Chef Paper is glad to see that there are still many people who aspire to follow their own passion. In the past, such occupations were often perceived in Thailand to have no career advancement and stability.
“I think the world is much more open nowadays,” she explains. “Back in the past, asking your parents to study cooking was really difficult, as they used to think that being a cook is tough and tiring with no future.”
The pastry-chef also felt that pursuing further studies in cooking is now a “trend”. At the same time, she noticed that more chefs are not afraid to surprise people with their creativity through their dishes.
“Ever since I became a chef, I’ve seen so much development in the food industry. There are a lot of chefs out there unleashing their creativity and amazing ideas. I think there’s so much more to watch out for in the next five years.”
As to what she would like to say to people who want to become chefs, even if it’s a male-dominated career, she suggests that people should do their best.
“I think, if you have the passion, if you give your all and amaze them with your talents, they don’t really care whether you’re female, male, or what gender you are.”
By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World