Early this month, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants named Singaporean Angela Lai of Taipei’s two-Michelin-starred Taïrroir, Asia’s Best Pastry Chef of 2021.
Before moving to Taiwan in 2015, the 35-year-old chef spent nearly a decade training and working in pastry shops, restaurants and hotels in Singapore, before she securing a position at Guy Savoy’s (now defunct) eponymous French restaurant at Marina Bay Sands. Here, she met the only Taiwanese chef at the restaurant, chef Kai Ho, who — three years later — offered her the position of Pastry Chef at his brand-new restaurant, Taïrroir in Taipei.
And the rest they say, is history.
We managed to take some time from Angela’s busy schedule for a quick interview about her signature dessert, where she gets her inspiration from, and her experience moving to Taiwan.
Congrats on winning Asia’s Best Pastry Chef this year! Tell us, what exactly went through your mind when you were told you were this year’s recipient?
I was totally caught off guard! I went blank for a second and got pretty shocked after. (laughs)
You’ll be joining the likes of previous Singaporean pastry chef winners like Janice Wong and Cheryl Koh after winning this title — do you think this will change anything for you?
It’s definitely a huge change for me. Now, I’ll be able to share with more people what we (Taïrroir) are doing and also continue to emphasise the importance of pastry and pastry chefs.
Let’s backtrack a little — how did your passion for baking start?
It started when I was little: I hung around in the kitchen with my mother when I was four or five, and eventually progressed from being a trouble maker to an assistant.
Did you always aspire to be a pastry chef?
It actually happened when I was 15 and topped my Food & Nutrition course during my days in secondary school.
A 360-degree career change — from management to starting from scratch at culinary school — must’ve been a tough decision to make. What was running through your mind when you took that leap of faith?
I wanted to do something I enjoy doing at work and I really felt that I belong to working in the kitchen so I just decided to go for it. It wasn’t that tough actually, and my mum was more than a 100 percent supportive of this decision.
You’ve worked in a number of dining establishments in Singapore, including Guy Savoy – how and why did you decide to move to Taipei?
I fell in love with Taiwan many years ago when I first visited. Having the opportunity to work in Taiwan to know more about their culture, produce and people is what made me decide to move over.
What has this experience brought about for you?
It’s definitely a life-changing experience for me. I get to learn more about the culture, produce and people. Getting to know more about Taiwan is one of my biggest takeaways.
The inspiration to create comes differently for every chef — how and where do you get yours from?
My ideas for desserts in Taïrroir are sometimes come from friends and colleagues. I also get inspiration from books and social media.
Are there any pastry chefs that you look up to and why?
My mentor Chef Frederic and Chef Alain for their passion for pastries and passing techniques and foundations to the next generation. Chef Cedric Grolet and Amaury Guichon for their creativity behind their creations.
We heard your signature pastry is called the Pong Pia, which is the name of the malty-caramel flakey snack that pretty traditional to many of us. What’s your spin on it?
The inspiration came from a traditional Taiwanese recipe for a sugar pastry that puffs up during baking. I cut out the bottom, where all the brown sugar is, and dehydrate it and crushed it making a crumble for the base of the dessert. I’ve also added homemade bubble tea pearls, Madong chocolate crémeux, sesame oil ice cream and ginger ice to the dish.
We imagine you’ve worked with many different ingredients to craft your pastries — what’s the most interesting one you’ve ever worked with?
Everything is interesting to me but I would say make a dessert out of suaeda (a salty coastal plant).
What’s next for you?
Anything is possible, but right now I guess I will be staying in Taiwan for a while more.
Are there any words of advice to give to aspiring pastry chefs?
Nothing in life is easy, so have more patience and believe in what you are doing. Don’t give up and keep pushing. Life is a never-ending learning experience so live it to the fullest!