Baker Behind The Bakes: Quiet Delight Drives Asia's Best Pastry Chef 2022
STORY: Annette Tan
04 July 2022
Those who know Maira from her work behind the open kitchen in Cloudstreet know her as the good-natured pastry chef who is as reserved as she is skilled.
She serves her beautiful desserts – often made with vegetables – with the sort of quiet delight that conveys how contented she is to do the work she loves.
But behind that soft smile is an unrelenting drive for excellence. The unassuming 30-year-old has spent the last decade dedicating herself to her craft – from finding her voice as a young pastry chef to working long hours to sharpen her skills.
It’s no surprise then, that she was named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2022 as part of the 50 Best Restaurants awards programme. She tells Wonderwall.sg about how she made her way to the top of her industry, and her favourite desserts.
Has your life changed since you were named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef?
To be honest, my daily life hasn’t changed much. I still work hard, I still come in at 9am or 10am and leave at around midnight. What’s different now is people care what my opinion is, which is very strange. I mean, I’ve always had the same mindset or opinion about things, but then it’s good because sometimes people ask me questions about things I haven’t thought about. For example, the industry changes I want to see. That question took me some time to think about.
And what did you find you wanted to change?
I feel staffing sustainability is not progressing quickly enough. The hours in F&B are often too long. Personally, I choose to work longer hours; I’m a workaholic. It feels weird if I’m not working. I do take time out when I feel I need to. I guess I feel a personal responsibility to ensure that things are running well and everything is up to standard.
I also want to constantly come up with new things, to be better. So that’s more of a personal drive. What we do is a craft, so the more practice hours you give to your craft, the better the result.
Why do you like using vegetables in your desserts?
I just don’t see why not. Often, it’s because the flavour makes sense in that dessert. It’s not because I’m trying to be different or do something ground-breaking.
Like the first time I smelled someone cooking celtuce, it smelled so much like pandan and vanilla. And I was like, this is what a dessert smells like… I should use it.
We have another dessert that has celeriac in it, which is so lovely. Celeriac has that natural sweetness and earthiness, and I thought it would be very nice in a dessert.
Do you consciously avoid traditional dessert flavours like say, chocolate or raspberry?
Chocolate, yes. I love chocolate and I love eating chocolate, but it doesn’t suit the character of Cloudstreet. It’s so heavy at the end of the meal, especially when you have a rich dark chocolate dessert. The idea of having a tasting menu is that you still want to eat at the sweet course, so we want to keep it light and refreshing.
What are your favourite desserts to eat?
I love chocolate cake. I love eating dark chocolate. It’s just so comforting. I think Waku Ghin’s chocolate cake is the best in Singapore. You can just buy it off the shelf. It’s dark but it’s so light. It’s just so good.
How did you know you wanted to become a pastry chef
So. Embarrassing story (laughs). I watched this Korean drama when I was 13 or 14. It was a drama about a pastry chef. It had a lot of weird life lesson quotes at the beginning of each episode, which made me think that if I do this, I can somehow find the meaning of life (laughs).
When I started as an intern, it felt good. It felt right. You work long hours but there is a purpose for those long hours, which is honing your craft and trying to find all the small details to make your workflow better, your technique sharper, to be more consistent. I love that whole process.
Did you find the meaning of life in that?
No, not yet (laughs). Maybe that’ll come later.
How did you begin your career?
I studied Culinary and Catering Management in Temasek Polytechnic. I then did my internship in Sweets Garibaldi, a pastry production kitchen. They were doing some very innovative stuff. I thought it was really cool because no one was doing that in Singapore and I wanted to see what it was like. I stayed on for about three years after my internship.
When it closed, I found a placement in (the now defunct) Salt. I was only 20 or 21 and I don’t know how I found the guts to even say it at that time, but I told the head chef I would like to have some creative control. And the chef was so nice! He said, yes, of course, you can do what you want and we will taste, and if it’s good, we’ll put it on the menu.
I moved on to Meta and was there for about three to four years. Chef Sun (Kim) was so encouraging creativity-wise. I think that’s what I’ve been lucky with – all the chefs I’ve worked with have been so encouraging and giving, letting me do what I want creatively.
I took a year off to do a stage (the French word for “internship”) around the world. My first stop was Maaemo (Norway’s only three-Michelin-star restaurant), then I went on to Montreal in Canada, to Patissier Patrice. Chef Patrice was so wonderful. He and his team welcomed me into the family.
After that, I moved on to Aska, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in New York. I wanted to see the difference between how a two-star and three-star restaurant is run. And it’s very different. In a three-star restaurant, they already have that award and know the system, so in a way, you’re maintaining the SOPs (standard operating procedures), to put it in the simplest sense.
But when you go to a one-star restaurant that’s trying to get to two stars, or two stars to three stars, it gets even more interesting. It means even harder work and you have a bigger learning curve, so that’s why I wanted to go to Aska.
I came home for a while after that because my mum was sick, then I went straight back to Oslo to work at Maeemo again because they had moved. When a Michelin-starred restaurant moves, it loses its stars and I wanted to be part of the opening team, to experience if it was possible to push to three stars again.
What is the best thing about the work you do now?
I like how I’m not limited creatively. I have to say at Cloudstreet, I have free reign. Or as they like to say, I get away with a lot of shit (laughs). Chef Rishi is very open-minded and giving.
Say I have a plate in mind and I want this sort of design, but the makers don’t have it. Chef Rishi is like, “You know what? We can talk to the plate makers.” Then I can go to the ceramic artists who make plates for Cloudstreet, and it’s very nice to have a creative hand in that as well.
Even with the cutlery setting, if I see something cute and I think it’ll work for the restaurant, I propose it and we see how we can make it happen. It’s very fun.
What’s your dream?
I think like with all plated pastry dessert chefs, the end goal is to open your own dessert bar. But it’s also how you are going to make it work financially. I think that’s the biggest question.
There has to be a reason why there are so many bakeries and patisseries in Singapore, but we only have one dessert bar. Because it’s a lot easier, financially, to run a pastry shop or a bakery, than a dessert bar. But we need to figure out a way to make it happen, and I’m still in the process of figuring it out.