Blowtorch in hand, the artist was about to seal in place the last piece of his sculpture. He carefully melted the base of the shiny green leaf and sealed it on the caramel-brown tree trunk.
By the look of it, the glistening trunk and its translucent leaves could have been glass or even jade. Actually, they were pure sugar, a centerpiece for a buffet table that Keo Luck, the Cambodian executive pastry chef at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, had fashioned earlier this month.
The piece was of the do-not-try-at-home variety.
“Working with sugar is dangerous,” said Keo Luck, a 20-year veteran of pastries and desserts aged 38. To turn sugar into a consistency that could be sculpted, he had caramelized it at high temperature. “You have to work it by hand while it’s still quite warm,” just shy of skin-burning temperature, he said.
Besides, who has a blowtorch in his kitchen at home to work on the finishing touches?
Keo Luck had started the centerpiece with a drawing, as he usually does when creating for special occasions, such as the rabbit he put in a transparent sugar eggshell for Easter last year, or the sculpture of a flying pig he is planning to mark the Year of the Pig on Khmer New Year next month.
Nowadays, even desserts or pastries for daily menus at the hotel need planning, he said. A dessert he recently created involved marinating honey pineapples from Koh Kong province for 24 hours in a syrup of Sauvignon blanc wine flavored with vanilla, cloves, rosemary and cinnamon. The pineapples were later roasted and served with macadamia nut ice cream.
“It’s a bit of a challenge to create a dessert, especially if guests are to be served several courses beforehand,” said Christian Rose, the German executive chef of Hotel Le Royal and, at 36, also a 20-year veteran in the kitchen. “It should not be too heavy or too sweet, but it also should not be too weak,” he said, “so that a person feels refreshed and pleased after eating it—you don’t want people to leave feeling heavy.”
Gone are the days when desserts were all “sweet fruity and heavy creamy,” although the hotel will make those desserts of times past if requested, Rose said. Today, sage, fennel seeds and saffron may be used to give desserts flavor and spiciness, he added.
For example, Keo Luck recently combined raspberries with creamy peppercorn made with Kampot province pepper using a new European technique called espuma to give sorbet an especially light form, Rose said.
From the very start of a menu, the two chefs work together, throwing ideas back and forth and developing concepts. Keo Luck then goes to his kitchen to experiment with ingredients and do some sketching if necessary. “Some of our ideas end up not working,” Rose said.
Once ready, the dessert is photographed, presented to the hotel executive staff and tasted for approval.
Special occasions also require carefully matched desserts, such as glazed pears on puffed pastry seasoned with Roquefort cheese, which followed a dinner built around Australian wines earlier this year.
Keo Luck likes to incorporate local ingredients into his work, such as banana mousse flavored with straw anise and chocolate. He also chops pandan leaves and extracts the juice to create a sparkling green mousse. For Asian pastries, he uses palm sugar and a great deal of coconut, he said.
Individual pastries at Le Phnom, the hotel shop, are often decorated with chocolate carvings as fine as embroidery—work even some talented chefs may shy away from.
“I don’t like to work with chocolate—it’s tricky, it’s dirty,” Keo Luck said. If not heated to exactly the right temperate, chocolate’s natural ingredients separate and it takes on a dull look, Rose said.
This is one of the reasons why pastries and dessert are such a specialty, he added. Unlike other chefs in the kitchen who can experiment early in their careers, playing with flavors and seasonings, a pastry chef must first have a firm grasp of difficult technical information, he said.
“A pastry chef must know all facts, figures and temperatures before he can ever be creative,” Rose said. He must know at what temperature sugar or chocolate can be molded and how to get pastry shell crisp and mousse fluffy yet firm.
“Before you can do the unusual, you must know all the usual,” Rose added.
And then it takes the right environment for a chef to be truly creative, Keo Luck said. A chef must know how to plan; have management support to experiment since making a dessert may take several attempts; and get feedback on his various creations, he said. “Without these three elements, a chef can’t do it.”