[The interview was conducted during Crystal Chiu's tenure as Executive Pastry Chef in Canlis Restaurant, Seattle on 12 March 2021]
Sitting down with Crystal Chiu has been a breath of fresh air, recognized as the Rising Pastry Chef in Seattle by StarChefs in the beginning of last year.
Little did she know, a few months later she would endure the toughest time in the food industry to date.
As she shared some of the challenges she and her team at Canlis experienced, it has truly been a blessing in disguise. If you could picture perseverance, it would look like her and her team of cooks.
Despite her impressive culinary background; from Blackbird (Chicago) to the Catbird Seat (Nashville), Room4Dessert (Bali) to New York City's Daniel, rising to become Executive Pastry Chef at Canlis (Seattle), she remains humble and curious in her passion for food.
Just how did her and her team manage to thrive as a fine dining experience during the pandemic?
It would surprise you that the key words were OWNERSHIP & CONFIDENCE.
"I had to look beyond the kitchen and care better for those around me. I was able to let go as I looked at my cooks and realized they were filled with brilliant ideas and still wanted to create good food despite the constraints of takeout boxes."
Now, being the explorer that she is and following her desire to create, she will be part of the reopening of a beloved neighborhood bakery in Capitol Hill this spring with a former colleague.
The Empathetic Kitchen Master
What have you discovered about yourself during this pandemic?
I discovered a lot about my role as a pastry chef at a fine dining restaurant during a pandemic, my title remains the same but my job description was shifting. As we all know, the food industry was devastated but at the same time people needed restaurants to remain open as we are considered essential workers. It was hard because I could not do what I do best [make thoughtful food] or it was not the right thing to do. So then, we as a restaurant had to band together to think what it was that people needed, how to be healthy, to not get sick, and try to understand how to do all of that all at once. Going through that was mentally tough for everyone, it was a lot of shock, and then reactionary, and then the months went on and on and realizing that life had changed for not temporarily.
How has your role as a leader shifted?
I try to think about what others are going through during this time and how can as a pastry chef make it just a little bit better and learning how to care for people. This is what the people in the hospitality and food industry still does best.
Traditionally before the pandemic, I was the one who was in charge of the menu, of changing things, of creating desserts. It was my responsibility, and it was my creative choice. But when COVID-19 struck, (we were 10 different restaurants in 2020), so there is this constant work where I have to think of a new dessert each week and it was starting to be something that I could not do on my own.
I had to look beyond the kitchen and care better for those around me. I was able to let go as I looked at my cooks and realized they were filled with brilliant ideas and still wanted to create good food despite the constraints of takeout boxes. Being a manager is already very difficult because you are handling a lot of different personalities under a very high pressure environment, and this was a very challenging task because I work with a lot of young cooks in their early twenties, and they are still just figuring out who they are, and then COVID-19 happened.
A lot of my cooks do not know how to process these feelings, and understand what is happening to them. It is like needing to step in and be a therapist but also at the same time for your own self, understanding what you are going through. I felt a great responsibility to try and help my cooks by giving them some kind of control in their life right now.
Giving them that sense of responsibility and confidence, to let them feel like their time in the restaurant was still worth it [because they got to put something on the menu] has been the best thing I have been able to do for them, to give them ownership over something.
Photographed by Jana Early
How would you describe your cooking style?
Doing all that traveling I did with Asli Food Project, I learned that it does not always have to be the ingredient that you used, but there are a lot of techniques behind the things that you can create with food.
It has made me think a lot about how I want to think about food, especially during my time in Indonesia where there are a lot of raw ingredients [such as vanilla beans], originally from there and having that special connection with. It takes you a little bit out of your mind, because in a developed country like the US or Europe where we see chocolate in a certain way because it is already pretty and perfect for us to taste. Seeing all of it and really tasting it, was such a valuable experience for me and it has been a challenge being back in the US and not having that direct connection anymore with produce. I may not get jackfruit nor mangosteen but I love a good challenge on how to bring it into the desserts I would create.
Check out her signature dessert dish here.
What does being a gentle woman mean to you?
I am sure it is intentional that is a play on the word 'gentleman' and gentlemen are thoughtful and chivalrous. When you say the word 'gentle', it usually signifies weak and that never crossed my mind.
When I think about a gentlewoman, I think about someone who has a lot of grace and thoughtfulness but does not necessarily need to have a big presence. She is influential but not in overly overt way. A gentlewoman does not need to be a man, that is loud, assertive and makes his presence known. A gentlewoman knows her own self and knows how she is to people.
Who is your role model and inspiration? Why?
My role model would be the first female chef I spent a lot of time with in Chicago where I went to pastry school. Her name is, Dana Cree. I had heard a lot about her and her experiences and the notable restaurants she worked at. I was so eager to learn from her and immediately wanted her experiences to be mine. But, I was young and was still in school and had a long way to learn.
Dana had this way about her as she moved through her career where she was almost fearless, she had this "I am a woman working in a kitchen, my gender does not matter. I am just as capable as you all are" face and mentality.
Even after having left Chicago, she has continued to be someone that I would always go back and check in and if there is some fort in the road that I have in my career path. She is really good at helping you navigate your career path. She does not tell you what to think, but she has been a really amazing voice in this industry where she is well-respected by everyone. She now she runs her own ice cream shop and a mother too.
If you were to go on a vacation right now, where would you go? Why?
The world is so big filled with beautiful places but if I have to pick a place it would be Tibet.
Back when I worked for Nancy [Pelosi], I actually had a special opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama as they were friends. Hearing him speak was the highlight, he is someone that just takes pleasure in life and living. He is a very hopeful human being despite all odds. It would be eyeopening for me to go to Tibet and I hope I get a chance to visit in the near future.
How would you describe being a pastry chef in 3 words?
It is profound for me because making the decision to work in the food industry as a chef (in particular to be a pastry chef) has forced me to be outside of my comfort zone. It has almost surprised me that I am so curious and have a passion and interest in food, I would put myself in the most uncomfortable situation and most of them have happened while I am traveling. I find it so profound because being a chef and wanting to be a chef has really made me be very vulnerable and the things that I want to learn about it. I wish people could but a lot of people do not put themselves in that situation, as they are not quite ready to break through the comfort of what they have or what they know. It is really quite a profound thing to understand.
If this is a job that I am willing to put myself in any situation to be better, and be stronger at it then I will.
*This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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