Innovative desserts with Asian touches, cross-cultural flavours and a passion for savoury ingredients make Maira Yeo Asia’s best pastry chef.
Chilli and coriander in a signature dessert with no traditionally sweet ingredients? It’s not a combination that usually comes to mind, but usual flavours and delivering the expected are not the reasons why homegrown talent Maira Yeo was crowned Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2022 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Yeo’s signature (and hugely famous) dessert at Michelin-starred Cloudstreet is nothing short of unusual, eclectic yet extremely well balanced and eye-catching. She transforms the humble celtuce (also known as Chinese lettuce) into a celtuce-yuzu sorbet with confit celtuce cubes, garnished with green chilli and coriander cress cream, finished tableside with lettuce juice and homemade vanilla oil.
“Ingredients can shine when you apply different techniques. It would be strange if the desserts were to take a very safe and typical approach,” says the 30-year-old pastry chef.
Yeo has only been at Cloudstreet for about a year and a half (and counting) yet she has revolutionised the dessert creations at the restaurant, highlighting savoury notes while simultaneously capitalising on the natural sweetness of fruits and vegetables. Her most recent invention takes the form of a delicate quenelle featuring soursop sorbet dusted with kaffir lime leaf powder, juniper berries and jambu. Innovative to say the least.
The kitchen has been Yeo’s domain since the young age of six, when she began helping out in her Cantonese-Teochew family’s mixed-rice hawker stall, and quickly progressed to being her mother’s sous chef for elaborate Chinese New Year feasts. But it was only at the age of 14 that the world of pastry caught her attention. Add her overseas professional stints to the picture, and her resume is impressive.
Chef Sun Kim of Meta (ranked No.20 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022) was the first person to hire Yeo as a pastry chef. After spending four years under his tutelage, Yeo relocated to New York City to train at two-Michelin-starred Aska, before moving to Montreal to work with lauded pastry chef Patrice Demers. Yeo then intended to join the prestigious Maaemo in Oslo, but her plans were cut short due to Covid-19. She returned home in 2020.
Undeterred, Yeo continued to bake through the pandemic. She started the bake sale project “Covid Bakes Lah” where 80 percent of profits went to two charities to support migrant workers and provide aid for the homeless in Singapore. Her “CCB” (crackly chocolate brownie) cookies, fig and pomegranate hand pies, and rhubarb buckwheat financiers were a hit.
Then a short-term collaboration between Yeo and Cloudstreet chef-owner Rishi Naleendra to support the pastry kitchen in mid-2020 turned out to be the perfect full-time solution, with Yeo opening the restaurant’s second floor dessert space. We speak to her about her recent win, cooking style, and why she believes all ingredients, including savoury ones, have a place in all desserts.
What ignited your passion for pastry?
I decided to pursue pastry as a career due to a Korean drama that I watched when I was 14 years old, but it was the nature of the job that made me determined to pursue this line. I really enjoy how it never stops being challenging and how rewarding it is.
How did your pastry training overseas contributed to earning Asia’s Best Pastry Chef title? Being overseas has definitely opened my eyes to many things – not just in terms of ingredients, but also on kitchen structure, organisation and other details. While I believe that my overseas stints and training might have played a part in me receiving the award, I think the biggest attribute would still be chef Rishi and the Cloudstreet team. The immense amount of support that I receive from them is what I believe that helped me to stand out.
What were the challenges you faced in your journey as a pastry chef?
When I initially realised there was no end to improving oneself, it felt a little demoralising and daunting. However, I managed to overcome it by realising there was no end to growing and that became exciting to me.
What do you consider to be the most important when it comes to making the perfect pastry?
I don’t think there is a fixed definition of a “perfect pastry”. To me, a perfect pastry only exists in that fleeting moment when you eat a pastry that fits the mood that you are in. For example, when you want to have something comforting, you are more likely to find a chocolate cake perfect, as compared to having fruit tart, even if both are done really well.
What inspires your cooking style of adding savoury ingredients to your pastries?
Yes, I would consider my cooking style to lean on the “savoury” side. But more so, I feel that my cooking style is more “open minded” and “free”. It just came naturally along my culinary journey. The chefs I’ve trained under shaped my way of thinking, to think that all ingredients, in a way, are equal. Just because a certain ingredient is considered to be “savoury” doesn’t mean it can’t be used in a dessert and vice versa. Just like any other chef, I just want guests to enjoy a plate of good food.
Is there any particular creation you’re extremely proud of and why?
I’m proud of our current main dessert – Celeriac, Guava, Rose, Capers. Fresh locally grown roses by urban farmer Eng Ting Ting are sealed with champagne vinegar and aged in-house for a month before being used to pickle guava. Slices of pickled guava are then laid out in a pattern as a homage to the weaving history in Sri Lanka. It is served with celeriac ice cream, salt baked celeriac, fried capers and vanilla rose custard. It is a dessert that is quite close to my heart for multiple reasons. Not just because of how it tastes, but I am glad that the idea to incorporate Sri Lanka’s weaving culture into the dish with pickled guava worked out. We are so lucky that Ting Ting grows such an amazing quality of local roses. Without these to begin with, this dessert might not have been able to see the light of day. Another memorable moment was when French artist @entree_plat_dessin was inspired to do a painting of the dessert. He knew that the layer of pickled guava – without us revealing it to him – was meant to be like a piece of cloth. That painting is now with us in Cloudstreet, thanks to chef Rishi.