Clarice Lam takes traditional French pastry techniques, a lifetime of global influence and culturally significant ingredients and flavors to create truly original confections that both honor and reflect her unique heritage.
The pastry chef at Kimika in New York City talked to “Good Morning America” Food for AAPI Heritage Month to share a taste of her experiences, as well as how she creates the whimsical and nostalgic treats on the restaurant’s menu.
“It’s hard to have Asian representation sometimes because a lot of people aren’t that familiar with Asian desserts or might not necessarily care about them,” Lam said. But much like famed Bangkok-born pastry chef Pichet Ong, her goal is “to be a kind of breakthrough chef who inspires people in that way.”
Lam, whose family is Cantonese and originally from Hong Kong, was born in Toronto and grew up in Los Angeles. Her parents, who regularly traveled for work, would bring home snacks from around the globe. “[That] first sparked my passion for different foods and different cultures,” she said. Then at 16 she began modeling professionally in San Francisco and spent the next decade living in the U.K., France, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Spain, South Africa and Hong Kong.
“I didn’t always speak the language and I found the best way to immerse myself in the culture and really connect with people was through food,” Lam explained. “I knew modeling wasn’t going to last forever and I always thought I wanted to be a savory chef afterwards.” She decided to study Italian cuisine at The Cordon Bleu in Florence. After graduating, she worked on the line at a friend’s restaurant in London and “absolutely hated it,” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t my style at all — it was so hot, everybody was so grumpy and yelling.”
She quickly noticed “the chill, quiet” atmosphere of the pastry department, which appealed to both her technical and creative sides, then “fell in love with the beauty of pastries” while living in Paris. Post-modeling, Lam moved to New York City, attended the French Culinary Institute (now known as the Institute of Culinary Education) and received her Grand Diplôme in French pastry arts. From there she worked in places like Jean-George’s Spice Market, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, and as the executive chef of The Chocolate Room.
In 2012 she started her own business called the Baking Bean, a direct-to-consumer bakery concept that specialized in all-natural and seasonal desserts. “When the pandemic hit, I shut it down temporarily because I was still operating out of shared commercial kitchen space,” she said.
Although she hasn’t resumed operations, Lam found a fresh start with a fellow Cantonese chef and hospitality veteran. “I got approached by my friend Christine Lau (the executive chef of Kimika, a Japanese-Italian restaurant in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood). We have always hit it off with flavor combinations and have discussions about food and we have a very similar upbringing and background.”
A lot of people aren’t that familiar with Asian desserts … I want to be a kind of breakthrough chef who inspires people
“I lived in I lived in Hong Kong and I traveled all throughout Asia all the time, so I’m very familiar with all the Asian ingredients and Japanese ingredients,” Lam said of the seamless transition into the restaurant that opened last August. Paired with her time living and cooking in Italy, “it was actually quite easy for me to put everything together,” she added.
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The pastry chef who is currently competing on the fourth season of “Best Baker in America” on Food Network, said she always aims to “tell a story” through her food.
“I look at food like art — the best art always evokes some sort of emotion,” she said. “If I have a background story in every dish then I just feel like naturally my emotion is going into there and people can absorb some of that.”
Two dishes in the current lineup of unique after-dinner dishes will remain on as permanent fixtures “because they are just such a big history of me growing up,” she said of the mochi bomboloncini with Nutella and the Yakult softserve with seasonal compote, crispy chicken skin streusel and strawberry pocky pearls.
The first is derived from her mom’s recipe for fried sesame balls — similar to what would be on a Dim Sum menu — that she transformed into an Italian doughnut.
“I get to put my own heart into it because it’s my mom’s recipe and it is also part of Chinese and Cantonese culture. I use her recipe for the mochi part, filled it with Nutella and hazelnut and it’s coated with sesame and and hazelnuts and then rolled in sugar,” she said. “The visual part of it is also part of my upbringing. A lot of Asian families, when you go to gatherings, the thing to do is to give each other a box of Ferrero Rocher candies — I wanted to use that as my visual inspiration.”
The Yakult dessert is made with a tangy Japanese probiotic beverage that was a favorite of Lam’s growing up and she had “always wanted to make into an ice cream, but never worked in a place that allowed me to do that.” One night as Lau and Lam were eating ramen and discussing menu ideas, they ordered fried chicken skin — a popular fast-food item in the Philippines — and realized it would be the perfect savory crunchy component with their tangy frozen base. Lam excitedly compared it to the popular sweet and salty combination of “Wendy’s Frosty and french fries.”
After years cooking someone else’s vision, Lam said it’s “really amazing to work so closely around such brilliant females,” referring to both Lau and Erika Chou, the founding partner of Rivers and Hills Hospitality Group, who help her have “full creative control to create dishes that are 100% me.”
“I am so, so proud of this project. Out of everywhere that I’ve worked, being able to create the desserts that are so close to my heart and having memories attached to it is amazing,” she added.
Kimika, which means “noble” in Japanese, was opened by the AAPI-led team behind smash successes like Wayla, a popular Lower East Side Thai restaurant helmed by Bangkok-born chef Tom Naumsuwan.
Lam’s other playful and highly visual desserts include a lemon mochi torta with frangipane, perilla seeds, chrysanthemum ice cream and pink peppercorn agrodolce as well as a kabocha squash ice cream sando with matcha chiffon keiki, ginger miso caramel and crispy rice magic shell. She also created a Japanese version of a classic Italian tiramisu with espresso jelly and coconut-soaked ladyfingers for a five-course menu by ally and AAPI chefs in tandem with Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate.
Catch more of Lam on Food Network every Monday as she continues to face off against pastry chefs and bakers while whipping up elevated American desserts with an Asian flare that represent regional favorites with a dash of her own personal memories.
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