Serendipity is synonymous with plain, old-fashioned luck. Dyan Ng's story is one of serendipity mixed with a measure of savvy and a good bit of willingness to really work.
Ng is executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. In this position, which she assumed in December, she manages desserts for Wit & Wisdom, a Tavern by Michael Mina; LAMILL Coffee (one of my favorite coffee spots in the area); PABU Izakaya and the Four Seasons Hotel catering and room service programs. It's a huge job!
From a very young age, Ng knew she wanted to pursue a career in food. As she looked forward to graduation from high school, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Pasadena, Calif. Luckily, her brother's friend encouraged her to instead consider staging for chef Eric Klein at his successful Maple Drive restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Ng wanted to learn from the best, so much so that working for free seemed a small price to pay for an education that could launch her future. Armed with a brand new knife set, a passion for cooking and truly blind ambition, Ng convinced Klein to take her on.
The skills required for cooking came to her intuitively.
"I was young and hungry and willing to do anything. I think that just showing interest and working hard every second is what counts in this business, and what got me here to this place in my career," she said.
Within two weeks, Klein offered her a full-time spot on the restaurant's pastry team, and soon she was helping to turn out dessert tastings, petite fours and custom take-aways.
Good fortune visited Ng again when a coworker left Los Angeles for Alain Ducasse' new restaurant in Las Vegas and encouraged her to apply there. She was chosen for a job on the pasty line for dinner service, eventually joining the mix team.
Ng was tasked with making 1,500 pieces of bread - seven different types in all, every day.
"Working bread forced me to learn consistency and to understand the feel of a food. Every day is different with bread -- that is both the beauty and the challenge of it."
She felt honored that management trusted her with a product that goes on virtually every table and plate. In theory, every diner to the restaurant tasted her handiwork.
After several months, she was switched over to production, where she learned recipe development and to showcase her innate creativity and be challenged by dessert tastings for Ducasse himself. Within just a few months she was promoted to sous chef. She had just turned 21.
A short time later, a former mentor asked her to join him as executive sous chef at Francois Payard's new Patisserie and Bistro in Caesar's Palace. Her stint there was followed by an interview with Michael Mina, who brought her to Baltimore.
Needless to say, Ng's career, which brought her from a childhood in the Phillipines to an enviable position in Baltimore, is studded with serendipity.
I met with her recently to talk about her career and favorite childhood flavors.
"One of my favorite foods is coconut, which reminds me of growing up in the Philippines, where coconuts are very popular." In fact, the Philippines are among the world's greatest exporters of coconut, a fruit that often called "the food of life" because it has sustained so many diverse cultures in so many ways, for thousands of years.
A lowly fruit, protected by a hard, almost impenetrable shell and covered with thick, coarse, wiry "hair" (it's actually called "coir"), coconuts look exotic, but are in fact quite practical as a source of nutrition, timber and fiber for roofing, rope and even bedding.
Coconut water, the clear liquid held inside a young coconut's shell, is very nutritious. High in fiber, minerals, vitamins and natural sugars, coconut water has become popular as a healthy sports drink and a base for smoothies (Note: Read the label and always choose coconut water without added chemicals, food coloring or sugars).
The meat of the coconut is shaved or scooped out to derive coconut milk. Made by extracting juices from the meat, or by straining water or milk through grated coconut, the milk is thick, creamy and mildly sweet, perfect for savory sauces, custards, pies, fillings and of course, pina coladas.
The fat content of coconut milk is quite high because it includes oils from the coconut kernel. Thankfully, the oil in smart amounts is healthy, and gives coconut milk its thickness and body.
Coconut oil is great for low-heat sautéing. In solid form, it can be substituted for butter or lard. It's also used in cosmetics and skin care products like lip balm, lotion and the passé yet always memorable tropical-smelling tanning oil.
Coconut is at the forefront of my mind for three completely different reasons: one, because Ng, who seems shy, reserved and intense began to smile and even to become animated when we started to talk coconuts; two, I've had several readers ask me about coconut specifically for the Paleo diet and for children on the autism spectrum; and three, because Mother's Day is this weekend and I can't imagine the holiday without some sort of coconut dessert.
Ng has a few pieces of advice, chiefly that you should try to use fresh coconut whenever possible. When you find a coconut at the market, shake it to see how much liquid is inside: older coconuts will be tough and have less water. Not only is it a lot of fun to open a coconut (I remember vividly my mother breaking out a hammer and screwdriver to find the coconut water for us, a very special treat) but the pure, clean taste is significantly better than the canned stuff. Ng advises using the water quickly - the longer it sits, the less sweet it becomes. Coconut water will freeze indefinitely, but it's best not to heat it.
Coconut pairs well with so many flavors - everything from chocolate and berries to curries and jerk sauces. Since coconut is mild but sweet, it goes equally well with savories or desserts and is a wonderful textural match for creamy avocado, banana, mango and citrus. Ng likes it with purple yams, a common food in the Phillipines.
At PABU she serves a dessert with so many different textures and flavors it seems quite complicated, but she simply labels it "Coconut": julienned fresh young coconut with coconut tapioca, coconut-lime sorbet, coconut water gelee and purple yam puree, all garnished with shaved coquitos, coconut pillows, which are like a coconut gusher - slightly toothsome on the outside, but when you bite into it, the soft coconut flavor flows out- a coconut wafer and lime zest. The white juxtaposes against the purple yam and bright zest and is really stunning. This is all to say that you should try to use coconut -- a seemingly practical, impenetrable ball of hairy tropical fun -- to make all sorts of beautiful, tasty and elegant creations.
Ng says coconut oils, water and milk can be substituted into recipes to replace dairy, fats and sometimes sugar and flour. Even a boxed cake mix can be rendered more tasty by using coconut oil instead of butter or 1:1 coconut milk to creme fraiche or sour cream instead of dairy milk. Soak the cake with coconut flavor by brushing it with a simple syrup of coconut, palm sugar and water. Fold in desiccated coconut for added texture. Shredded coconut makes a great garnish.
Have a wonderful Mother's Day, filled with coconut! Find Ng's Coconut Cake recipe and some simple syrup ideas at http://www.foragingforflavor.com.