Tonight, Top Chef: Just Desserts will premiere on Bravo. ICE alumni Zac Young, Malika Ameen and Seth Caro will make their TV debut as contestants on the show. The show will be hosted by fellow ICE alum Gail Simmons and will feature appearances by well-known pastry stars such as Sylvia Weinstock, Sherri Yard and Michael Laiskonis. It promises to be a sweet season of watching chefs make cakes, cookies and other sweets.
We spoke with ICE alum Zac Young last week. Today, we take a look at Malika Ameen. Ameen graduated from ICE’s Culinary Arts program in 1997 before making the shift to the world of pastry. Now, she lives in Chicago with her three sons. She works as a pastry consultant and is starting an online cookie business, ByM Desserts. We asked about transition to pastry, her style and her time at ICE.
How did you make the shift to pastry?
My favorite part of the culinary program was the two weeks we spent doing pastry. I enjoyed that so much. I went to do my externship in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong. Shortly after, I went to work with pastry chef Gina DePalma (also an ICE alum) at the Club Room. I just loved it so much and I never looked back. It really turned me on.
Does your culinary training set you apart from other pastry chefs?
I think savory chefs are terrified of pastry and vice versa. Pastry chefs are used to being in their own world. I enjoy both a lot. There are techniques in savory that can be easily used in pastry, which we are starting to see that more and more. My culinary training helps me to keep an open mind in the pastry kitchen.
Why do you think the pastry arts are more popular than ever?
To me, we are used to feeling ignored in the dessert world. We are unsung heroes. But realistically, dessert is most important. It’s at the end, so it’s what you are thinking about when you leave. It’s so important that the last thing make a strong impression.
What is your pastry style?
My style is very seasonal. I am driven by what is available. I love to incorporate seasonal produce into my pastry. I make everything from scratch. For instance, if I am making a cake and filling it with jam, I will make the jam from whatever fruit is seasonal at that time. I also love using spice as a compliment in pastry. I use it to highten desserts — just a whisp or a hint. People are afraid of spice because they think it will be overwhelming and strong. But I use just a hint to take it to the next level so they are saying, “Oh, that’s nice. What is it?” I think spice excites people’s palates and elevates the dessert. For example, in my new cookie business we are making a Chocolate Truffle Cookie with Vietnamese cinnamon and a Brown Sugar Shortbread with Lemon-Lavender Glaze.
How does pastry transfer to the Top Chef format?
Pastry is much more difficult because it is an exact science. In savory cooking, you can do it without measuring anything because you can taste, change and correct as you make the dish. But in pastry, if you mess up measuring one ingredient and something is off, your whole cake is ruined. You can try and cover it up but whoever tastes it will know that something is off. On Top Chef, we aren’t allowed to cook with recipes. It was all from memory and that was difficult.
Do you have any favorite memories of culinary school?
When I went, it was still called Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School and it was located up on 92nd St. I can remember walking past the pastry and baking program on my way to the culinary kitchens upstairs. They had a big window set up where you could see into their kitchens. Nick Malgieri was the pastry instructor at the time. I can remember that he always had a Rolls-Royce parked outside. But mostly I remember the smell of the butter, sugar and chocolate coming from that kitchen. That’s the best memory.
In celebration of the premiere of Top Chef: Just Desserts, over 200 retailers have teamed up with Bravo to offer free desserts today. Check out the list online!