By Carly DeFilippo
Tariq Hanna’s first job may have been working the sandwich board at Sol’s Deli in Southfield, Michigan, but today he’s at the top of the food chain, running one of the country’s premier pastry shops, Sucré. Tariq has competed on multiple Food Network and TLC pastry challenges, and he has received numerous accolades, including “2007 Pastry Chef of the Year” in New Orleans Magazine. In 2012, Tariq was also inducted into the American Chefs Corps, an elite group of 80 chefs nominated by the State Department to serve as chefs and diplomatic ambassadors for both visiting dignitaries and cultural exchange efforts. In anticipation of Tariq’s upcoming October 21-22 workshop at ICE’s Center for Advanced Pastry Studies, we sat down with the chef to learn a little more about the evolution of his exciting career.
What inspired you to become a pastry chef?
I was about 19-20 years old and had recently graduated from culinary school, partially unfocused and dismayed at what my career path was looking like. [Having grown up in Nigeria and England,] I was also a bit arrogant (fancy that) about what I saw as “American” pastries and thought that I could do better. And, honestly, I discovered that girls found me more intriguing as a pastry chef than as a savory cook. They found it more mysterious and artistic, so I went with it.
I took a very unorthodox route, never working for another pastry chef and teaching myself as I went along. I talked my way into the jobs I wanted, which opened avenues to learn new techniques and develop new skills. For example, I remember being asked in a job interview if I had built showpieces. I laughed and said, “Do you think I would be here if I hadn’t?” The truth was that I had never built one and didn’t know the first thing about them, but when the time came, I figured it out.
Why did you open Sucré, and how is opening a business after years of industry experience different than opening your first business at a younger age?
I have always had a deep love for New Orleans and felt at home when I visited. I also noticed that NOLA had a shortage of dessert diversity. After Hurricane Katrina, there were many voids that needed filling, and I saw it as the perfect opportunity to be a part of the greatest American renaissance of our lifetime. So after 20 years in Detroit (a city I still love dearly), I packed up and moved to NOLA to try to bring a bit of joy to a city that really needed it.
At the age of 23, I already had my own business, but what does anyone really know at 23? Back then I was more interested in what was happening after work then really focusing my energy where it was needed. It took many hard years in my own business—as well as time in larger operations, such as country clubs and casinos—to finally realize what I was doing wrong.
By the time I got to New Orleans, I loved what I did for a living. My industry experience had whipped a young, arrogant, unfocused fool into a hungry student who couldn’t get enough knowledge and experience. At that point, being a chef was not what I did, it was who I was! For that reason, I insist that my staff and others never call me Chef. Sucré currently has 75 employees and in November (when we open our third shop and restaurant) we will have about 110 combined. Among them, I am the chef, but I don’t always need reminding. My name and my title are interchangeable, but I much prefer the individual identity.
What specialties have you chosen to share with CAPS students at ICE, and why these products?
My favorite products change with my moods, and I love the fact that we make a large variety of items, from chocolates to macarons, pastries, cakes, gelato, confections, etc. This diversity gives me a constant revolving door of product to focus on when expanding our portfolio. For the CAPS course, I have chosen to focus on my current favorite products: petits gateaux, verrines and tarts. The class will touch on the realistic challenges of a pastry shop owner, balancing a beautiful visual effect with an interest in creating delicious and innovative techniques.
Click here to register for Tariq’s two-day advanced pastry workshop at ICE.