Chef Nakai Speaks on Culinary Inspirations, Her Creative Cooking Process, How Food Relates to Culture and Expression, Advice for the Emerging Chef and More.

So, it’s evident that there are multiple areas that contribute to our culture and our everyday well being. We can sit and have conversations all day about music, fashion, media, entertainment, travel and so on but the one area that we all love and enjoy having discussions about is food. Aside from the obvious fact that we need food to survive, every second of the day someone on social media is posting a photo of their plate of deliciousness whether it be homemade or somewhere at a restaurant. It’s no secret that we’re all foodies in some shape, way or form and just how fashion design and creating music takes a certain type of expressive action, so does food. In this particular case, we’re not talking about the savory steak or chicken. We are talking about the sweet brownies, cakes, and cookies!

Chef Nakai, the Brooklyn based pastry chef started her culinary career back in high school and hasn’t taken her foot off the gas pedal since. Using her skill set and her unique sense of creativity to her advantage, the young innovator continues to flourish as a pastry teacher while simultaneously working on her brand.

I had the chance to catch up with Chef Nakai to talk about her culinary inspirations, why she gravitated towards cooking, her creative process when piecing together a dish, her forthcoming events and much more in our full interview below.

1 – How did you get involved in culinary?

I got my start with culinary when I started high school. I went to Food and Finance High School. Getting my start in the industry that early did a lot for my career, skills, and confidence.

2 – What inspired you to be a chef?

I gained an interest in culinary from watching the Food Network with my mom in middle school. She has her own passion for baking and I’d watch her write down recipes from shows like Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals, buy the ingredients, and try them out at home. From that point on, I started testing the waters myself. The first thing I’d ever made from scratch was a lemon cheesecake. I had to be about 12 or 13 years old asking my mom to buy a pre-made graham cracker crust from the grocery store so that I could come home and make the filling from scratch. Today, I wouldn’t even glance at a pre-made crust, but back then I thought I was top notch!

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3 – What was the first dish you ever made that started grabbing people’s attention that you really can cook?

In my freshman year of college I would go out on a whim and make items that weren’t necessarily a part of our curriculum and they’d come out successful. For instance, I was very interested in classic French pastries, so I tried making Macarons and a Soufflé. Both items have a reputation for being very technical and difficult to perfect, but they came out successful for me. From that point on I’d realized that I grabbed my Chef instructor’s attention because he’d come to me and ask for my opinion on dessert ideas and flavor pairings that he had in mind. I also noticed that my classmates would come to me and ask me for tips on how to perfect macarons when they made it themselves.

4 – Out of all of the industries you could’ve been a part of why do you think you gravitated towards culinary, pastry cooking in particular?

As I get older I realize that I gravitate towards things that are practical and get to the point. A lot of kitchens have the mindset of “okay throw on your chef coat and let’s see what you can do”. Not only that but there’s something so rewarding about taking a dish from the stage of it being an idea or sketch and developing it to the stage of someone consuming it and giving you compliments and feedback.

I think I made the decision to commit 100% to the culinary world when I was choosing the college that I wanted to attend. When I started searching for colleges to attend, I realized that the Culinary based Colleges didn’t care much for SAT and ACT scores, and one school, in particular, would give me the opportunity to jump straight into the kitchen, have all food industry based classes (no liberal arts) and have a degree in two years. By that time in High School, I had already gained my Food Handler’s License and ServSafe Certificate, so it just made sense to dive even more into Culinary.

As for why I chose Pastry, I think that there’s a certain type of art skill and “je ne sais quoi” that can be expressed through pastry as opposed to savory dishes. When it comes to the art of designing plated desserts, just think about how excited you get when you’ve had a great dinner and then finish it off with an amazing dessert. As a Pastry Chef, I see a lot of opportunity in that time slot to give a guest an amazing experience.

5 – How do you come up with the ideas for some of your creations? For example, ideas like your Pink Starburst Strawberry cake or your Honey Comb Honey Jack cake?

I honestly just keep my eyes and ears open to what people are talking about and I explore how I can incorporate it into food. We all know that the Pink Starburst is equivalent to the blue candy in a pack of Scooby Snacks. It’s just the best one, hands down. I knew I wanted a Strawberry Cake on my menu, but instead of going with a traditional flavor like a Strawberries & Cream Cake, I developed the idea until I could be proud of what I was presenting to my audience. If you notice, I don’t have any Red Velvet cakes on my menu at the moment, but I brought out the flavor in Macaron form for my Mother’s Day sale. When creating my Honey Comb Honey Jack cake, I wanted to channel the demand for the Hennessy flavored cakes that we see, but in my own way. 

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6 – On average, how long does it normally take you to “perfect” a creation? In other words, what steps do you take in order to make a creation of yours just the way you want it, both taste and presentation wise.

With my creative process, it can sometimes take me a while to settle on a new dessert idea. My first step is deciding what direction I want to go in, then I do a good ol’ Google and Instagram search to see if my ideas are on the radar and if so how they’ve been done. From there I sit back and brainstorm how I can be different and incorporate my brand of allowing colors to pop, designing original flavors/flavor pairings, and making eating dessert an experience. I personally love that I give my customers the experience of eating brand new flavors in the same way that you would eat a Push Pop Icee as a kid.

7 – In your opinion, do you believe that food, being a chef, in particular, resonates with our culture as heavily as things like music and fashion do? Why or why not?

I think that food resonates within our culture just as heavily as music and fashion because they are all forms of expression. Within each of these industries, you can tell when people view it as a hustle and when they view it as an art.

8 – I noticed from your website that you’ve taught some classes on pastry cooking. Why do you think it’s important to give back to those aspiring to be pastry chefs or just a chef in general? Are you teaching any forthcoming classes?

I think its super important to show aspiring chefs up close that they can achieve all of the things that they have in their mind. My most recent class was the most rewarding because I was invited to teach at my high school where I got my own early start. We had conversations during the class about my journey and I explained to my students that they can maneuver the industry to work in their favor and that they don’t have to spend years and years in kitchens that don’t pay well just to receive proper recognition.

Right now I’m focusing more on the catering aspect of my business, but I’m exploring the possibility of doing baking classes with the youth at a few day camps this summer.

9 – You’re going to be a guest speaking at an upcoming event happening in June. Talk a little bit about that.

An organization called She Will Mentoring reached out to me to be apart of a panel discussion called Making HERStory. The intention is for students of all ages to hear 5 panelists speak on our unique professional journeys. This panel is a little special to me because all 5 panelists are making ourselves available to keep in contact and become mentors to the students way after the event. I’m excited because this is an opportunity to provide someone with a role model and guidance. I want to push myself to be a role model or mentor overall just as a Black Woman coming up in our communities, even if it has nothing to do with Pastry or the Food industry as a whole.

10 – How do you view food? Secondly, how do you want people to view your food?

Food is an experience. It’s a piece of art that satisfies with its appearance, scent, aromas, textures, and taste. I want people to always feel like they got an experience with me that they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

11 – In regards to your profession, what has been the biggest piece of advice anyone has given you?

Be ready for opportunities when they come. This resonates with me in the same way as hearing “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready” growing up. I think its extremely important to be established in some way when you step into certain rooms. It’s a little easier to navigate and secure opportunities when you can show a person all of the work that you’ve done and easily prove that endorsing you will be a reflection of their good judgment.

12 – What piece of advice would you give to the emerging pastry chef?

I would tell any emerging Pastry Chef to learn about all the areas of pastry. The comfort food, Grandma’s recipes, baking trends, food blogging, catering, the classic arts of the French Pastry Chefs, even the Japanese influence on desserts. When I was just starting out, all the only vision I had in my mind was to work in bakeries, gain skill and either compete or be on a show at the Food Network. I’ve gained so much knowledge and inspiration since then. There’s still a lot to be uncovered in our field and we have the great opportunity to still be groundbreakers and be considered special because this field isn’t one that’s been oversaturated.

13 – What other moves can we expect from Chef Nakai as we move into the second half of 2018?

Mark your calendars for July 21st. I’m teaming up with 2 Savory chefs and 1 other Pastry chef to bring a comfortable evening of fine dining. Our goal is to showcase our professional kitchen skills in an affluent and cultured, yet comfortable experience. We’re spending the evening celebrating fellowship, food, culture and the natural finesse that we bring to our industry as Black Chefs. We’ll be designing and serving 5 courses with the compliments of an open bar. We’ll also have “Litty Bags” available for purchase, these include two gourmet THC infused pastries by myself and my fellow Pastry chef and possibly upcoming merch by yours truly. Keep an eye out on www.chef-nakai.com, Tickets and more information will be available soon.

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