Conversations

On Uni, Unique Dessert Flavors, and the Preciseness of Pastry with Sally Camacho

April 13, 2017

You’ve seen her battle it out week after week on Bravo TV’s Top Chef Just Desserts. Unsurprisingly, pastry chef Sally Camacho talks with conviction—a testament to her fighting spirit. Camacho’s determination is evident, with an impressive list of achievements under her belt, having participated in a number of prestigious pastry competitions (including the 2007 National Pastry Team Championship, as part of the first all-female team, and the 2011 Valrhona C3 World Competition in Madrid), taught at the Notter School of Pastry Arts and the Culinary Institute of America, and worked at the likes of Wolfgang Puck’s WP 24 at the Ritz Carlton and the prestigious Jonathan Club in Los Angeles. But her warmth and amiability shines through as she offers us seats and opens up candidly as if we were just old pals.

The Clark Air Force-born Filipina (her parents are from Quezon City and Iloilo) does not shy away from playing with relatively uncommon flavors in her desserts. At Dessert Dialogue, the eight-hands, nine-course, all-dessert dinner held recently at Le Petit Souffle, Camacho presents two dishes: one of duck chicharron, milk chocolate, and “cabana” creameux (“that’s calamansi, banana, and mango!”), and another course of uni ice cream, sake, and lychee underneath a buttery lace cookie. This would be followed through with a demonstration of another uni concoction during her talk at Madrid Fusion—this time, coated with chocolate and covered with chocolate spikes. Uni, as it turns out, is an ingredient that fascinates her—and for a very sweet reason. Here we chat about her teaching philosophy, her love of precision, and some of her favorite ingredients—starting with the said sea urchin.

L: Sally smiles for the camera at Madrid Fusion; R: Uni adds a wonderful creaminess and depth along with sake and lychee in her Uni Shooter-inspired dessert

How did the idea of uni come about?

The idea came about basically because I love sea urchin. . . . And then when we moved, my husband and I when we were in Napa Valley and I was an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, we were fortunate enough to get local uni [from California] very inexpensively. [It’s] from Fort Bragg and it’s very sweet. We would get it nearly almost every weekend. And we would cut the uni open and have uni and oysters and ahi tuna, and champagne. Those were our Friday nights, because everything closes at 8:30 in Napa Valley. So we find ways to just enjoy these things [ourselves]. . . . We loved uni shots, that’s why I liked it with the sake. Uni shooters. [It has] sake, fresh uni, oysters sometimes if you like it, tobiko, fresh wasabi, ponzu sauce, and then a floater of sake on top. That’s kind of where the idea came from.

I wanted to do an uni shot, [but] then I said I don’t like it when uni is served really at room temp—I like it really, really cold. So what else was gonna make it cold? Serve it in an ice cream form. And then I thought, well uni is also . . . a gonad. So it’s the reproductive part—they’re the eggs. It’s the sperm part. It’s both of those cause they’re unisex. So the richness of the uni is very egg-like. So I just replaced the egg in my recipe with uni, fresh raw uni.

It’s very custardy.

It is custardy! . . . It doesn’t really taste like uni, there’s still an umami there because of the raw fish aspect, or the raw seafood ocean aspect, but no one’s gonna guess and be like ‘oh yeah, that’s uni.’ . . . That’s why I also wanted to add uni on top as well. I was really fortunate to use the local [uni], I was really surprised to know it was sweet. It was really sweet.

Our uni [in the Philippines]?

Yes. [It’s] much sweeter than the Japanese [uni]. The Japanese was definitely more briny, and I know it’s briny but eating it after the Filipino one, it was much more briny.

You work with a lot of ingredients that are unusual for desserts. What’s your approach in doing this?

I guess it comes down to just tasting everything. I say that all the time: taste your food. But then it’s also ingredients too, so when I go to the farmers’ market [and] I don’t know something, I taste it [and] ask ‘Can I try that?’ Or if it’s [something] seasonal, like—you don’t think blueberries are in season [so] you ask, ‘Can I try that?’ ‘Sure!’—you try a blueberry, if it’s not [good] then I don’t use it if I don’t want to. Using things at their peak is prime, so seasonality—that’s when everything’s gonna taste its best.

But also, tasting different herbs, growing things, or educating yourself to speaking with whoever’s planting or taking care of your garden. . . . It’s just asking those people, ‘What is this?’ and ‘What do you think; how would you use this?’ ‘Cause a lot of times, those are the people who really know a lot about what it is and how to use it, because they grow it and they eat it themselves.

It’s really just about asking—always being inquisitive [and] just having an open mind. Having questions. It’s okay. But also seeking out answers on your own. Finding an avenue to be creative, or looking for other options to use. Not necessarily to be different but, sure, maybe just to put something else on the map . . . [and to open] your eyes to more ingredients. ‘Cause this world is so full of stuff that we don’t even know.

Even me just being out here—my parents were [in the Philippines] and there’s so much herbs that we saw at Gallery Vask that are indigenous to [this country but] they’ve never even seen. It’s so interesting; it’s very, very eye opening. We’re all used to the same greens and the same herbs that you have at your house, but when you see an herb that maybe [you’ve seen] but you don’t normally cook with or whatever and then someone actually puts it on something, you’re like ‘Oh hey, wow!’ . . . That’s just because it’s not norm yet. Or maybe we’ve just only seen it, and not really thought about using it for cooking. So, I’m hoping that happens with uni here. ‘Cause I think the local uni here is amazing. [But] apparently people don’t use it as much.

And it’s so cheap here.

Yes, it’s cheap! I would be making omelettes with that every morning, I would be putting that on carbonara.

So we should be embracing what we have.

Yes!

Would you say that there’s such a thing as being too experimental though, or being different just for the sake of being different?

I try to do different things to be different as well as to be unique, so it’s [more about] me being more adventurous as well as creating a different experience—creating something that someone can’t get anywhere else. Like my desserts—hopefully you don’t see them anywhere else. I do grab inspiration from a lot of other either chefs or pastry chefs, which is how our industry grows. But I try to put my own twist on it as much as I can. So I like to be able to come up with my own ideas, as well as be inspired by others. Because inspiration always comes from somewhere; it just doesn’t come from thin air. So whether that comes from traveling, or my own taste buds, or just what I like to eat or make in general. That’s kind of how my thinking is about food. But then also, [it’s important to keep] the integrity of what it is.

What is it about pastry that drew you to that field?

It’s mainly the exact preciseness of it. I really like that; I really appreciate it. I like the focusness [sic] of it. I like making things look pretty as well as taste good, but flavor first of course, so I like that we can play with different varietals and mediums for pastry, like sugar-pulling, or chocolate work, or we can get really cool cocoa butters, and a lot of natural things, as well as edible flowers but making sure that the edible flowers are actually tasty and not bitter. ‘Cause I can’t stand much food with too many flowers. So it should have more substance than that.

I see—the preciseness actually draws you in.

I like the preciseness . . . [and] also, I like being able to give a lasting impression and making that last memory. Also, there’s a lot of not-as-good pastries out there, I guess I could say. So I guess as far as dessert, there’s kind of a small handful of dessert after dinner that’s actually done very well . . . I would hope [that] in fine dining restaurants, that there are either pastry chefs or at least the chef takes the helm of it and makes, creates, something very well-executed. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have so many techniques on it, but really just a slightly sweet end note. Just keeping the integrity of something. You don’t have to be a pastry chef to make a good dessert. If you’re a savory chef you should be able to put ingredients together that could end a meal.

You were on Top Chef. Would you say that the [televized food competitions like] Top Chef are advisable as a medium of teaching? Is it a good educational experience, with the format of having competitions every week?

I think the format of Top Chef is probably not educational. It’s good experience as far as the show. [Rather, it’s] real competition, like actual, non-televised competition, [that’s] a good education. Non-televised pastry competitions that are done for awards and not just exposure, like Bocuse d’Or or Coupe du Monde, or maybe Pastry Live.

Oh, [in the sense that] Top Chef is more of a TV show.

It is a TV show. I wouldn’t say TV shows are more educational as far as [we’re talking about] TV competitions. They’re more for just experience, really. But education and experience will come from actual real competition. Which is not the reality televised TV shows.

As a teacher at the Culinary Institute of America, do you go by any particular philosophy when teaching your students?

I do—I try to teach my students hard work, integrity, being on time, being honest. Honesty is a big one, because I think people are sometimes scared to say either that they forgot to add something or do something or didn’t do something. It’s not about being scared that you did that, it’s about learning from it. So if you don’t tell me that you messed up, I can’t help you fix it. That’s what it is. We’re not expecting you to be perfect; you’re a student. I think that’s where they might kind of, maybe misjudge why they’re here or why they’re in school. They still need to learn. But that same thing goes for employees as well. So it’s honesty [and] integrity.

Are there any other local ingredients that you’re excited to work with?

The local chocolate, absolutely. And then also I heard about this mango flour, so I wanna see it.

Mango flour?!

Someone said that on the first day. It’s a gluten-free mango flour. I wanna see if it’s around. I’d love to get my hands on some. They said it on the first day—it’s like an alternative to [other] gluten-free [flours] or something. It’s the seed, pulverized. So it’s a by-product and I’d love to see [it].

Patricia Baes SEE AUTHOR Patricia Baes Trish thinks too much about everything—truth, existence.....and what’s on her plate. Her ongoing quest for a better relationship with food has led to a passion for cooking, gastronomy, and a newfound interest in its politics. She is a cheapskate in other aspects of her life, preferring to use her savings on specialty vinegars and degustation menus. While she admits to eating out too much, cooking and baking remain her first love, and she's always looking for quirky new ways to use up seasonal produce. Thanks to her obsession with (unnecessarily) making everything from scratch, she is now desperate to clear her fridge full of homemade condiments. She dreams of perfecting the art of making soufflé with her crappy toaster oven.
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