5Qs with Ethel Koh, Pastry Chef

Foodies in San Francisco will be no stranger to Michelin Guide – Japanese restaurant, Gozu. But did you know that the pastry chef is Singaporean? Find out more about Ethel’s culinary journey in the U.S. and the inspiration behind her delectable treats!

6 Jan 2022 / By SGN

Ethel with her co-workers Jin and Janice
(From left to right) Ethel with her co-workers Jin and Janice at Quince Restaurant, San Francisco

1. How did you end up in the U.S.? Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a pastry chef based in San Francisco and I’ve lived here for about 5 years. I previously made wedding cakes and dessert tables under my brand Little Favors and then I decided to further my studies at the Culinary Institute of America, Singapore, where I met supportive and encouraging educators. They challenged us to push hard and look far and I ended up in San Francisco in the Spring of 2017 just before I graduated.

Ethel's graduation class of 2017
My graduation class of 2017 at the Culinary Institute of America, Singapore

I started out as a pastry extern at Alexander’s Steakhouse and eventually moved up to running the station and putting out new dishes along with my pastry chef. Then I quickly moved up to becoming the pastry sous chef at Quince, a prestigious 3 michelin star restaurant on Pacific Avenue where I met the most inspiring team of people. I reconnected with the ex-executive chef of Alexander’s Steakhouse when he opened his own restaurant, GOZU, where I am currently their pastry chef.

2. Where do you find inspiration, and how is it reflected in your creative process?

I draw inspiration from culture, nature and the senses. I try my best to understand the culture of the cuisine that I’m working with and have learned that great cuisines like Japanese and Nordic cuisines centre nature in the core of their cuisine. The bay area has amazing produce and also an abundance of foraged herbs, flowers and berries. The first time I tried a coastal and mountain huckleberry, I was amazed! The coastal berries are tarter than the latter and the mountain huckleberries have a pine-like aroma.

Freshly-picked strawberries
Freshly-picked strawberries at the Fresh Run Farm!

Our senses help me to identify the nuances of flavours in the fruit that I work with. In the summer of 2021, I made a dessert using yellow peaches from Tenbrink Farm which we work closely with. The yellow peaches have heady notes of coconut and granola. I paired grilled yellow peaches with a gula jawa sauce, verjus blanc, frozen toasted coconut marshmallow and peach leaf ice cream which has flavours of bitter almond. The flavours echo the intoxicating smell of the ripe peaches. 

Gozu peach dessert
Gozu peach dessert

3. Where do you shop for groceries?

The staple for Southeast Asian products is definitely New May Wah in San Francisco. I shop a lot at Nijiya for Japanese products and Whole Foods for convenience. But the main point of living in San Francisco is the glorious farmers’ markets in the Bay Area. We pick up produce for the restaurant at the Ferry Building on Saturdays and sometimes head down to the market on Clement Street, Fort Point or Marin on Sundays. These days, the markets do have Asian vegetable stands too and I’ve purchased Bok Choy, baby eggplants and pea shoots which I used to make delicious sambal pea shoots.

Shopping for fresh produce at the Farmers’ Market near Ferry Building, San Francisco
Shopping for fresh produce at the Farmers’ Market near Ferry Building, San Francisco

4. What are my favorite restaurants in the bay area?

I love these places in San Francisco and have been multiple times. Rintaro for yakitori. Marlena for simple, but delicious Californian-French fare and delicious dessert. Octavia for amazing Californian fare. Saison for an open wood fire tasting menu experience. Anchovy bar for small bites with a Japanese influence. Benkyodo for freshly made mochi. Garden Creamery for ice cream – all the flavours are freshly made in house and they have Pandan ice cream! Kaiseki Saryo Hachi in Burlingame for a super seasonal kaiseki menu that changes all the time. And the list could go on.

Ethel and her partner, Lih
My partner, Lih, and I having matcha and calamansi ice cream at Garden Creamery!

5. How do you stay connected with your loved ones in Singapore?

I’m extremely thankful to be living in this day and age where WhatsApp makes it so convenient to video call my family and talk to each other.

The best way to cure my homesickness is my dad’s sambal. He is an amazing chef. Before we moved to Australia when I was 6 years old, he learned how to make all the local favourites and he has not stopped improving his recipes since. He used to run a nasi padang stall and a cafeteria selling local delights in Shenton way. He makes fantastic sambals and I freeze them and bring them over to have a taste of home with me at all times. I also learned how to cook soto ayam, ban mian etc. My partner who is also from Singapore is a chef too and he makes local dishes. It curbs the homesickness until the next time we go back home.

Ethel with her parents in Singapore

Follow Ethel on InstagramLinkedIn and Facebook.

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