Pastry chef and restaurateur Pichet Ong is known for creating gorgeous desserts. He honed his craft in the restaurants of Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York and his own restaurant and bakery, P*ONG and Batch. A former judge on the Food Network shows Sugar Dome and Cupcake Wars, Ong spoke with Gambit about his upcoming turn as judge in The Big Gateaux Show, the burlesque-themed cake competition at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience (www.nowfe.com).
What is it like to judge extreme cake competitions? Ong: I was a resident judge on Cupcake Wars and Sugar Dome when they aired on Food Network. The cake artists actually have to build massively large cakes — more than human-sized — and because of that, structure becomes very important because [the cakes] want to fall. You don't know the conditions that the cake will go through when it's going to be traveling or displayed or the environment where you'll be creating it, so you have to prepare for the worst. The most impressive cakes I've ever seen were during a competition on Sugar Dome, when the wild card element thrown into the show for competitors was pyrotechnics. Some of the cakes had mechanical movement put in — like a rollercoaster. It was really challenging for the cake makers to pull off, especially working with movement, heat and cake ingredients like fondant that easily melt.
With cakes, you always eat with your eyes first, so as a judge, cakes have to be arresting and captivating to draw an audience in. Tiered cakes are popular for a reason: They hold up better when they're smaller on top and heavier on the bottom. You have to take visual risks to make your cake stand out from the competition, though, and see how much you can get away with up top. Ultimately, though, flavor always wins.
Personally, I would say my desserts have been known to be Asian-influenced or light instead of big and decadent. When I opened my own restaurant, it was a tasting-menu style, so that theme continued. When I opened my bakery, I was able to do more decadent-style desserts: different cupcakes and cakes that can really stand alone as desserts. They were all rich and flavor-intense.
What tips would you give home bakers who might want to build a big cake? O: Bakers would definitely have to stage or plan it out very well in advance through sketching and architecture-style work. Beyond the recipes, you really have to time everything that you do. The fondant, for example, can't be left out for too long or it will become too hard to manipulate. The mousse really has to be set, firmed up and well-rested. So, timing is everything. In the process of making it, there should always be a pretty big backup plan. You always need to make much more of the ingredients than you think you need, because you don't want to stop and remake an ingredient again because the other parts will either dry out or collapse before you're finished.
What are you most looking forward to about this competition? O: I learned about this competition through my friend Tariq Hanna, and I come to New Orleans quite often — at least once a year. I actually had the chance to watch this competition last year completely by chance because I was in town, so I'm looking forward to being more involved this year.
When I'm in New Orleans, I really like to eat desserts that feature old-school New Orleans culture like bread pudding, but also local, fresh ingredients. I'm looking forward to getting some strawberries, though I know I'm coming toward the end of the season. — SARAH BAIRD