When you step into Chef Pichet Ong's latest venture Qi, you immediately forget that it's tucked in a corner of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Any feeling of trendy claustrophobia from the shops around the corner and the bustling sidewalks are immediately replaced by a feeling of quietness, tranquility and... well... qi.
It's not hard to identify the source of this transformation. The restaurant features a soothing fountain, intricate woodwork and traditional Thai art, all keeping in line with its Thai grill menu.
With the Thai menu and Thai decor at Qi, it's easy to assume that Ong himself is Thai. But he is not.
"I was born in Thailand. Both my parents come from China," said Ong. "My native language is Chinese and my first food is also Chinese, but I also grew up eating a lot of Thai food."
During his childhood, Ong spent a lot of time traveling with his mother around southeast Asia and spending time with his extended family. His curiosity about food was piqued at an early age.
"My mother's side of the family particularly loved to bake, and we celebrated every occasion possible through food and cooking. It was always a communal effort," reminisced Ong.
You would think that with such early influences, Ong would have been headed straight to culinary school for college. Instead, he studied English Literature and Mathematics at Brandeis University and proceeded to get a Masters in Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. It was during graduate school Ong realized he was keen on becoming a chef.
"I’m not schooled and I’m not classically trained as a chef but when I was in graduate school, I’d done some internships in different kitchens and restaurants by that time, and I was ready to hop into the kitchen and become a chef," said Ong.
Ong's culinary prowess began with desserts. "I love eating desserts. It's what drove me into cooking in the first place." Hailed as a "Pastry Provocateur" by Food and Wine, Ong's portfolio includes consultancies with Nutella and Max Brenner, a cookbook called The Sweet Spot, recipe features in numerous publications, a smattering of restaurant and bakery ventures and a spot on television as the resident judge for Food Network's Sugar Dome.
But don't be quick to label Ong as a pastry chef. He approaches savory dishes with equal flair.
"Growing up in a Chinese kitchen and seeing sugar and salt next to each other... that being the principle of cooking technique... I do like sweet food, I do like salty food," said Ong. "I can’t decide sometime. So I just use both ingredients in one!"
And that's exactly what Ong does in the above video. From showing us a street dish inspired from his childhood eats to his take on a classic dessert, we see the jolly chef walking the fine line between savory and sweet.