Jansen Chan: A Passion for Architecture and Desserts

Jansen Chan in Hong Kong on March 26, 2012. (Asia Society Hong Kong Center)

HONG KONG, March 26, 2012 — In its first dinner program since the opening of the Jockey Club Former Explosives Magazine, Asia Society welcomed Executive Pastry Chef Jansen Chan, of Oceana Restaurant in New York City, to discuss the intersection of baking and architecture, and how his experience of the two has melded to create some truly delicious desserts.

Growing up in Northern California, Chan discovered a love of baking at a very young age, through his father, who was a talented amateur baker himself. Chan said that he didn't realize there was anything special in their weekend baking sessions, or in the constant sweet smells wafting from his kitchen. He told the audience, "I just thought that's what everyone did."

Despite his father's love of baking, Chan said that his family was traditional, and expected him to go to Berkeley to be a doctor. "That's just what Asians do," he joked. Nevertheless, he chose to pursue a more creative career path in architecture (although he did manage to satisfy his parents' desire he attend UC Berkeley!).

Much about the architectural discipline made an indelible mark on Chan's approach to work and life — particularly his colleagues' single-minded patience, passion and dedication to their craft. Still, Chan hadn't lost the itch to bake. He quit architecture and obtained a pâtisseriediploma from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Never losing sight of his architectural roots, Chan began conceiving his desserts first as sketches — blueprints onto which to layer on complexities of flavor and texture.

Chan told the audience, "I found my path, and that's a very difficult thing to explain to people. It's like finding love. How do you do that? When you find it, you just know it. And I was very lucky to happen to be a little good at my passion."

After the audience enjoyed a delicious Asian-inspired meal, Chan shared a slideshow of some of his favorite creations. One was an enormous all-chocolate Eiffel tower, made to scale as part of an appearance on the Food Network. Another slide showed a charmingly haunted gingerbread house, with moving windows and doors and smoking chimney.

In explaining one beautifully made pumpkin tres leche with hazelnut and a lime sorbet, Chan drew the audience's attention to the attention he had paid to lines and curves. Chan said that in his kitchen at Oceana, aesthetic detail is everything — an eye that he has retained from his time in architecture school. Sometimes, if a dessert isn't executed perfectly, he'll make his team start again from scratch. "It's like executing a blueprint," he said. "If it's not done perfectly, the whole thing falls down."

Following Chan's presentation, the guests were treated to a surprise Chan creation — an almond panna cotta with ginger gelée. The panna cotta was soft and creamy with a delicate sugary taste, and the ginger gelee melted perfectly on the tongue, creating a gritty contrast of tastes and textures.

Reported by Maddie Gressel