Those who know Maira from her work behind Cloudstreet’s open kitchen know her as a good-natured pastry chef who is as reserved as she is competent.
She serves her beautiful desserts – often vegetable-based – with the kind of quiet delight that expresses how happy she is doing the job she loves.
But behind this sweet smile hides an incessant desire for excellence. The modest 30-something has spent the last decade devoting herself to her craft – from finding her voice as a young pastry chef to working long hours to hone her skills.
So it’s no surprise that she was named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2022 in the Top 50 Restaurant awards program. She tells Wonderwall.sg how she rose to the top of her industry and her favorite desserts.
Has your life changed since you were named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef?
To be honest, my daily life hasn’t changed much. I always work hard, always arrive at 9 or 10 and leave around midnight. What’s different now is that people care about my opinion, which is very strange.
I mean, I’ve always had the same mindset or opinion about things, but that’s fine because sometimes people ask me about things that I haven’t thought of.
For example, changes in the industry that I want to see. This question took me a while to think about.
And what did you find you wanted to change?
I have the impression that the sustainability of the endowment is not progressing fast enough. F&B hours are often too long. Personally, I choose to work longer hours; I am a workaholic. It’s weird if I don’t work. I take time when I feel the need.
I guess I feel personally responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly and that everything is up to standard.
I also want to constantly offer new things, to be better. So it’s more of a personal motivation. What we do is a craft, so the more practice hours you give to your craft, the better the outcome.
Why do you like to use vegetables in your desserts?
I just don’t see why. Often it’s because the flavor makes sense in that dessert. It’s not because I’m trying to be different or do something revolutionary.
Like the first time I smelled someone cooking lettuce, it smelled so much pandan and vanilla. And I was like, this is what dessert smells like… I should use this.
We have another dessert that contains celeriac, which is so delicious. Celeriac has that natural sweetness and earthiness to it, and I thought it would be great in a dessert.
Do you consciously avoid traditional dessert flavors such as, for example, chocolate or raspberry?
Chocolate, yes. I love chocolate and I love eating chocolate, but that doesn’t fit the character of Cloudstreet. It’s so heavy at the end of the meal, especially when you have a rich dark chocolate dessert.
The idea of having a tasting menu is that you always want to eat the sweet dish, so we want to keep it light and refreshing.
What are your favorite desserts to eat?
I love chocolate cake. I love to eat dark chocolate. It’s so comforting.
I think Waku Ghin’s chocolate cake is the best in Singapore. You can just buy it off the shelf. It’s dark but it’s so bright. It’s so good.
How did you know you wanted to become a pastry chef?
So. Embarrassing story (laughs). I watched this Korean drama when I was 13 or 14 years old.
It was a drama about a pastry cook. There were a lot of weird life lesson quotes at the beginning of each episode, which made me think that if I do that, I can somehow find the meaning of life (laughs).
When I started as an intern, it felt good. It was good.
You work long hours, but there is a purpose to those long hours, which is to perfect your craft and try to find all the little details to improve your workflow, your technique more precise, to be more consistent. I love this whole process.
Did you find the meaning of life there?
No, not yet (laughs). Maybe that will come later.
How did you start your career?
I studied Culinary and Restaurant Management at Temasek Polytechnic. I then did my internship at Sweets Garibaldi, a pastry production kitchen. They were doing some very innovative stuff. I thought that was really cool because no one was doing that in Singapore and I wanted to see what it was like. I stayed for about three years after my internship.
When it closed, I found an investment in (the old) Salt. I was only 20 or 21 and I don’t know how I found the courage to say it at the time, but I told the chef that I would like to have some creative control. And the chef was so nice! He said, yes, of course, you can do whatever you want and we’ll taste it, and if it’s good, we’ll put it on the menu.
I moved to Meta and stayed there for about three to four years. Chef Sun (Kim) encouraged creativity so much. I think that’s what I’ve been lucky with – all the chefs I’ve worked with have been so encouraging and generous, letting me do whatever I want creatively.
I took a year off to do an internship (the French word for “internship”) around the world. My first stop was Maaemo (Norway’s only three Michelin star restaurant), then I went to Montreal in Canada, to Patissier Patrice. Chef Patrice was so wonderful. He and his team welcomed me into the family.
After that, I moved on to Aska, a two-star Michelin restaurant in New York. I wanted to see the difference between running a two star restaurant and a three star restaurant. And it’s very different. In a three star restaurant they already have that price and know the system, so in a way you maintain the SOPs (standard operating procedures), to put it in the simplest sense.
But when you go to a one star restaurant trying to get two stars, or two stars to three stars, it gets even more interesting. It means even harder work and you have a bigger learning curve, which is why I wanted to go to Aska.
I came home a while after that because my mother was sick, then I went straight back to Oslo to work at Maeemo again because they had moved.
When a starred restaurant moves, it loses its stars and I wanted to be part of the opening team, to see if it was possible to move up to three stars again.
What’s the best thing about the job you do now?
I like the fact that I’m not creatively limited. I must say that at Cloudstreet, I have carte blanche. Or as they like to say, I get off with a lot of shit (laughs). Chef Rishi is very open-minded and generous.
Let’s say I have a plate in mind and want this kind of design, but the makers don’t have it. Chief Rishi is like, “You know what? We can talk to plate makers. Then I can go see the ceramists who make plates for Cloudstreet, and it’s really nice to have a creative hand in there too.
Even with the cutlery setting, if I see something cute that I think will work for the restaurant, I suggest it and see how we can make it happen. It is very funny.
What is your dream?
I think like all plated dessert chefs, the end goal is to open your own dessert bar. But it’s also how you’re going to make it work financially. I think that’s the bigger question.
There must be a reason why there are so many bakeries and patisseries in Singapore, but we only have one dessert bar. Because it is much easier, financially, to manage a pastry shop or a bakery than a dessert bar.
8But we have to find a way to make it happen, and I’m still figuring it out.
READ ALSO: Baker behind the pastries: the ex-accountant finds his calling in cream chiffon cakes
This article first appeared in Wonderwall.sg.