Ode to a Fruit Peel: Poetic renderings from Siew-Chinn Chin’s Kitchen

Story and photos by Helen Krayenhoff

siewOn a cold winter’s day, we are sitting in the warm kitchen of Siew-Chinn Chin, a pastry chef and Oakland resident who works at Chez Panisse. Slender and energetic, with a sparkle in her eye, Siew-Chinn moves nimbly from counter to fridge to stove, her hiking boots making a popping sound on the sticky linoleum.

The conversation never lags, although cooking magic is taking place before our eyes: Fruit parings, cores, and other items commonly considered compost are being transformed into jewels for the palate, for the nose, and—as demonstrated in the ristras of hot peppers strung together with dried fruit peels decorating the house—for the eye.

Siew-Chinn has worked at “Chez” for six years and now shares the pastry chef position for the downstairs restaurant with Mary Jo Thorensen. “I’m having the time of my life,” she says while deftly arranging apple slices onto a tart shell. “I have the opportunity to taste and use really good ingredients and I have the freedom to create.”

Siew-Chinn’s passion for food started when she was a child in Malaysia. Her father kept an orchard, where she picked ripe fruits, and her mother ran a candy and fruit stall in the market, where Chin loved to sample all the fruits candied in syrup.

“Have a taste,” she says, offering morsels of her recently candied chestnuts and kumquats, followed by a spoonful of the boiled apple-skin glaze she is now painting onto the tart. It all seems like the best kind of medicine.

At one point after Siew-Chinn immigrated to the United States, she worked as a chemist for a food quality company. After her parents died she wanted to be in closer contact with her remaining family members in Malaysia, so in 1989 she started a seafood import company. The business took her to Asia and also to Europe, where the exciting food scene in France became a good reason to take time off to explore and taste, and also to learn more cooking techniques.

To combat the stresses of the import business, she started madly baking at home, learning all she could by trial and error. Her neighbors can remember those sweet days, when a knock on the door meant a bag of goodies and a big smile from Siew-Chinn.

In 2003, confident of what she had to offer, Chin responded to an Oakland Tribune help wanted ad: Kitchen Assistant, Café Fanny, Berkeley. She got the position and hit the ground running, spending the next two years perfecting her craft. At Fanny, she was always looking for ways to honor her deeply felt convictions about food: to share, to nurture, to respect the hard work of food producers, and never to waste anything . . .

. . . which is why she began making meringue. Every day in the kitchen at Café Fanny they need 30 egg yolks to make mayonnaise. But what use can anyone have for 30 egg whites? Siew-Chinn decided to rescue them, and every night her oven at home would be on low as she beat the whites with sugar and made meringues. Each batch was an improvement on the last, and these heavenly meringues showed up with the knock on the door and the big smile.

When a pastry cook position opened at Chez Panisse in 2005, Siew-Chinn decided to apply. Part of the interview required the presentation of a dessert the applicant had baked at home. For Siew-Chinn, it was a toss-up between her flourless chocolate cake or something with meringue. She made trial runs on both and had the neighbors in for a tasting. It was partly her vacherin, or meringue basket, filled with mascarpone passionfruit cream, fresh farmers market strawberries, and fresh passionfruit coulis that convinced the hiring committee Siew-Chinn belonged at Chez Panisse.

Siew-Chinn loves to hike, sometimes to forage for mushrooms in the East Bay hills. She has never lost her love of world travel, and goes off to explore the sights whenever she has a break. Chez Panisse, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain—What do all these places have in common? Siew-Chinn Chin’s determination and commitment have made their mark on all three.

For recipes by Siew-Chinn, go here…and click on the individual recepies under the article title. We are going to be adding some slide show demos soon!

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