Patissier and entrepreneur Jennifer Cheungtook a calculated risk, swapping the stockmarket for a whisk. Crave meets the womanbehind Sift, and finds out what inspiredsuch a sweet success.
Text by Jason Spotts, portrait by Samantha Sin
Sift Dessert Bar and Sift Patisserie are synonymous with a gourmet end to a meal in Hong Kong. The feeling of satisfaction that accompanies a trip to Sift is likely due to the devotion that Jennifer Cheung has lavished on her business. Prior to becoming a patissier, Cheung had attended Harvard and worked in investment banking at Deutschbank in Hong Kong. While she didn’t mind the long hours, she did take issue with spending time on work she didn’t love.
“Of course, the hours I now spend on my business are way longer than in banking,” Cheung laughs. “But it’s a world of difference when it’s something you love.”
From childhood, Cheung has adored food. “I have a very good memory, and all those memories are bookmarked by food,” she says. “All my travel photos are peppered with food shots. That’s how my friends have always identified me.”
Despite this, the decision to attend culinary school and switch careers was a difficult one. She had to consider the loss of earning potential, and the time she had spent training and working in banking. But early on in the kitchen, Cheung knew she had done the right thing.
“This is what I really loved,” she says. “Growing up, I always got yelled at because I loved mixing everything after meals from salt and pepper to sauces, condiments, everything. It was always going to be desserts. Now, we joke and look back on how that was definitely a sign of things to come.”
In 2005, after six months of culinary school, Cheung accepted a difficult internship at Per Se, the acclaimed American restaurant by the legendary Thomas Keller. “A great learning experience, but so tough,” she says.
At Per Se, she honed her skills. “It’s a constant requirement on nothing short of perfection,” she says of the six-month internship.
“But beyond that, it was a playground for creativity. They used all sorts of ingredients you wouldn’t normally see and Keller is great at reinventing quintessential American classics. It was such an edifying experience you wouldn’t ever learn in a classroom.”
Her experience at Per Se only made her more dedicated to pursuing a career in the culinary arts. “Any chef will tell you the kitchen is stressful,” Cheung says. “It’s long hours, things done to a tee in no time and the pay is not great. But the bottom line is love and respect for the craft, which drives everybody in the industry. You love what you do.”
Once she completed the internship, Cheung chose to return home to Hong Kong, where she felt she knew the market well. She began planning her next step, the gourmet dessert bar Sift. The first location opened in 2006 on Graham Street.
“People don’t realise how difficult it is. I certainly didn’t,” she recalls. “Everything is perishable, has a short shelf life and is susceptible to the elements. This is especially true in pastry.”
Cheung has discovered that her previous career has contributed to the success of Sift. “I’m lucky to have a finance background,” she says. “A restaurant is a business first, and rent here is stratospherically high so it makes producing quality even more expensive. Over Christmas, our berry prices were unbelievable. But I never sacrifice ingredients for something cheaper.”
Another reason for Sift’s success has to do with Cheung’s presence in the kitchen, and her knowledge of all the day-to-day aspects of the business. “I’m very hands on,” she says. “I’m in the kitchen every day and if something isn’t perfect, it gets thrown out. I know every order that comes in, how every shop is doing and what ingredients are in stock. It’s all about knowing demand and how to supply that demand.”
At Sift, one of her signature creations is the cupcake, a childhood-treat-turned Hong Kong craze. “I actually never wanted to do cupcakes in the first place,” Cheung admits. “When the dessert bar first opened, our positioning was very gourmet. I couldn’t see where the cupcake would fit.
“That all changed when I visited Sprinkles in LA. They put out 20 to 30 flavours of gourmet cupcakes, done beautifully. It got me to rethink the whole concept. I would come into the kitchen every morning at dawn and test out recipes, just me and my cupcake wrappers.”
Since then, the cupcake has become a core part of the business. “I’m very thankful,” Cheung says. “During our busiest times now, we’re making 15,000 cupcakes a week.”
Cheung’s future plans will focus on the patisserie. She’s in search of the ideal Central location. “The first dessert bar was great branding and a great foundation,” she says, “but not scalable and that’s the bottom line.”
Having done her part for the gourmet dessert scene, she can now reflect on times that weren’t nearly as sweet. “During the 80s and early 90s, you could hardly get a French macaron,” Cheung recalls. “We’re talking about cake shops at the Mandarin Orientaland the Furama and those were the only two Western pastry shops around.”
But times have changed in Hong Kong.Sift has become part a of vibrant pastry scene. “Now you see all sorts, all shapes and sizes. You see big brands like Jean Paul Hevin and La Maison du Chocolat. It’s great to be in a global city because the dessert scene is so much more colourful because of it. I feel blessed that we’ve been able to contribute.”
My Favourite Things with Jennifer Cheung
- Greatest kitchen disaster?
Our cupcake tower was perfectly done when someone knocked the entire tower over. Several hundred cupcakes fell to the floor, completely smashed up. That was our greatest kitchen disaster. My staff basically got a quick yelling at and had to fire up the ovens really quickly and get everything going in double time. But we managed.
- Who was the worst Willy Wonka? Johnny Depp or Gene Wilder?
Gene Wilder was worse. I love Johnny Depp,I think he’s super cool. I actually liked him in the film. I love Willy Wonka and I grew up reading Roald Dahl’s books. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory definitely had a lot to do with my love for candy and sugar and chocolate.
- Best ready-made supermarket dessert?
Entenmann’s. It’s an American brand that comes in these white boxes. I think they’re great. They have these blueberry muffins that are unbelievable and I can’t believe they come out of a box. But I love desserts so much, I can indulge in all kinds. I have an appreciation for all of them.
- What’s the craziest dessert you’ve ever heard of?
Heston Blumenthal’s bacon and egg ice cream. I’ve actually tried it and it tastes good, but it’s just such an amazing thing that he could come up with something like this and make it taste good. You never think of bacon and egg being an acceptable ice cream flavour. It works very well, though. He defines “thinking outside the box”.
- What drives you insane in the kitchen?
When things are messy, disorganised and not perfect, I’m not happy. That can happen sometimes. But it’s nice to see a kitchen that is spic and span, constantly tidy and well thought out, where things are perfectly done. But that’s not always the case, and that can drive me crazy.
- Who are some of your food heroes?
Thomas Keller is definitely one of them. Pierre Hermé is, to me, the most amazing pastry chef out there. He has his own pastry shops in Paris and now he’s opened in Japan as well. He actually used to head up the kitchen at Ladurée, so a lot of their desserts are basically his recipes.