This week, we are excited to feature pastry chef, Saeko Nemoto. Born in Japan, Saeko’s journey has taken her around the globe with stops in France, Australia, New York, Turkey, Canada and now Miami. Though her training is rooted in traditional French patisserie, it is her use of local ingredients and surprising flavor combinations that has made Saeko stand out in the world of pastry. Now at Boulud Sud Miami, we discuss everything—from growing up in an environment where female chefs were a rarity to the influence of nostalgia on menu design, and even to insects as the ingredient of the future.
Hi Saeko! Where are you from and what was your first job?
I was born in the countryside of Tokyo, Japan. My first job was at a bakery in a hotel near my parents’ house.
How did you decide to become a pastry chef?
When I was younger, I wanted to do French cuisine, but there weren’t any places in my hometown at that time that offered this type of food. Also, the number of women working in cooking positions was pretty much non-existent—women cooks were expected to make tea or fetch coffee for male cooks. I was, however, able to get a job in the hotel’s bakery since I had previously worked at the property during summer, and that is where my love for pastry began.
Can you tell us a little bit about your training?
It all started when I decided to move overseas. First, I arrived in France, where all my pâtissier training took place. I spent seven years in this amazing country, where not only did I learn the basic skills of pastry, but I also had the opportunity to work with chocolatiers and also at ice cream shops, learning about everything from Provence-style desserts to fruit sorbets. I can say that I owe the rest of my training to all the places I have worked— every single country has something to teach you.
You have worked all over the world—including Japan, Australia, France, Canada, Turkey and now the US—what steps have you taken in your career that brought you to where you are right now?
Every single place I worked has taught me something. Deciding to move overseas was a huge step, but it was after that first step that my adventure began. I really enjoyed traveling and learning about different cultures, so after spending a long time in France, I decided to work on a temporary basis to visit different places and experience each one of them. My journey with Daniel Boulud goes way back. His New York restaurant was the first place I worked when I arrived at United States. After that, in a pursuit to discover other places, I moved to Turkey for six months, then Australia for three years, and Canada for another three years. Here I crossed paths with Daniel Boulud once again at Café Boulud in Toronto. While working there, I learned about an open position in Miami and decided that was going to be my next step. (I must admit the idea of warmer weather and gorgeous beaches influenced my decision a bit—ha, ha.)
How long have you been at Boulud Sud Miami? Do you like Miami? What inspires you there?
I’ve been here for 7 years… I really enjoy this vibrant city and its atmosphere, having the ocean transports me to when I used to live in Provence. The weather is definitely one of my favourite things (except for hurricane season)— it’s like having summer all year long. I’m inspired by the local flavours like guava, the blue skies, peaceful ocean, and generally the paradisiac vibe this beautiful city offers.
In your rise to the role of executive pastry chef, what are some of the obstacles you have had to overcome on your career path as a woman in the industry?
There were no opportunities for women back in Japan when I was growing up. The prototypes some people still have for an Executive Chef is a masculine imposing figure, and I look just exactly the opposite of that (hahaha).
Additionally, another obstacle has been using particular ingredients from other regions that I found interesting, and finding that some people dislike them (like the mastic gum, very popular in Turkey and Greece, but not here in the US).
Is there anything you are hoping to help change in the industry for women over the next year, 5 years, or 10 years?
The kitchen equipment definitely! Most of it is big and super heavy, I feel like I’m lifting weights every time I carry the ice cream maker and some other equipment.
As executive pastry chef, how many people do you have working on your team? How do you help support and encourage the people on your team?
I work with two assistants. Communication, patience, and trust is everything. I start by teaching them the basics, giving them proper training, and supervising them. I like for people to start exploring on their own once they have the tools and key knowledge. I believe this is the greatest way for them to feel confident and know what they can do on their own. As soon as I see that they are ready, I like to schedule a vacation (lol) because every time I come back, they are on a whole different level. They are more responsible and trust themselves, and this makes me feel really proud.
Even though Florida has had fewer restrictions than most other places during the pandemic, have you had to change how you work during this time?
It has not changed much for me. In terms of shifts, I am working the usual. The main difference is that I don’t have my assistants since only a section of the restaurant is operating and we haven’t been receiving big parties like we used to. I can perfectly manage on my own and keep myself busy.
What are the qualities you think it takes to be a great pastry chef?
The first ones would be patience, commitment, and practice. These lead you into being knowledgeable, and if you possess knowledge, you just need to add passion, creativity, and love for what you do. Knowledge and creativity will make you bring your ideas to life (or at least most of them).
Your experience working around the world, and particularly the Mediterranean, has clearly inspired the unexpected and savoury aspects of your pastry menu. Desserts like your Coup Grapefruit Givre with grapefruit sorbet, halva, and rose loukoum (Turkish delight) sound exquisite. How much experimentation goes in to finding the magic combination?
It’s all about memories! Think about you as a child enjoying your favourite candy, and you will remember exactly how it tasted, the smell, the texture… In the same way a single ingredient can transport you to very far places and specific moments of your life. So, I wouldn’t call it experimentation, for me it’s more like remembrance and using flavours that evoke something particular in me.
My experience in the Mediterranean was pretty unique since the French Riviera and Turkey are completely different. The small city of Bormes-les-mimosas (it indeed smells like mimosa flowers since they are everywhere) made me feel like I was in a place that only existed in my dreams, the scenery was flawless. I was working at an ice cream shop and I remember making the fruit purée for the sorbets. I’ve got to say, I had never seen such beautiful berries — they were colourful, juicy, and shiny— they reminded me of gemstones. On the other hand, Turkey was enigmatic. With it’s interesting culture, I was seeing dishes and spices I had never experienced before. One of my first “magic combinations” was at Chocolate Butterfly in Istanbul, where I did French Chocolate Bonbons filled with a local Turkish liquor called Raki.
Miami is a wonderful mixing pot of people from all over—how have you adapted your desserts to fit with the culture of the city?
It was difficult at the beginning since I didn’t know much about Miami and every place has traditions and typical ingredients, like Japan and its strawberry shortcake and Canada with the maple syrup and pecans. So, I would ask people at the supermarket, pastry shops, even people walking by—where did they go to eat, what were some popular foods, what were their favourite flavours? I wanted to find Miami’s key ingredient to make it part of my creations and make people’s palates delighted. After asking here and there, I was able to find that secret ingredient, the one that was common among the majority of the people. Can you guess what that was? GUAVA!
For the aspiring pastry chef—or even for creative home cooking—are there any rules to follow when combining particular flavours and textures (for example, is there a bad time to use a foam)?
There are a lot of rules in pastry-making that should be followed, especially for basics (like dough making), but for the rest I have to confess I love breaking the rules (ha, ha, ha). I don’t think there is something particular that shouldn’t be done, it’s all about likes/dislikes, trying new things, and—at the end—discovering your own creations.
Are there any flavour combinations that should avoided?
Don’t mix too many strong flavours together. Combinations need to have a balance, just like perfumes. Once you have decided what your main flavour will be, you can pick a second one to enhance it. I’ll use one of my latest creations as an example, honey-lavender ice cream (delicious, right?!). Lavender is the main flavour because even though its taste is subtle, it is pretty aromatic, and even before having a bite, you can smell it, which influences your palate as well. By mixing it with honey, which only works on a plate level, I make sure to have a mix with a stronger ingredient that doesn’t compete with the smell, but enhances it.
We’d love to hear about some of your personal favourites! What is your favourite dessert to make?
I really don’t have a favourite! I like making dessert samplers because there is more art, textures, and flavours involved and people taste something different in every bite. I also enjoy doing Christmas desserts (I love the holidays).
What would be your favourite dessert to eat?
Japanese Traditional Mochi, it's different to the one we serve here, the traditional ones are filled with sweet red bean paste, cherry blossom, or special leaves depending on the season, and are topped with caramel sauce on top. I can’t help but think about when I was a kid enjoying these back home.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy baking?
Japanese pancakes. They look beautiful (with their fluffiness) and taste delicious, but the process to make them is long and consuming. It takes at least 15 minutes to bake them, plus all the prepping before. Here in Miami people are used to eating fast and don’t like waiting much for their food, so this adds extra stress to the making process, definitely not something I enjoy.
What do you think is going to be the next big dessert trend?
I don’t know but personally, I’m very interested in learning more about using insects… it’s not what you think (sounded a little weird, right?), I was reading a recent study about our growing population and not having enough food so—due to this— other sources are being used and one of them is crickets… Yes, cricket powder is now a thing and it’s a high source of nutrients, vitamins and proteins. Going into the future, if we ever get to populate another planet, it’s going to be really hard to grow plants or take big animals, so this might be a good thing to think of— after all it’s being considered a substitute for meat. Maybe Cricket Powder Macarons will be next on the menu… who knows?
What are your top 3 can’t-live-without items in your personal kitchen?
What 3 tips or tricks can you share with home bakers?
My three tips have to do with my three essentials…
Always weigh your ingredients to have the correct amounts
Use your thermometer to keep track of temperature
Always set your timer. The last one is the best, especially if you are doing more than one thing at a time, which we usually do.
What is one dessert a home cook can make that will be sure to impress their guests?
A Mille Crepe Cake! Looks really elaborate but it’s not hard to make, and there’s no baking involved for the people that are not into that. Besides, you can get creative with the whipped cream that goes between each layer and a little something of your liking. Berries on top to add some décor are always a must.
Would you please share a recipe from the restaurant that even a novice baker can make?
Of course! Crema Catalana is a luxurious treat with Latin flair, we serve a strawberry version at the restaurant.