Understatement: Jansen Chan is a go-getter.
Armed with a degree in architecture from Berkeley, he began his career and then realized he wanted to go back to his true passion: baking. He got himself a couple of restaurant jobs, and then headed to Paris to study pâtisserie.
After working in some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants, he took a job with Chef Alain Ducasse, where he refined his experience and took his skills to the next level in fine dining. Next, he became the executive pastry chef at Oceana, with the restaurant earning a Michelin star every year he was there. In the meantime – since grueling restaurant hours clearly weren’t enough to keep him busy – he appeared on Food Network shows like “Halloween Wars” and “Food Network Challenge,” the latter for which he created a scale model of the Eiffel Tower, all in chocolate, building the entire structure in only eight hours.
Since 2012, Chan has been the director of pastry arts at the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute). The school boasts deans like Jacques Pépin, Jacques Torres, José Andrés, and André Soltner, and some graduates you may have heard of: Bobby Flay, Wylie Dufresne, and David Chang, to name a few.
Like everyone else I’ve met on the ICC staff, Chan is deeply passionate about, and committed to, creating the ultimate culinary school experience: living up to the school’s tradition but still bringing in new, fresh ideas to keep students and teachers inspired.
Chefs Connection (CC): So tell me about the students here.
“We have a huge age range that attends this school. In the daytime program, we have people straight out of high school. We have career changers, and people who are maybe close to retirement who have always wanted to go to cooking school. They’re all equal, but they all have different approaches to this program, and they also have different needs from it, but we have to accommodate all of them.”
CC: That’s the sense I get, that the school is very focused on making it the best possible experience.
“After 30 years of doing this, we’ve figured things out, we’ve improved. That’s one good thing about the school: it’s not afraid to evolve and keep changing. That comes a lot from Dorothy [Cann Hamilton, Founder and CEO]. She has a vision, and a spirit of being better than we can be, so it definitely trickles down.”
CC: There’s competition now, too, because it’s become such a celebrity-driven thing, all these TV shows going on too, and people probably think that it’s —
“It’s tricky. You want decorated chefs but you want them representing the school, and being associated with the school for positive reasons and not just because of fame. It’s fine to be famous, as long as you have the chops behind you, which is one of the great things about Bobby Flay attending here. He is definitely one of the bigger food celebrities, but he definitely is a chef. He came with cooking roots.”
CC: And he worked his butt off.
“He worked his ass off, and he still does, but he manages to be a food celebrity, also.”
CC: We were just watching him on “Food Network Star” last night, and I kept saying ‘Look at him!’ because the guy’s just in amazing shape. I know he works out like a crazy person, and he says he eats everything. but he eats small.
“Well, you have to eat everything, as a chef. That’s one of the worst things. People always ask me, ‘How do you not eat everything?’ I say, ‘I DO eat everything!’”
CC: I would think you have to.
CC: So do you have a crazy workout routine?
“Actually, I do. I do classes in kickboxing, I work out all the time. So that’s my trade off to eating whatever I want.”
CC: And you’re not around healthy food.
“It is worse in pastry, it’s true. Especially here. An instructor’s like, ‘Oh, I tried this version of pâte à choux this week or I made this version of a croissant, try it.’ It’s always, ‘Just try it, try it, try it.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay!’ Consume, consume, and I’m not the type of person to take one bite. I usually will finish something if you hand it to me. I’m not wasteful. [Laughs]”
CC: So you were in the middle of this wonderful career, very highly regarded, really well-known, highly respected, Michelin-starred. What made you want to make this switch? How did this happen for you?
“Um … I call it the glass ceiling of a restaurant pastry chef. After a certain point you’re not the executive chef, and that’s fine and we all know that, but there’s only so much growth. Every pastry chef in every fine dining restaurant in New York City, they all come to the point where they decide: either A, you go to another restaurant, which is kind of a lateral move, unless you’re going to a more fine dining restaurant, or B, you go into your own business. Or you move out of New York! [Laughs.]
“So there’s not that many options. And when this presented itself to me, to come over and be the director of the pastry program here, it wasn’t an opportunity I had considered, because there’s not a lot of jobs out there like this. This is a very unique position.”
CC: It’s a very different role.
“It’s funny, though, because my father was an amateur baker, and he wanted to bake and I wanted to be a pastry chef, just by coincidence I think. I mean, he probably influenced me, but it’s my mother who was the teacher. Education was something that I thought I was never going into.”
CC: It looks like you plucked the best of each parent and fused it into something new.
“I kinda did! But I’ve only been here a little less than two years. For me this is still something very new. I was in the restaurant business, in pastry, for 13 years, so I feel much more akin to that than my new role.”
CC: You’re director of the program. Are you also directly teaching students, are you there in classes instructing at all?
“No. I don’t teach any direct classes. I oversee the instructors who do the teaching.
“We’ve had instructors who have been here for—most of them have been here for more than five years, some of them as long as 15, 17 years. And they love to teach. And that’s really a tricky thing about a chef-instructor. A chef-instructor needs to have had a chef background, and needs to have evolved into a teacher role with that knowledge. Not every chef can do that role.
“I mean, chefs are forced to teach all the time, but it’s always on their own terms. You’re in my restaurant, you’ll learn it this way, at my pace, you either do it this way or you don’t, get out. As a school we can’t be like that. We recreate it in a very professional atmosphere but we also want to make sure that it’s a very nurturing environment, that you feel that you can succeed.”
CC: Have you had anyone come in, and then you realized things weren’t working out?
CC: So what’s gone wrong?
“Um … we’re looking for long term commitments. Not looking for someone who is just looking for a job, because they haven’t found that restaurant or they’re looking for a job [and want to] teach for a while. They really take the teaching lightly, like, ‘I can teach. Why not? I can teach. I don’t have a job and it looks interesting right now, I can teach.’
Or, the other version is, they do want to do it, but their ability to convey instruction isn’t dynamic enough to make [them] a compelling instructor. If you talk too fast, or you just rush through something, or you don’t engage your audience—most students, especially at a culinary school or a vocational school, don’t respond to just lecture.”
CC: I always wonder who thought that was an effective way to teach people things.
“Lecture? Yeah. Lecture is the driest form of communication. It’s the most efficient way to get the most amount of information across, but it’s the least [effective] way to absorb it.”
CC: Right! It gets it out there, but it doesn’t get it in there.
“Right. So we ask that instructors teach to a panel of judges. And everyone has to evaluate them, that’s one of the final stages. And it’s difficult! Most people, this is where they might be a great candidate on paper and in an interview, but the moment they have to start teaching something, it starts showing quickly. ‘Cause that’s the difficulty for a chef, really, translating that from chef to instructor.”
CC: Especially considering that the environment in a lot of restaurant kitchens, from what I’ve been told is – not as much now, but still – is intense, and hardcore. People yelling, maybe throwing things.
“[Laughs] It’s probably not that bad these days. I mean, definitely back in the day when I started working, but nowadays it’s a little softer. I don’t think people can get away with abuse in the restaurants, but it’s definitely a tough environment, and we try to simulate that to a certain extent. More so with organization, cleanliness, attendance – those are things we are very strict and firm on. But if someone couldn’t get their chocolate tempered and their project collapses, we’re not going to yell at them or throw them out of the room, we’re going to teach them how to recuperate and recover. There are certain black and white standards that we do uphold, because this is where you’re supposed to learn those non-negotiable standards.”
CC: Professional discipline.
“Professional discipline. It’s hard because, you go to college and you don’t have that, and in the restaurant industry, it’s expected of you to know that kind of thing. To show up in your uniform, perfectly clean, on time, when the clock starts. Even a few minutes early.”
CC: You went to Cordon Bleu, in Paris?
“After I worked, I still went in at foundation level, in pastry. Because there’s so much knowledge, especially in pastry, even more than culinary. You’re knowing croissants, you’re knowing chocolate tempering, how to pull sugar, all these things are very important to a pastry chef and I knew that even working in a restaurant for a year, I would never get all that experience.
“I went to Paris, partially because I wanted to get engrossed in French culture, really learn about French pastry. So I considered it more than just going to school at Cordon Bleu, I considered going to Paris and being enriched by a culture that I didn’t know a lot about.”
CC: You originally were studying architecture. Can you talk to me about the parallels between the two fields?
“I’ve always been driven to design. And I think that’s why I was drawn to baking, because it’s very tactile, and I could build something from it, and I could take ingredients and put them together and make something out of it.
“In the 90s, being a pastry chef wasn’t a desirable career. I mean, I didn’t know any pastry chefs, there wasn’t food TV yet, so it wasn’t a profession I really understood. Architecture seemed like a very natural career for me because it had that detail and organization and design, all kind of merged together, which is what I liked a lot.
“So I went to architecture school and I loved it. I went to Berkeley and I really really loved architecture. More so because it was Berkeley, you know, it was a little bit less technical. It was a lot more theory-based, and how you organize your space, and how function and form come together into a single design. And again, to me, it’s related a lot to pastry. Design and form. You can’t hold a piece of pudding in your hand. [Laughs] But if you came up with a pastry that was the texture of pudding that you could hold, that would be an amazing pastry. It’s that form and function coming together into an entity, but it has to be edible.
“And what’s even more interesting, it has to be within edible parameters. In architecture, it’s all about engineering parameters. To me, they’re very similar in the sense that it’s understanding your materials, and the medium, and being able to express whatever you need to express, whether that be just something really tasty, or something really beautiful, or both.
“But the other aspect, too, of architecture – which is really parallel to pastry for me, which I think we’re trying to enforce in the program more and more – is the sense of steps and organization that leads to a final product. You know, the architect has several phases: the design phase, and then the construction phase, and our pastry’s kind of the same way, whether it be a wedding cake, a plated dessert, or even something like a croissant, right? You have to plan it, know what ingredients you need, and you have to think about your timeline.”
CC: So how did your parents react to your shift in career?
“Surprisingly supportive. My father passed away when I was young, so it was just my mother. I think she just wanted her children to be happy. She was kind of progressive. Unusual for a Chinese-American mother. Originally she wanted me to be a doctor, of course. Who doesn’t want their child to be a doctor, right? Save lives.
“But surprisingly she was okay with me being doing the cooking thing. I don’t think she was proud to tell her friends, ‘He wants to be a pastry chef.’ Now it’s a great thing to be a pastry chef and now she has no problems telling her friends, ‘Oh, he’s a pastry chef in New York City.’ But you know, in 1998 there wasn’t that kind of, ‘What does a pastry chef in New York City do?’ You know? What is that profession?
“I think she knew my personality and she knew what made me tick. Parents always know their children best, so ultimately she wanted to see me happy. And you know, every job turned out to be a better job, leading to a better job. So I think she was probably most upset when I moved to New York.”
CC: Far away.
“Yes. You know, parents are like that. But New York is still the culinary capital of America, and there’s a lot more opportunities for pastry chefs, especially at that time. Less now, I feel like there are more pastry chefs everywhere across the country. But back then, New York was the place for pastry and chefs, and still, some of the top pastry chefs all work side by side in New York City. And there was like a small pastry chef community, that’s nice.”
CC: Do you get together and hang out?
“Sometimes, but everyone’s working. It’s very difficult to meet up. Especially pastry chefs, because some work early and some work late, depending on the job in the restaurant that you have, but you wind up seeing each other at events a lot, ’cause everyone is very charitable.”
CC: I’ve noticed that in the chefs’ community, broadly, there’s a lot of charity work.
“I think it’s why we cook. And it’s going back to making something that someone receives, and seeing that appreciation. And food is just something that we all need, and it’s one of the few things I think chefs can do. We’re not poets, we’re not fighters, but we cook. And so if the world came to an end, I think all of us would just start cooking for the population that’s left. Because that’s our role in society, right? To feed people and to nourish them. And I think that’s why so many of them participate in so many of these charities that involve cooking and giving back, because I think it feeds into our nurturing side, which I think cooks and chefs kind of are, at their core.”
CC: It seems to provide such a contrast, especially from fine dining. There’s fine dining where you’re charging so much and you’re making intricate food, and then you have very basic poor people who just need — they deserve good food just like everybody else.
“That’s true. I think there is that, definitely that. I mean, definitely there’s a joy with—I’m sure you’re familiar with family meal. I think there’s a joy working in fine dining restaurants when you make maybe what we call lower-brow food, there’s such a joy in it, ’cause everyone’s like, ‘We make foie gras and brioche all the time, but I just want a grilled cheese that’s really amazing.’ That’s what we all grew up on, and we respond well to it. Plus, fine dining food can be very unhealthy. Not that lowbrow food can’t be either, but you know.”
CC: Yeah, there’s not a lot of thought into health considerations in fine dining.
“Right. But you know, this isn’t everyday eating. This is splurge eating. You shouldn’t be eating at Per Se every day. No one should. I mean, A, it’s expensive, but it’s food that’s very rich. But it’s supposed to be an indulgent experience. It’s supposed to be very memorable. And I think it would get diluted if you go every day. So it should be a little bit opulent. And this is why pastry chefs succeed so well in fine dining establishments. Because so much of what we do is so luxurious and, you know, beyond what most people can imagine.”
CC: Has your mom come to New York? Did she come to Oceana when you were there?
“Of course. She comes to every restaurant. She loves it a lot when I’m on television, though, because she can brag to the world that her son’s on TV. Which I think is funny, because I don’t think in that way, but when I get another show, to her it’s just the biggest thing.”
CC: You were on “Sweet Genius,” right? Did you win?
“I didn’t win that one. I’m always my worst enemy with TV, because I’m overly ambitious. Time is always my enemy and I’m always taking a risk of like, ‘If I can do this, this, this, and this, and then I can try to get it set on time. …’ Time constraints are always very difficult with pastry on TV, because we’re not used to that in a restaurant. Usually desserts are made in stages, so you make a cake or a mousse that needs to set overnight. And you do that the night before, and then the next day. Proper technique is, you let ice cream bases age 24 hours before you spin it. There’s all these techniques that have to be abandoned for television, and cooking for TV is completely different. It’s all for the show.”
CC: Yeah, all the “Chopped” people are like, ‘Yes, you have no idea what it’s like!’
“Yes. You really don’t have an idea. I mean, I did this other show that was called “Halloween Wars.” That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because I think the shooting was 19 days, I slept like two hours a night, and sometimes I skipped nights of sleeping. And you just wound up doing so much work off camera, and then the cameras come on and everyone’s exhausted, and so they just want reactions. So, it was one of the hardest things ever, but it almost had very little to do with being a pastry chef, quite honestly. You’re working with food and sugar, yes. You want to be dramatic, you want to create these pieces, but at the same time there’s so many ways around the rules, and they let you use so many things that you normally would never use in a food setting.”
“Oh, just non-edible products. There’s a lot of armature, there’s a lot of little things here and there that they’re more than happy to see you use, because it makes for a better show. And at the end of the day, no one’s eating it. It’s all for television. And once the cameras are off they’re like, ‘Throw it away.’ We had these beautiful show pieces: throw it away. Cameras are down, we need space. Trash. Trash.”
CC: That’s brutal.
“Yeah. But food TV is very different than working in the restaurant industry. They’re two different creatures. And I feel like certain people will succeed in that industry better than the restaurant industry. It’s a lot harder to make the perfect crème brûlée every day for a year than do it once on television in 30 minutes.
“I think the first TV competition I did was actually my best. It was when I had to build the chocolate Eiffel Tower. That one was amazing, because I never thought I could make something like that.”
CC: What a great combination of your two backgrounds, though.
“Yeah, originally I wanted to make a chocolate Brooklyn Bridge. They actually didn’t let me because they wanted to keep it to scale. The original drawings weren’t to scale because the real bridge is really long, and they wanted the height requirement of four feet. So to make a four-foot-tall Brooklyn Bridge tower, the tower would be like 30 feet long, which is impossible. So they were like, ‘You have to make something more vertical than wide.’ So then I chose the Eiffel Tower.
“One of the great things I learned on food TV is when you don’t want to get aired doing something that’s going wrong, I used to sing the “f**k” song. I would continuously swear. ‘f**k f**k f**k f**k f**k f**k f**k.’ They can’t use any of it, ’cause then they’ll have to bleep the entire thing, which is expensive and looks weird.”
CC: Do they get mad when you do that?
“They’re just like, ‘Don’t do that.’ and I’m like, ‘The chocolate’s burning, it just looks awful, it’s not tempering. ‘F**k f**k f**k f**k f**k.’ And if you’re saying it, they’re not going to use any of it.”
“There are ways, if you’re smart enough, to get around the cameras, and avoid the drama that they really are seeking. Then they definitely ask provoking questions. ‘Did you know that so-and-so said that you might be like this?’ And you’re like, ‘I didn’t hear it, so I won’t believe it until I hear it.’ That’s what I would say.”
CC: Right, which is not what they want.
“They want you to say something back that then will be used on THAT person, and then you’ll have this great little banter, so I mean, it’s a game.
“I think ultimately, if a real pastry chef was to be filmed on television doing what we do it would be kind of boring. [Laughs] Even with time lapse. So yeah, food TV is definitely a different creature. But you know, I think it’s good for the profession overall.”
CC: Okay, now a random question: What’s your favorite kitchen tool? What could you not do without?
“Probably the baby offset spatula. I used to carry them everywhere in the restaurant. I don’t need to carry it now because I’m not working with food as much, but that was the one tool I used to have in my back pocket all the time. It’s like an extension of your finger. You can transfer one thing to another, clean off something, dip it in hot water. It was so handy in so many ways you didn’t really think about. So I used to always carry that, because you know, you want to have as little contact with food as possible for many reasons. Having that tool was very important.
“I have three at home which I thought the other day is excessive because I don’t really bake as much at home. So I was like, ‘What am I going to do with three at home?’ I rarely ever bake at home, to be honest, so what am I doing with three in the drawer? I have some here too. I don’t know why I have so many now.
“Pastry chefs love tools, but for me that was across the board, a useful tool that—transferring chocolate from one place to another, just pick it up, hold the chocolate, move it on, better than your finger because your finger’s warm. Just these little things. Something’s got an edge that’s leaking a little bit, just take the little spatula and scrape the sides. The better finger. If I worked in a restaurant, maybe if I lost a finger, and I could get a new finger, I would maybe ask if one could be a spatula.
“I don’t know if I really would do that. I think I’d actually ask for a finger.” [Laughs]
CC: It would be hard to wear gloves, and use your phone.
“It would be hard everywhere. Like how would you go swimming? How would I go to the gym? How would I box? How would I put contacts on?”
Interview and photos by Laurie Ulster