Pichet Ong takes sweets seriously. The 40-year-old pastry chef starts every day with chocolate, stirring crumbled hunks of Valrhona or Cluizel into his morning coffee. But it's his vision for the end of the meal that's really revolutionary: Make flavor and texture the star players, Ong proposes, and let butter, cream, and sugar take the bit parts. "The purpose of dessert is to clean the palate so that you feel refreshed," he says. It's an idea that sounds especially enlightened during this season of casseroles, pot roasts, and au gratin everything.
Ong grew up in Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong. By age 7, he was so adept in the kitchen that his mother asked him to help with the family's holiday baking. He recalls brushing pineapple-filled cookies with an egg-yolk glaze, which crackled in the oven like tangerine skin. At age 16, Ong moved to the United States and eventually earned his master's degree in architectural design, but he spent all his downtime cooking. His first stint in a professional kitchen was as pastry chef at La Folie, in San Francisco. That was followed by jobs at Olives in Boston and Tabla in New York. Before long, the self-taught pastry chef was overseeing dessert menus for Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Last year Ong opened P*ong, his own restaurant, in Manhattan's West Village. He also published his first cookbook, The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts
; it's filled with recipes that are at once innovative and comforting. His coconut cream pie, for example, has toasted, crushed jasmine rice in the crust, and his oatmeal cookies sparkle with candied ginger. Like a scholar fluent in many languages, Ong can call on a world of ingredients to express himself; he's been known to employ Indian, Italian, and East Asian elements in a single dish. But novelty for its own sake is never his goal. Indeed, Ong is "inspired by candy bars, because those combinations are so thoroughly tested by people all over the world."
Convinced that desserts should beguile the senses rather than assault them, Ong uses chocolate like "an herb or a spice," sprinkling a corn custard with cocoa-coated rice crisps, and topping toast with pistachios, dried cherries, and melted bittersweet chocolate. Fruits, too, are treated with deliberation. "If I make a raspberry pudding, I will reduce the berries way down so the taste is concentrated and you need less sugar," says Ong. "To me, the key ingredient of any dessert should always be something that is not fat or sugar. I'm not doing this for health's sake, but so you get more pure taste." Ong knows, after all, that the day should end as it begins: in a sweet spot.