By Maria Muller | March 1, 2023
If you’re a fan of delectable desserts and exquisite pastries, you’re in for a treat. Meet Maira Yeo, the Singaporean pastry chef whose exceptional culinary skills have earned her the prestigious title of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef in 2022. But her journey to the top of the culinary world was not an easy one, and it all started with a Korean TV show that ignited her passion for pastry-making.
This is a story of the unlikely origins of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef. Imagine: a low angle shot of a fourteen-year-old girl, in ambient lighting, glued to her television set.
The background music comes on: K-Pop. The credits roll. “My Name is Kim Sam Soon” is a Kdrama featuring the life of a talented but socially awkward pastry chef; it’s in some ways a Korean version of Bridget Jones’s Diary.
“I started in pastry because there was the Korean drama. At that age, I was so dramatic about everything. I would get so philosophical. In the intro to the show there was a quote that related to pastry and life. It stuck with me”.
There are two types of dough in the world. One rises because there is a leavening agent. The other rises by itself. The one that rises by itself takes a longer time. But even if takes a longer time, at least I can say I did it on my own.
“I was like… Woah, so deep. I thought that through pastry, I would find meaning in life.” It was the deciding moment in the career of one of the world’s best pastry chefs.
Chef Maira Yeo’s back story began in Singapore. Born into a middle-class family who owned a hawker stall at the Ang Mo Kio Hawker Centre, her busy parents did not have much time to raise her. She was entrusted by her parents to the care of her Nan.
At the age of five, she remembers standing on beer crates and cracking eggs into a frying pan at her parent’s hawker stall. She continued to help her parents after school and during school holidays until the age of sixteen. The pocket money offered a good incentive.
The family dynamic was high on adrenaline, and she loved it. Her Mum was fast and quick to think on her feet. Her father was more tempered in nature. He taught her some advanced techniques, including how to clean a pig’s liver; one of Maira’s strongest memories.
“My parents gave me and my brother a good life. We were never worried about money. They worked so hard, setting an example for me.
Maira mediated when tempers ran high between her parents. It was a good training ground in preparation for life in fine dining kitchens.
She graduated with a degree in Culinary and Catering Management from Temasek Polytechnic, later finding work at the Garibaldi Production Kitchen. “I was at Garibaldi for four years. I wanted to try something different. The pay wasn’t ideal, the hours long but I managed to hang on.”
The stint at Garibaldi was cut short by her mother’s illness. “I quit my job to help at the hawker stall for one year. Then she got better, and I went back to restaurants.”
She resumed part-time work for upscale restaurants and was offered the job of Pastry Chef at Restaurant Meta run by Chef Sun Kim. It was at this time that the restaurant received its first Michelin Star.
After four years with Chef Sun, she felt she needed a new challenge. “I got too comfortable. I felt I needed to make myself uncomfortable to grow”.
Chef Maira travelled to further her training in various restaurants and patisseries. It was a series of gruelling free internships and job applications.
She worked at the Two Michelin starred Nordic Restaurant ASKA in NYC run by Chef Frederick Berselius. Then at Patrice Patisserie in Montreal Canada which was named #1 of 15 Restaurants in Petite Bourgogne, Montreal headed by Chef/ Owner Patrice Demers.
She was meant to work at the only three Michelin starred Restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm under Head Chef/Founder Bjorn Frantzen when her mum’s health deteriorated. Chef Maira returned to Singapore to be with her family. Sadly, her mother passed away soon after.
During various stints in restaurants around the world she met Esben Holmboe Bang, Head Chef at Maaemo in Oslo. She was shortly after offered her dream role in the pastry team in the Maeemo kitchen. “I wanted to be a part of something great. They were giving up three Michelin stars and starting again from scratch. The people there were driven. That was my calling.”
Her plans came crashing down when Covid hit, and the world went into lockdown. “I couldn’t get a visa. So, I had no choice.”
It was with a heavy heart that Chef Maira had to return to Singapore. It was a hard time for her, but amid all the uncertainty, she channelled her energy into a project for her community.
She baked one hundred and twenty CCB cookies in a small home oven each day. Her Crackly, Chocolate Brownie cookies topped with sea salt were just the comfort that the locals needed to rally their spirits. Eighty percent of the profits, a total of ten thousand Singapore dollars, were donated to two charities.
A silver lining shone through when Chef Rishi Naleendra offered her the position of Pastry Chef at CloudStreet – a renowned restaurant in Singapore, which at the time was vying for its second Star.
It was to be an interim position until she could return to Restaurant Maaemo, so she accepted the job on the basis that it may be temporary. Nearly two years later, during a staff meeting at CloudStreet, she received a message from Maaemo: could she come to Norway and work for them, as originally planned.
“You could hear a pin drop. As everyone knew I wanted to work there.” A sigh of relief (and no doubt shock) came over the room like a wave when Chef Maira announced that she had turned them down.
“Rishi has just finished the second floor at Cloudstreet. I like what we do here. I knew where my responsibilities lie.”
Restaurant Cloudstreet offers guests an eight-course tasting menu in their main dining room on the first floor. Guests are then invited to the second floor to savour an array of desserts concocted with delicate balance and an innovative choice of ingredients.
“I allow the ingredients to inspire me and create around showcasing certain distinctive aspects of the ingredients”.
Chef Maira Yeo was awarded “Asia’ Best Pastry Chef 2022” sponsored by Valrhona and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Head Chef/Founder Esben Holmboe Bang of three Michelin starred Restaurant Maaemo in Oslo opens his first restaurant in China. Restaurant EHB in Shanghai combines bold Nordic flavours with traditional Chinese cuisine. Joining his team is Chef Maira Yeo.
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