November 20, 2018
When Jason Licker was a kid growing up in New York, he had no idea he would be a chef. Instead, he entered Stony Brook University as an English major; but, when his mom became ill, he spent time baking healthy desserts with her. Her illness was brief and, once she passed away, he immersed himself in every book he could read about pastry (and an unhealthy dose of booze). He abandoned his English curriculum and enrolled in the Pastry Program at the French Culinary Institute while simultaneously working at Jean Georges in New York with Chef Eric Hubert.
He was on a new journey that would yield opportunities around the world and a discovery of new tastes and sensations, as well as learning from chefs like Charlie Palmer and the late Joël Robuchon. In 2016, Licker published a coffee-table-worthy book, Lickerland, replete with touching stories, beautiful photography, educational notes, and accessible recipes featuring his signature Asian-inspired flavors intertwined with proper French technique. In 2017, he was nominated for a James Beard award and won Iron Chef Thailand. We were lucky to catch up with Chef Licker in San Diego, Calif. during a two-week guest-chef stint at a hot new Roman joint, Maestoso, helmed by Chef Marco Maestoso. You’d think these two (and the rest of the staff) were a band of brothers as they joked around.
Licker offered five signature desserts each week and had a steady line of bloggers, followers and giggling girls watching anxiously as he plated their next sensation in the open kitchen. Luckily, we had some private time where we could chat and watch as he created an exclusive entremet for us: Kinako Mousse Cake with Green Apple Gelee and Miso-Caramel Cream here.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I’d like to be an ESPN commentator, Sports Center. For the New York Jets, yes.
What book was most-educational to you after your mom passed away?
I had Bo Friburg’s book – it was the first real 500-page pastry bible. It was when Food Network just came on. Back then, there wasn’t much. Rose Levy Beranbaum, Dorie Greenspan, Jacques Torres.
What was your most valuable lesson at culinary school?
Learn the building blocks, the basics, in culinary school, and the rest is up to you. A misconception is the question, “Should I go to culinary school or not?” You go to learn the basics, not to become a professional chef.
What was the turning point in your career?
When I decided to go to culinary school (laughs). In 2004, I was named StarChefs Rising Chefs…that really helped a lot. Going to Asia was a massive help too because hospitality in Asia far surpasses anything in the US. There’s a service-oriented culture: people are attentive, people ask questions, they ask how your day is. Pastry kitchens are built out well versus in the US: here, when you lease out other space to chefs, it’s disorganized; when you eat room service in the US, you might as well eat cardboard.
When you went to Shanghai and fell in love (with the food), did it ever tempt you to go down the cuisine road (vs. brilliantly applying the flavors to pastry)?
No, I have no interest at all in savory cuisine. In China, a lot of the food is super savory, but things in southeast Asia generally are. I always take one ingredient to see how to incorporate it. In Shanghai, the fresh-flower teas were amazing. I was collaborating with dim sum chefs, and I would make fillings and turn them over to the dim sum chefs – instead of Xalom Bao, I’d make banana caramel hiramaki (spring roll).
What do you consider to be your style?
I’m a realist (laughs). I try to balance the palate with sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
Who or what inspires you?
Travel, nature, emotion, nachos.
What do you think of pastry trends and schticks – e.g., the melting chocolate orb, lava cake, or other “experiential dining”? (in re to microgreens, blown sugar, etc.)
I think most of them are completely horrible and that everyone just copies – a copycat is a copycat. But, I think it’s necessary to have these trends because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t recognize good pastry. It’s like a double-edged sword – you have to have the bad to have the good.
What trends do you see in pastry, ingredients or production?
The biggest trend I see are these superstar pastry chefs teaching all over the world. It’s hard - you have to pack and travel the world; if you have a family, forget it. That’s why I’m single (well, 50% of the reason). Another trend is low-glycemic, gluten-free or low-fat desserts. People don’t realize when you have low-calorie or low-gluten foods, it’s actually worse for your health. If you eat moderately…you know, a balanced diet works best.
Other than taste, what do you want people to experience with
You eat with your eyes first, so it has to have a wow factor. I don’t think more garnish means better plating; you just need to have an artistic eye. If you want to see bright colors, go to the circus. I don’t want to put anything on the plate I can’t eat. And make something that’s balanced that won’t put you in a sugar coma.
What’s most important to you in your kitchen?
Having a good time.
What helps you be more innovative and creative?
I see what everyone else is doing on the savory side, and I ask, “what is this,” “what is that,” and I spin it off on my own. What’s most important is that you have to be self-motivated; otherwise, you’re done…just become a librarian. You need to think outside the box or you get stuck in one.
What do you still want to learn?
I just want to keep going to other countries and seeing what the local ingredients are.
What do you like most about teaching?
I like to see when someone learns something and when they’re receptive. My job is to share the knowledge over my last 20 years. I hate when chefs don’t share recipes. I like to see people replicate things and learn. With all the social media, people are looking to YouTube to learn, not from professionals, so it’s important to share knowledge from proper chefs or else pastry will suffer.
Do you have a favorite flavor?
Sweet and acidic. I love passion fruit. And matcha, obviously. You can’t have the sweet without the sour. You can’t distinguish the level of palate - people need to learn how to eat. It’s a skill, something you do every day, but you need to learn to differentiate between grandma’s lemon tart and Pierre Herme’s tarte au citron. After you have a lemon tart from a shitty local bakery, you’ll know the difference.
What’s the best thing you ever ate?
The deux mille feuille from Pierre Hermé. I stared at it, and it stared at me, and I just ate it. It was like having sex with it. And then I went back and got another one. I’m disgusting.
Where do you go from here (San Diego)?
First, a popup in Taipei at a resto called Longtail and Wildwood Live Fire Cuisine. Then to Kyoto for a wedding, and then Bangkok for a two-day pop up with Kad Kokoa - the area’s first Thai bean to bar company - for an afternoon tea and chocolate degustation. And then my real job – help a hotel open in Indonesia on the island of Sumba. That’s gonna be nuts.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I don’t even know where I see myself in five months. No idea. Runway model.
If you had a motto, what would it be?
Do it yourself.
Since you started baking healthier, lower-sugar foods with your mom, would you ever consider a book on healthy-but-amazing pastry?
Definitely. That’s #3… once I figure out #2.
How do you maintain a healthy lifestyle?
I workout 4-5 times a week. I was a fat kid, so I have a complex. I do drink. A lot. And I do eat like shit 50% of the time, but it’s not that hard to go for a walk in the morning or find a gym. Just do it.
What’s your favorite swear word?
Any parting thoughts?
People are responsible for their own success. It’s hard being bald, come on.