In a corner of his busy kitchen on a warm fall afternoon, executive pastry chef Arthur Chen watches quietly as I destroy one of his creations. After my visit with him here – deep in the Shaw Conference Centre where he’s been known to spend 12 hours a day – one of his staff members offers me dessert. A few days earlier, Chen and his team of 10 plated 1,600 of them for a breast cancer fundraiser, but this treat, brought to me by Philomena Wong, without whom Chen claims he’d never have got through this first year at the Shaw, is no conventional leftover.
Chen calls it a “white hat.” It’s a perfect, shimmering hemisphere, grapefruit-sized and lemon yellow, and banded near the plate with a ribbon of dark chocolate. In one way or another, Chen has been an artist all his life, and this is clear proof. When I dig in, it becomes even clearer. Beneath the sweet veneer lies a thick layer of white chocolate mousse, and, nested within that, a cool, mild raspberry core. It’s the sort of dessert you lose yourself to, which I do, foregoing dainty bites for gluttonous spoonfuls, soon reducing Chen’s work, before his very eyes, to a smeary mess.
I apologize. He smiles.
He doesn’t have to. A chef of Chen’s calibre might expect more respectful treatment and appreciation of his work. Case in point: Minutes earlier, he revealed a culinary masterpiece-in-process tucked away in a nearby cupboard – a prototype for a showpiece he would carve at the Dubai World Hospitality Championship two weeks later. It is solid chocolate, roughly a metre tall and sculpted into an elaborate stem and flower with pink petals sheer as paper. Waiting to be attached were two carvings of an eagle’s head: One of taxidermic detail, the other stylized like a Haida totem.
“With pastry, you always want to do something different,” says Chen. After working around the world and for some of its most famous figures, he sees the Shaw as an ideal base from which to explore possibilities. Under its executive chef, Simon Smotkowicz, he has been positioned as a leader and a teacher – the kind that reshapes a city’s culinary scene and sensibilities. Yet, despite an international reputation, Chen doesn’t make assumptions about his stature. His work is meant to be stunning, but – if that white hat is any indication – never sacred. At 45 years old, he believes he’s still striving for the former. In Edmonton, he may convince himself he’s come within reach. “With the support of the chef, we can do pretty much anything,” he says. “This is an amazing place for me.”
He admits it can also be daunting. In his office, just off the kitchen, three rows of 15 clipboards cover a wall. It’s a system the previous pastry chef set up to stay on top of the quarter-million meals the Shaw serves at about 700 events annually. By hidden logic, it organizes recipes, quantities, food ordering, scheduling and more. On some boards, sheaves of paper fan out six inches. “It has taken a lot of time for me to learn,” Chen says, looking at the wall as if deciding between friend and foe. “I think in another year I will be comfortable.”
Chen sees his past as preparation, but no comparison to his current task. “I don’t have any problem skill-wise,” he says. It’s an issue of scale. The Shaw can serve up to 6,500 people in one night, with a varied dessert menu. “Three hundred [platings] is nothing here.”
He has a background working in hotels. Chen was a pastry chef at the Sheraton from the day it opened in Tianjin, his hometown of 13 million, just southeast of Beijing. He followed that with two years at Walt Disney World before a dozen more in and around Vancouver, where he made his mark on the pastry programs at the Pan Pacific, the Delta Burnaby and Fairmont Pacific Rim. Smotkowicz scooped him up from Kelowna’s Delta Grand Okanagan (where “his talents were unsurpassed by any pastry chef I have worked with,” recalls executive chef Stuart Klassen).
For Chen’s long-term plans, the Shaw was the next logical step. He wants to take on its demands – the volume, the quality, the stress – because he dreams of one day taking on the same in Las Vegas. But for Smotkowicz, finding someone capable of managing the masses wasn’t his priority.
“When our last pastry chef left us, it took a long time – about four months – before we could find somebody [new],” he says. “We wanted somebody that would be very artistic. Everybody can make a cake or a pastry. We wanted more. For that we needed certain skills and experiences. [Arthur] is very artistic.”
“I think I’m good enough to be an artist in a pastry kitchen,” says Chen with a laugh.
When Chen speaks of his creativity, his words are tinged with constraint, as if he’s vaguely suspicious of his legitimacy. Growing up in China, his heart was set on art school, but, he was denied entry.
So he taught himself to draw, paint and carve. “I used to save all my money to buy clay and paint and brushes.”
He got good enough to get noticed – but perhaps not by the people he expected. When he was job hunting after high school, the American and French chefs at the Sheraton in Tianjin saw a place for his art skills in the pastry kitchen. After he made the move to North America, if a job had to inspire awe, it went to Chen. When Bill Clinton stayed at the Fairmont for the 1997 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings, Chen carved the presidential seal into a watermelon. His only feedback came from a member of Clinton’s security team: “Oh, he doesn’t like watermelon at all.”
He did hear from Queen Elizabeth II, though. During her stay at the Fairmont, Chen did a series of RCMP-themed chocolate and sugar pieces for her. He framed the letter of thanks that came from the palace. It doesn’t bother him that Clinton failed to do the same (on another occasion, at the Pan Pacific, he got a second chance and impressed the then-president with a painting of the hotel made with liquid sugar; for that he did receive a signed letter of gratitude). “It doesn’t matter to me. I did the best I could.”
As if to show just how much he has moved on, he pulls out his smartphone and brings up a picture of a pumpkin he’d carved in addition to the chocolate flower (and a sugar sculpture and four French cakes). It’s a caricature of a chef that – eight hours in the making – strikes a remarkable balance between intriguing, comical and grotesque.
“I’d still like to go to art school,” says Chen, assessing the photo a moment longer before putting the phone away.
As much as Chen identifies as a lifelong student of his trade, he is settling well into his role as teacher at the Shaw, which, because of the size of its staff, almost has the impact of a cooking school in the city. Smotkowicz stocks his kitchens with the latest technologies and resources, including culinary magazines from around the world, and encourages staff members to compete in international events, like Dubai, that expose them to new ideas. “We have some very gifted young people in the pastry shop,” he says. “It’s a good training ground.” As past president of the local chapter of the Canadian Culinary Federation, he also offers up the Shaw – and his chefs – to host workshops.
Before heading to Dubai, Chen demonstrates his specialty: Crafting chocolate flowers like the one topping his showpiece. This isn’t easy. The chocolate has to be “tempered” before it can be used, melting it at 45?C before cooling to 31?C, at which it can be worked. Surrounded by roughly 30 to 40 chefs, kitchen staff and culinary students, Chen drops a row of loonie-sized dollops onto parchment paper, then, using a painter’s brush, sweeps out a side of each like a comet’s tail.
“I know I’m not a good teacher,” he tells the group, “but I want to share the information with you.” A few seconds later, there’s a line of brushed chocolate before of him: Flower petals. Minutes after that, they’re making their own blossoms from dozens of pre-made pieces.
Chen’s students take to their task with monkish diligence, silently working to emulate his technique. The trick is to work from the inner petals out. They show varied success, producing anything from fading lilies to lush peonies. John Amerongen, a lanky night chef at the Courtyard by Marriott downtown, builds one of the finer, denser specimens. “What these pastry chefs do,” he says admiringly, “is a precision craft.”
In his kitchen, dinner is just an opening act. For presidents, queens and the rest of us, “dessert,” says Chen, “is the meal guests remember.”