My Journey by Donna Karan

Photographed by: Ray Villalon

When I first walked into Social Costa Mesa to meet with Pastry Chef of the Year, Ashley Guzman, I didn’t know entirely what to expect. Chefs are artists of the culinary world, and with a title like “Pastry Chef of the Year,” you know you’re about to meet one of the best artists in the game. I can tell you that I did not expect to be greeted with a warm hug and future plans to get together for cheese boards and gangster rap, but that’s exactly what happened. We talked about everything from the importance of salt in desserts to why Snoop Dogg is king, and it’s clear to me how Guzman’s innovative spirit has helped her become one of the most respected pastry chefs in Orange County and LA.

MS: Congratulations on your award for Pastry Chef of the Year! What a huge accomplishment! How did it feel when you found out that you won?

Ashley Guzman: Thank you! It was so surreal. I honestly did not think I was going to win. The two guys that I was nominated with were actual pastry chefs with huge programs, and I was just kind of in this ghetto kitchen working by myself. I knew that I was the underdog and there was no chance that I was going to win. Then they called out my name and I just looked at my boyfriend and was like, “Yeah f***ing right! Did they just say my name?!” and it was so weird! People congratulate me and I’m like, “For what?” It’s weird. But I was definitely way more excited than I thought I was going to be.

MS: Well, yeah! I mean, if you didn’t even think you were going to win, and then you did, that had to be pretty exciting.

AG: Yeah! But even being nominated was a trip for me! Just that whole three months where I found out I was nominated and I was in this environment with all my other chef friends–not working–just attending, and it was kind of like I was outside of my own body looking at myself like, “Where are you right now?”

Q: I saw in your previous interviews that being Filipino has been a huge influence on your cooking. What Filipino influences do you incorporate into your cooking that are not typically found in other restaurants in the area?

AG: I use a lot of flavors that aren’t really typical, like ube, which is a purple sweet potato, and pandan, which is mostly seen in savory cooking, like Thai cuisine and in Singapore. I also had a lot of Filipino desserts at my other restaurants, like Babinka which is a style of steamed cake, and halo-halo, which is probably the most popular dessert in the Phillippines. Those aren’t things people see a lot, especially in more American-style kitchens.

Q: You’re on Death Row. Your final meal is approaching. What is it?

AG: I crave something different every day, but if I was literally on Death Row, today, all I would want is a bowl of pho. (Laughing.) That’s all I want ! That’s definitely a different answer every day, but today, it’s pho with all the fixings. I want the tripe, I want the tendon, I want the raw beef, are you taking notes, Rich? We were talking about hangover cures earlier, and his is chocolate cake and mine is a bowl of hot soup of any kind of nationality. I don’t care as long as it’s hot and it’s there. Today, for sure…pho.

MS: I love pho so much, but what I don’t love about pho is that I’m about nine pounds heavier the next day from the salt.

AG (laughing): Oh, yeah! All the salt and soup, and the bowls are huge!

MS: Yeah, and I can’t control myself. I always eat the whole thing and then I’m SOL when it comes to my jeans for like, a week.

AG: You shouldn’t control yourself! Just eat it! Run an extra mile tomorrow; it’ll be fine. Sweatpants are more comfortable anyways.

MS: Oh, totally. Okay, okay. Back on track. Tell us about the best dessert you’ve ever made.

AG: That’s so subjective, I feel like. I think that the best dessert I’ve ever made had like, foie gras and eggplant in it, and other people will tell me that the best dessert I’ve ever made was this S’mores dessert at the North Left. It was chocolate ganache with warm fudge, milk sorbet, and a graham cake crumble that I make. I sprinkled a little bit of salt on the chocolate. It was really sweet dark chocolate with little bits of salt. But I’m not much of a dessert person so, when I create things, it’s very subjective. I try to keep it more balanced and not so sweet.

MS: Wait, tell me about this foie gras and eggplant dessert.

AG: It was for this pop up that I did with a chef whose style was really modern. His style was transforming ingredients, and so I had to come up with a dessert that was like that, and it tasted like apple pie, but there were no apples whatsoever. I cooked eggplant with a lot of the same spices that you would with the apple, treated it the same kind of way, and then added the foie gras mousse to it to give it that creamy texture, and it tasted like apple pie!

Q: What’s the biggest cooking disaster you’ve ever had?

AG: Oh, I’ve had so many! So many. Gosh, I still do on a daily basis! But disaster? Hmm, I could say once, when I was working at Mozza, I was pouring gelato into the batch freezer and didn’t know that it wasn’t closed, so it poured all over the floor. There was gelato everywhere. But generally, when you experiment, you’re bound to have lots of disasters. I wouldn’t call them disasters so much as learning curves.

Q: What’s one of your favorite ingredients to use that is most underrated in pastry cooking?

AG: Salt, absolutely. I do a sprinkle of sea salt on most of my desserts. There are so many times I taste things and am just like, “Ugh, this is so sweet, it’s coating my mouth.” I like juxtaposition. With sea salt, you can add a chunk of it without it overwhelming the senses to balance flavor. Vinegar, too.

MS: Ugh, I love salt. I want it on everything.

AG (laughing): Right?! Not mad at it!

Q: You’ve talked a lot about the Filipino food movement. What has been your involvement and what do you see for the future of Filipino food in the OC area?

AG: For my involvement, I was in this Filipino supper club called Irenia. It was started with another Filipino chef. We would hold these bimonthly dinners and we’d meet at all these different places. One was at this loft in Anaheim. Another one was at the Anaheim Packing District. It was different every time and you had to be on this e-mail list to get there. We’d bring in Filipino chefs in LA who were doing big things up there to collaborate with us, sometimes. It was something I did on my day off. It was a lot of work, but so much fun. What you’re seeing right now in LA are a lot of chefs my age coming up with their own restaurants that are Filipino, and that’s going to be happening in Orange County in the next year, for sure. Lots more Filipino food. And it’s rad, I think as far as Southeast Asian cuisine goes, you see a lot of Vietnamese and Thai places, but Filipino food hasn’t really gotten it’s due. It’s finally happening with my generation of chefs. It’s unfortunate for me, though, because there isn’t a lot of room for Filipino desserts that aren’t already classic. I’ve struggled with my interpretation of desserts with Filipinos because they’re like, “This isn’t really babinka” and I’m like, “I know! I grew up in California and I’m using these ingredients instead of those!” I’d say that those have been the struggles, but it’s been pretty well received.

Q: What is your favorite restaurant in Orange County?

AG: That’s a hard one. I’m going to have to say Din Tai Fung in South Coast Plaza. It’s so good, for one thing. And two, I can’t make any of that stuff. So that’s where I go out to eat. If it’s something I can make myself, then I will. Asian food, especially Chinese or Taiwanese, is really difficult. They do dumplings and everything, and that’s what I wake up in the morning craving.

Q: What about LA?

AG: Actually, I have a new favorite restaurant. I’ve eaten there twice in the last month! It’s called Cassia in Santa Monica. I worked with the chef that works there when I worked in LA, and he’s gone on to open several restaurants. He’s just opened this one, which is French with Southeast Asian flair, and it’s perfect. It’s fantastic. It’s in a really cool location off 7th St. in Santa Monica, and I was just there with my boyfriend for our anniversary and saw Lea Michelle from Glee and was like, “Oh, s**t!”

Q: What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had as a chef?

AG: I’ve said this before in other interviews, but I think it’s strange when people ask for things that aren’t on the menu. I think that if you have a child and they want something palatable or if you have dietary restrictions, that’s understandable. But to just want something that doesn’t exist, and then be mad that it doesn’t happen, is very strange to me. I think you go to a restaurant for an experience, because you trust the people that are cooking for you. If you want a personal chef, then get one! Usually I try to accommodate people, but if you can’t, you can’t!

Q: Has there ever been a request to make something that you thought sounded strange, but ended up being fantastic?

AG: There was one time that the chef and owner of one of the restaurants I worked for came up with this idea to use Burrata cheese in a dessert with chocolate. I thought it was really weird and he kind of guided me a little bit, and once I tried like, four different versions, it tasted like chocolate cheesecake in the best way. I didn’t have to do anything to the Burrata, I just opened up the little bag of cheese, put it on a plate, did some chocolatey things to it, but it was fantastic. It didn’t sell well at all because it freaked people out, but it was delicious.

Q: You’ve won a contest and now have unlimited funds to open up your dream restaurant. What is it, how is it decorated, what kind of food is it, etc.?

AG: It wouldn’t be a restaurant, for one thing, because owning a restaurant is so much work and, oh my god, it’s nonstop! It’d probably be either a dessert parlor or an ice cream/gelato spot. I did a popup called Sweets and Beats, and it was all 90s hip hop and had desserts titled after songs. I think it would have those kinds of vibes, for sure. When you’re working somewhere and you’re there 15 hours a day, you want it to feel like home and be super comfortable. So I think I’d constantly be having Tupac and Biggie bumping. The scheme of it or decoration would be kind of like how my mom and I like it–with a lived-in look. So maybe some oversized couches, lots of books, and just make it a place where people can kick it and not just go in and out.

Q: Compare your role as a pastry chef to a famous rap star. Who are you and why?

AG: Oh, wow. Oh my god, this is so a question for my other chef, Aaron. He would say Kanye (laughing). Gosh, you’ve stumped me! I’m going to go ahead and say Snoop Dogg, because I would like to think that I am someone who has collaborated with a lot of different people. If you don’t like Snoop Dogg, you’re dumb, you know what I mean? He bridges a lot of gaps! He’s super talented and just kills the game, and he’s got his hands in everything! He’s very much an entrepreneur, so I would like to think that I’m like Snoop Dogg, but I’m sure somebody would say someone annoying, like Fetty Wap.

Q: If you could prepare a whole spread for three hip hop and rap stars, who would they be?

AG: Erykah Badu, obviously, because she’s amazing. Drake, because if I didn’t, my boyfriend would kill me. And probably Kanye, because I’m just so fascinated with him interacting with people that I would just need to see it for myself. And then, I would hope that Rick Ross would just show up uninvited (laughing).

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