(This interview appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Jason Licker became enamored of pastry early in life, inspired by laugh-filled baking sessions with his mother and a love of hi-octane supermarket sweets. With no professional experience, but an abundance of chutzpah, he landed a position in the pastry kitchen of the Union Square Café in his teens. From there it was on to study at the French Culinary Institute in New York (now the International Culinary Center), where he received a degree in their Pastry Arts Program. This was followed by jobs at restaurants in New York and Miami, including Jean-Georges, Metrazur and the Peninsula Hotel in New York, and Nobu and the Shore Club in Miami.
But more exotic locales beckoned, and Licker then headed off to Asia, an area that was way out of his comfort zone. First stop was Shanghai, China, to work as Executive Pastry Chef of The Westin Bund Center. He then took the position of Executive Pastry Chef of the 3000-room Venetian Macau. Next came three years at the JW Marriott Hong Kong, during which time he guided his team to multiple medals at the HOFEX trade show’s Culinary Competition. In 2013, Licker became the Corporate Pastry Chef for Cé La Vi Restaurants worldwide, and while there he and his team remarkably won a challenge by an Iron Chef of Thailand in front of a television audience of thousands (their win was by the largest margin in Iron Chef Thailand’s history).
Today, Jason Licker works throughout the world as a pastry consultant. His services include helping businesses to building their brand, developing recipes, designing pastry kitchens, quality control, and assisting restaurants and companies in any matter of pastry and bakery arts. In 2016 he released his first book, Lickerland, which was nominated for a James Beard Cookbook Award in the ‘Cooking from a Professional Point of View’ category. Licker recently took time out of his schedule to talk about his work and the lessons he’s learned throughout his career, the unexpected success of his first book, and what’s next on his busy agenda.
What made you pursue a career in pastry?
I have always had a love affair with food. As a young, overweight kid growing up on Long Island, I was on a diet of donuts-by-the-dozen and fast food. The moment I fell in love with pastry was when I started cooking with my mother. She was diagnosed with cancer and placed on a special diet, and since there were not many ‘healthy’ products on the market at the time, we started baking together. Most of the things we baked were flavorless and pretty gross, but it was those moments of sharing our love of food that impacted me while trying to make something to share with others. That was the spark that ignited the fire to pursue a career in pastry. My book Lickerland is dedicated to my mother…Though my mother never knew I became a pastry chef, I share her spirit and love in every dessert I make.
Why did you decide to write Lickerland? (And why did you name it that?)
I turned forty years old, and knew I had to do something that would impact my career and life. I was actually supposed to invest in a restaurant in Hong Kong, but when the terms became shady, I backed out of the project, and that was when I started thinking about taking on a book project. I first asked my close friend and brilliant photographer, Jason Lang, if he was interested is doing a book together. His first response was a quick no, but after I made him eat seven desserts in the restaurant I was working in, he changed his mind and was exited to create something that would set itself apart from every other cookbook out there. I reached out to some publishing companies, but they didn’t even give me the time of day. The responses from the publishing companies where: Why are you doing only have Asian-accented desserts? Is your real last name Licker? Why don’t you have food on the cover? That’s when I realized I needed to do this project myself, my way. We reviewed quite a few books and made sure to include unique features in Lickerland, like the ‘Lickerland Laws’ and my explanation of how to balance your palate. It was called Lickerland because it is my story of how I attained success by carving my own path. I am not someone who likes to follow trends – I think all you need is yourself and some perseverance to accomplish your goals, and this book was an example of that.
During my first two years I did all the crap jobs that no one wanted to do, but I knew it was what I needed to do to earn respect and work my way up.
I specialize in Asian-accented desserts and feature flavors that come from all over Asia. I’ve worked with these flavors and ingredients for over a decade, and I wanted to share my passion for them with the world. Though it was recommended to me quite a few times to have a photo of a dessert on the cover, we chose to go in a more creative direction, as Lickerland is not just a cookbook, it’s also a collection of stories about my love for pastry. This was my first time doing a project like this, and I think I screwed up every step along the way. My mistakes ranged from not having an editor from the beginning, to trying to figure out how to ship my books to Amazon.com, to not marketing the book correctly. It was a huge learning experience that was sort of a nightmare, especially when you are spending your own money. It was worth every sleepless night, though, when I held the first copy of Lickerland in my hand. When it was nominated for a James Beard Award, it was surreal; self-published books written in Hong Kong and printed in Bangkok by someone who has no idea what he is doing, usually do not get nominated. It has been in incredible ride.
Tell us about the process of writing and publishing Lickerland – where did you start?
It was quite a daunting process. Jason Lang and I strategized on how we wanted to shape the book and what to include in it. The biggest mistake was not hiring an editor from day one; I waited until nine months to hire someone. The 316-page book took three months to edit. It was pretty frustrating to have to go over every single word multiple times and to keep finding errors. I always loved writing, especially since I was an English major in college, but writing – like pastry – is an art form. I sometimes write how I talk, a bit all over the place. It was my editor, Jason Spotts, who took all my writing and thoughts and refined everything into a smooth reading and touching publication.
One amazing thing about cooking is that you have a chance to create your own story through food every day.
I started the whole process by taking a pack of A4 paper and drawing a profile picture of me with the title Lickerland on it. Jason Lang and I looked at each other and started laughing, and were like, what the hell are we doing? We made the layout of the book section by section that day, to begin. We did the photo shoots in Hong Kong, and eventually uploaded everything on Indesign and then had it printed. I got the ISBN number, bar code and copyrighted Lickerland. I set up the Amazon ‘Fullfilled by Demand Account’, which was like decoding the matrix. I definitely learned a tremendous amount by doing everything myself, and wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Were you surprised when the book was nominated for a James Beard award?
I was visiting a friend in Bratislava the day that the James Beard nominations were released on Facebook Live. I was staying in an Airbnb and the Wi-Fi connection was horrible, so I turned the service on my phone and called my stepmother. I had her put her phone on speaker so I could listen to the Facebook Live stream. After two hours of waiting, it finally came time to announce the nominees for ‘Cooking from a Professional Point of View.’ I heard the names Virgilio Martinez and Pierre Koffman, then the line suddenly cut. I tried calling my stepmother back over and over, but I couldn’t get through. I was pretty pissed off, so I went outside and grabbed a beer. I finally asked the bartender for the Wi-Fi code, and then my phone blew up – message after message and call after call. I finally saw the Twitter post that Lickerland was nominated. I immediately started crying like a baby. I put my heart and soul into Lickerland, and it is a reflection of my years of perseverance, hard work and determination to show people that you can fulfill any dream if you dedicate yourself 100% to it.
Count on yourself to create your own success. Push your passion to the extreme and then push yourself even further.
Any plans for another book?
I am slowly working on a home baking book with Asian ingredients. Exposing people to new and delicious flavors is something I love to do, so there will be some very familiar recipes with an Asian twist. I will also give you a detailed explanation on how to make the item in its original state. For example, I am going to have a recipe for Chinese Five-Spice Oatmeal Raisin Cookies – if you do not want to use the Chinese 5-spice, there will be directions for the good old all-American Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. The second book will be more playful, as Lickerland was a serious ode to who I am and my love for pastry. The second book will be more about having a grand, good time in the kitchen.
How did you end up specializing in Asian desserts?
The first time I worked at Nobu, I was blown away by flavors such as yuzu, miso, sake, soy and shiso. I loved how delicate and intricate the flavors were. The more I worked with these new flavors, I realized and appreciated how you can balance your palate with them. As I started traveling throughout Asia more and more, I discovered new ingredients and made them a part of my repertoire. I enjoy creating new flavor combinations and having people try things they have never had before, or have never thought of. I want to expose people to the richness of other cultures through food…One amazing thing about cooking is that you have a chance to create your own story through food every day.
You paid your dues at the beginning of your career by working as a kitchen grunt—what were some of your hardest tasks during this period?
I used to roll out doughs in the walk-in at Union Square Café, as it was blazing hot in the kitchen over the summers. I also used to juice rhubarb at Jean-Georges, and if you have ever juiced rhubarb, you know it’s a freaking mess and you are covered in pink by the end of the task. During my first two years I did all the crap jobs that no one wanted to do, but I knew it was what I needed to do to earn respect and work my way up.
I specialize in Asian-accented desserts and feature flavors that come from all over Asia. I’ve worked with these flavors and ingredients for over a decade, and I wanted to share my passion for them with the world.
What was your first big opportunity?
I worked as an intern at Union Square Café for free, six days a week under Pastry Chef Stacie Pierce. I didn’t think she was going to take me in as an intern, as I hadn’t gone to culinary school yet, and had no idea what I was doing. We were going to start off by my working one day per week, but Stacie suddenly lost two cooks, and it became six days a week. I had a chance to learn under a pro and make everything. I can’t even count how many mistakes I made, and I was grateful for Stacie’s patience and willingness to explain what I did wrong. The time at Union Square Café is when I realized that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Yes, there have been some breakthrough moments and great jobs, but to have a chance to work in one of the best restaurants in New York City with zero experience was quite a big deal to me.
You wrote in your book that at a place like Jean-Georges, “Mistakes are devastating.” What did you mean by that?
Every single guest of Jean-Georges was considered – and is still considered – a VIP. Every meal was treated as a unique dining experience, so even if one dish was not executed as it should be, it would alter the entire dining experience. As I mentioned in Lickerland, I served an over-poached peach to a guest, but the plate was intercepted by Jean-Georges; he got in my face and let me know that if the dish isn’t perfect, then it will not be served in his restaurant. I took that lesson to heart and made sure every plate I served was perfect, as it should be. This is what separates the good chefs from the great chefs. That attention to detail to ensure that every single person that dines in the restaurant will have a memorable experience.
What was one thing you wish you could have done differently in your career?
I really only had one experience where I learned from a master for a year straight, and that was with Eric Hubert. I wish I had worked under a few great pastry chefs. I learned mostly on my own and by messing everything up, which definitely pushed me in a direction to ‘sink or swim’. I moved up fast, but it would have been nice to have had more experiences with accomplished pastry chefs.
You became an Executive Pastry Chef when you were 22 years old. Tell us about that experience.
I landed the Executive Pastry Chef job at Metrazur when I was 22 years old by being chosen through a blind dessert tasting by Charlie Palmer. I had really only been cooking in restaurants for about two years. I was definitely not ready to manage people, but like everything else I do, I go kamikaze style and put myself in position to just go for it. I definitely learned by making mistakes in production and dealing with coworkers. I mean, imagine being told what to do by a 22 year old pastry chef that has barely been in the business? There were some serious ups and downs, but I’m glad I had the opportunity. I worked there for a year, then decided it was time to learn under one more great chef; I moved to Miami Beach as Pastry Sous Chef of The Shore Club. I went to work with Kim O’Flaherty, but the hotel was delayed for six months, so we actually only worked in the kitchen for a few weeks together, then she resigned, and moved back to New York to work for Valrhona, and I was promoted to Executive Pastry Chef at 24 years old.
Your current job is a freelance pastry consultant. What are the pros and cons of this work?
There are extreme pros and cons when you’re freelancing. While traveling all over to make desserts is fun, it isn’t a consistent line of work. I am the one who pursues each and every job. I email, call, follow up, arrange the travel and work out a deal. It is not like a regular job where you know your schedule and know you will have a solid pay check every month. Some months are great and I have either master classes, pop-ups or consulting planned, but sometimes months are not so busy and it is a little bit aggravating. This year has been pretty amazing, I’ve been working in Mexico, Europe, Asia and the States. I do love that I am my own boss and that I get to have these incredible culinary and life experiences with talented, passionate chefs. It is an incredible opportunity to cook in so many places and share the love of food with people from all over the world. I know I can’t travel like this forever, it wears on you and I actually feel homeless, but I am taking advantage of these moments and I would travel anywhere to make some pastry magic.
Make sure you really love what you do. This line of work requires a lot of sacrifice, relentless determination and is a tremendous amount of hard work.
What are your three top pieces of advice for those who are just entering the pastry field?
My advice would be to first make sure you really love what you do. This line of work requires a lot of sacrifice, relentless determination and is a tremendous amount of hard work. Second, count on yourself to make your own magic happen. You have the power to do anything. Stop looking on social media and wonder how someone made something, figure it out yourself and be original. And third, count on yourself to create your own success. Push your passion to the extreme and then push yourself even further.
Photo Credits: Jason Michael Lang, Jesper Mcilroy and Homero Montemayor.