There are good chefs in Montreal, and then there are great chefs in Montreal—we want to hear their stories. That’s what you’ll find in these interviews, a series where Time Out Montreal talks to the incredible women representing the best of this city’s restaurant scene, all of whom can be found at Time Out Market Montréal. For our third interview, we spoke to chef Suyin Wong behind the irresistible creations of Hof Kelsten and its market eatery Hof SuCrée about going from trading stocks to pastries in France, her influences in the kitchen and taking chances.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There is something paradigmatic and vaguely Hollywood about Suyin Wong’s story. Think about it: a Singapore-born, Vancouver-raised overachiever (my words, not hers) comes to cooking later than most after leaving a lucrative career that literally made her sick. She works for free and does a stage at an important restaurant, refines her craft in Paris, and rises to the top of the game in her new town, where she’s now happy and healthy and feeling fulfilled. We’d watch a fictionalized version of her career story, and—let’s be honest—so would you.
Who are you, what do you do, and how long have you done it for?
My name is Suyin, I’m a pastry chef, and I’ve been doing this since 2008.
When did you get to Montreal?
I moved to Montreal in 2012 after a few years in France, and I was back and forth [between] France and Montreal for the last few years.
Do you feel rooted here, or anywhere?
I don’t feel rooted but I feel very at home. I feel like Montreal is a wonderful place because it accepts whatever. I feel like it’s non-judgmental and I like it here.
Was this always your career path? Did you always envision it this way?
No. I used to be in finance, I used to trade stocks. It’s very stressful and I was getting quite sick at a very young age, so I changed.
How young? And what kind of sick?
I started trading stocks when I was 19, and I did it for about ten years, and I was having panic attacks and shingles and it got really bad. I was binge drinking, I was very angry all the time, I was wound up very, very tight.
So what did you do?
I went traveling for like, a year. I went to Australia and Southeast Asia like you do when you’re that age — I was 27 or 28 — and I came back to Vancouver and I just couldn’t do it anymore. It’s very lucrative and in the beginning, that’s what keeps you going; when you’re younger you don’t really know any better.
So you left the lucrative gig that made you sick — how do you get to be a pastry chef?
I was living in Vancouver with my best friend and we used to entertain all the time. We always had people over. I cooked dinner all the time. I loved it. It was the only thing that made me happy. I didn’t even go to pastry school, I was in cooking school in Vancouver: the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. It’s like a six-month program, full-time. I did that, full-time, for six months. I staged at Lumière restaurant; it’s like the Toqué! of Vancouver. I was finished school. Actually, I had to beg for a job, and they were like, “no, we’re not hiring.” Awesome! But then someone quit the day I applied and I got hired. I did that for a couple of years. Then it got very difficult.
This is a really “girly” thing I’m about to say, but I’m very uncomfortable with killing crabs and lobsters and big things of prawns. I can’t. I’m just very scared. And it got to the point where I was like, “I have to go into pastry or I have to quit this industry, and I can’t quit this industry, I just spent the past year and a half trying to get my foot in the door.” And I was 30; I didn’t have any more time to waste. So I went to pastry and they hired me in pastry.
This is still at Lumière?
Yeah, at Lumière. And a year and a half later I went to France and I started learning pastry over there.
Feels like you skipped a step. Get us from Vancouver to France to Montreal.
Lumière was bought and sold, and it was sold to the Dinex Group, which is Daniel [Boulud] and all the “Daniel restaurants” in New York, and the States. The corporate pastry chef there, Eric Bertoia, who is one of my mentors, a very lovely person, taught me just how to do things. I spent a year with him and I told him I was going to France and he said, “I have a friend over there, he’s got a pastry shop, go say hi.” So I moved to Paris and I wasn’t looking for a job, because I already had one, but I went to go visit this pastry shop and this pastry chef. I didn’t even speak French at the time, it was awful. And it was so lovely, this pastry shop, that I thought, “I would love to work here.” I spent two years there. I learned French, I learned everything about pastry, then [Eric] called me up when my visa was up in France and offered me a job to open the Maison Boulud here in Montreal.
Outside of Eric, who were your main influences?
I have three really, really big ones. Eric was really influential in my career because he opened a door that I would never have known. And then Wendy Boys, the first pastry chef at Lumière who hired me; she’s a very strong woman, she knew what she was doing, she grew up in a kitchen, and she wouldn’t take any [shit]. She taught me a lot without even knowing. So Eric, Wendy, and my chef in France, Frédéric Tessier who is probably the most influential person in my career. Amazing person, amazing human being, amazing chef. He taught me everything, honestly; the best thing he taught me was how to be fair with your team and how to just “be” as a chef, knowing when to admit you’re wrong, just a lot of things.
In terms of team, or teams, professional kitchens are thought of as notoriously difficult environments for women, or at least they once were. What’s it like?
It’s okay. I think there’s different kitchens; restaurant kitchens are different from boutique, which is what I do now. I’m in a bakery; in France I was in a boutique. Having said that, I have to admit that [it was] a very rough kitchen, where I was in Vancouver. A lot of, I wouldn’t say sexual harassment, but there’s a lot of… nobody was harassing me, because I don’t let them; I give it back, like 150% just so that they know. I don’t actually pick the fights, but I listen, and it doesn’t really bother me, that kind of stuff, because I know it’s just talk. It’s something I’m able to block out. I don’t care.
But you saw people who cared.
I did see people who cared. What I’ve learned is I have a very strong work ethic, I’ll go 100% every time, all day long, doesn’t matter, just to get the job done. I’m just very focused. Some people are a little more affected by their environment. I’m not.
There is this popular conception of a kitchen as a boys’ club, but also a Lost Boys club. Is it true? Was it?
I think it’s changed a lot, although I haven’t worked in a “kitchen” kitchen in a long time. I’ve never been one of the girls, I’ve always been one of the guys. I’ll just say that.
Do you have to be “one of the guys” to get by?
I started in this industry when I was 30, so I’ve already got the upper hand; I’m older, I’m more mature. And honestly, it’s never been an issue for me. I’ve never had to say, “come on you guys, can you not.”
Do you think that’s going away, then?
When things like this change, though, you’re going to get that reactionary element who say things like, “kitchens used to be amazing!”
Yeah but all those cooks are retiring now, or they can’t cook anymore. They’re too old to stand up for 16 hours a day. Now there’s a younger generation who don’t see women [in the kitchen] as “women,” we’re just another person.