"It's always, "Don't touch too much, but don't be lazy with a dessert."
Chef Chika Tillman of ChikaLicious is a tiny powerhouse of a pastry package. Her New York Dessert Bar, where you can have a three-course dessert for $16, only seats about 15 people. Across the street, her Dessert Club offers some of our favorite, somewhat experimental pastries. While she's been pumping out sweets for ten years now—succeeding in an environment where many other dessert bars have failed—she's never deterred from her original mission to make delicious, incredibly seasonal desserts worthy of a fine-dining experience, but within a casual, affordable environment.
Extremely charming and enthusiastic, Chika loves what she does so much that she asked we speak while she worked, plating for her customers while occasionally chatting with a regular or saying goodbye to some newcomer tourists. Here's our sweet scoop.
You started cooking when you were extremely young. What do you remember that was fun about that? When I was seven years old or something one of my friends got a Barbie Doll kitchen. So I wanted one too, and asked my mother to buy it for me, and she said, "You have a real one, why do you have to buy the fake stuff? You can cook! You don't have to use those things." So I thought, that makes sense, too! She let me use the kitchen. She didn't say I couldn't touch a knife— if I cut myself, I cut myself. So I think that was the start. I was jealous, and then got a bigger kitchen for myself!
When did you start shifting to pastry? Pastry was not my destination—if I had to choose between savory and pastry, I might go to savory. I've cooked in restaurants at every station and, to me, dessert is the same method. I'm not a pastry chef. My dessert is very much the same philosophy for how you cook savory food, too.
What's the philosophy? Don't work the ingredients too much. Let the ingredients talk. If there's a beautiful beef, just put salt and pepper and sauté it with butter on top. With a beautiful fruit, why do you have to add on more or cook it more? Maybe I can do it as simply as possible to make it the best. I want people to know what the ingredients are so they'll feel nostalgic, rather than introduce a more complicated flavor.
If you didn't plan on going into pastry, when did the dessert bar idea come up then? Ten years ago. I opened a restaurant in the Sotheby's building on the Upper East Side a day before September 11th. Everything had to be checked; if I brought in two pineapples I had to get a security guy to check them before I brought them into the kitchen! And all customers had to open their bags, so it really wasn't a great dining experience. We closed ten months later.
And I thought about fine dining and three-course desserts; how about bringing that part outside of the restaurant so that people can eat one bowl of ramen and then have fine-dining dessert? That way maybe they're happier sleeping later— you pay $16 for dessert, but you don't have to pay $400 before that. I thought it would be an interesting experience for people who could not afford a four-star restaurant.
When you opened, what was your focus with the menu? The best part is following the seasons and what's the freshest; I go to the market and think about what I want to make, because we don't have the space to store and so don't carry a lot! So every day, things are fresh. We are very small—only two chefs with no waiters—so we don't have a middleman between the customer and I myself can explain the dessert I'm serving.
Has the focus changed over time? It's always the same. With more customers we have to work harder, but I think I shouldn't make any detour or shortcuts. It's always, "Don't touch too much, but don't be lazy with a dessert".
How did your signature Fromage Blanc cheesecake come about? When I was a teenager I ate one in Japan, in a French restaurant. It was the first time I'd eaten something like that, and it freaked me out. Freaked me out! There was no takeout, so I ate two of them! It stuck in my brain for a long time. But I thought the dessert was too sensitive for this country and wasn't sure I should put it on the menu. When I became the pastry chef at Sotheby's everyone in the kitchen said it was great, so I said to myself, "Let's put some guts on, and put it out there."
And it wasn't the greatest in the beginning. It was the Upper East Side, where people are very stubborn; a cheesecake is supposed to be sliced, and sometimes with a strawberry sauce. So when I served my cheesecake it would come back to the kitchen, "This is not a cheesecake!" So, alright. But some people would travel to the restaurant only to eat the cheesecake! So when I opened my own restaurant I made my own cheesecake, and if customers don't like it, I don't care! Some customers come back and don't even open the menu—they eat the same dessert the whole time. I believe that some customers have the same taste buds that I have, and we kind of trust each other.
You've been open ten years now, when few pastry restaurants have been able to stay open. What do you think you're doing that's working? It's probably because I'm the owner, the chef, the investor, and I'm the one working all the time. I don't have to get paid! I just have to serve good food. But if you hire the chef, the chef has to get paid. The waiter has to get paid. I'm just one cook. Cooking is not the only thing you have to do as the owner but, in the end, the other part is, "How can I make a dessert that I believe in, and then get the customer to believe me?"
While your philosophy has stayed the same, have your skills increased over this time? Not really! Every day, every day different things are hard. Every piece of fruit tastes different. Even if we buy 40 apples in one box, each one tastes different. We make marshmallow every day, and every time it comes out differently. The cheesecake; every one is different. We all have to talk to the ingredients—that's how I teach, to talk to the ingredients—so they will tell you what they want to be, otherwise the enemy is something you don't see. Oxygen is the enemy. Humidity is the enemy. Every day is different, so every day things happen.