"All I can say is patience and sacrifice—if you're not willing to do that, you're not going anywhere in this business."
Pastry Chef Ghaya Oliveira didn't always create her signature stunning desserts infused with warmth and spice. When she first came to the New York from her native Tunisia, she was a stock trader who hadn't fully embraced a career in the arts, though she loved to dance as a child and grew up amongst a very creative family. Instead, she started at the bottom, working her way up from being a dishwasher and doing basic prep while getting herself through culinary school.
Many years later, Oliveira would find herself as an integral part of Chef Daniel Boulud's team; he gives her much credit for the success of Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, where she headed up both pastry departments. Last July, she took over the Executive Pastry Chef position at Daniel, where she's been much lauded for her colorful takes on classic French cuisine.
In a career teeming with testosterone and competition, Oliveira is a testament to hard work and patience, though she admits that having patience is often a challenge for her. Here she shares what it truly took to rise in her position over twelve years with Daniel Boulud, and where she hopes to focus her talents in the future.
You moved up to your position with Daniel very much from the bottom to the top. What stayed with you in moments where you might have been close to giving up that might inspire others? Working in a kitchen is not easy at all. It's very challenging for anyone, not just because I'm a woman. It's a big sacrifice and—it sounds really awful—work comes first. My family was second to me, and they understand because they knew how much I wanted this, so they were very patient. You have to be patient if you want to learn, and you have to take the time. In this business you learn every day. I'm not done learning; no one is done learning, and even an executive chef can be surprised by a new idea. All I can say is patience and sacrifice—if you're not willing to do that you're not going anywhere in this business.
What's the most rewarding part of having stuck through it? I am never satisfied with what I'm doing. I'm always biting my fingernails: "This is not good. This is not enough." Today I'm going to plate desserts for you and never be happy with them, no matter what. But when this is over, I'll sigh and go, "I think it was good!" My mom always told me: if you're scared or worried all the time, then you're safe. It means you want to always be the best. You look always for the 'neat and clean'.
So then what does a dessert need to have for you to feel as satisfied as possible? I like to go to the roots of things, to do research. I take an apple; what is special about this apple? How can I make it look different? What flavors can I add that people won't expect? What other textures can combine two ingredients? Creativity is a lot of things in a dessert, and you need to follow a lot of steps. And you need always a surprise; if not, there's nothing special about the dessert.
A lot of people right now are elevating certain foods to bring a sense of warmth and sense memory. How do you do that in a fine dining environment? It's very simple; you stick to your classics—tarte tartin, mille-feuille—but you give them a little twist so that they have the same flavor but are composed differently in presentation. I like to use molecular cuisine as a tiny touch or final dot to give it something extra, but I don't think it helps create a full dessert. I think that's why people are kind of tired of seeing desserts disappearing on the plate, maybe that's why they're looking for pies and such. It's interesting and fun, but it's not pastry, not the technique of building and composing. There's a fun way to turn things, but when you come to fine dining it gets a little difficult.
The Grapefruit Givre has been focused on as your sort of signature dessert. Why is it the one you're most proud to share? I grew up in Tunisia on the Mediterranean, which was colonized by France and a lot of other countries, so our cuisine has so many flavors and spices. In my family we used a lot of delicate flavors, like rose jam that my grandmother used to make, or the tiny pastries that we made at home before the holidays, very fine little things. And so the flavors are what I grew up with; sesame, rose, halva. My dad had a friend in a halva factory near the tobacco factory he worked in, so going home he passed by the halva factory and would bring it still warm, big blocks with almonds inside. We made tartine with it; bread, butter, and a big slice of halva on top. So these are truly flavors I grew up with. In the south of France citrus givre is commonly orange or lemon, but why cannot I do it with grapefruit? The grapefruit is really just to refresh the dessert.
You mentioned earlier that you're never done learning. Is there anything you know you want to learn more about? I really want to work on bread. Because when you open a shop one day, you have to have bread, a little savory side. I want to open my own place; maybe a tiny restaurant, because I like to cook very much, too.
Most chefs don't get to have a personal connection with their patrons unless they're the owner. Are you looking forward to a little more time out of the kitchen with that? It would probably be hard for me, because I'm a very shy person. Ugh, talking to people! We think a lot because we need to create, so our head is constantly spinning, looking for new flavors and new things. There's a lot going on up there. So I get disturbed sometimes when people talk to me.
It's a beautiful job and it's very important to me, because I did and felt every single step. I wouldn't say I've seen it all, but I started at the hardest time with chefs that made me want to leave every day. But I used to say, "Whatever it takes, I don't care." With my first chef, if something wasn't good he would just grab it and throw it against the wall. I started at six in the morning and my first week I screwed up the trains and got there at 6:07. He was there waiting for me! I said, "Please, earth, open up and take me down!" This is how it was. It's good to learn that. It's really good. Discipline; that's how it starts.