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Lisa Huang ’02

Pastry Chef

I always loved cooking and baking as a child and would often attempt to make—not always successfully— elaborate desserts for my family and friends, like a croquembouche for Christmas or a cake sculpted like a block of Swiss cheese for my best friend’s birthday party.

For my French major at Swarthmore (a double-major with Chinese studies), I spent a semester in Paris and was completely in awe of the gastronomy and culinary traditions there—the bread and pastries in particular. There was a bakery around every corner, tempting me daily with the aroma of freshly baked baguettes or my favorite coffee éclair. Needless to say, I gained a lot of weight that semester.

Upon graduating, I wrote letters to several pastry chefs in Philadelphia. Much to my surprise, I was offered a few interviews and ended up working full time as a pastry cook at Susanna Foo’s original restaurant on Walnut Street and part time as a baker for Metropolitan Bakery. After a couple of years, I had saved up enough to attend a five-month pastry program for international students at a trade school in Paris called École Ferrandi. After finishing, I took the national exam for pastry in France and became certified at the basic level of pâtissier, then continued working at the hotel where I had been an intern until my visa expired. Afterward, I moved home to New York and began working for Jacques Torres Chocolate as their pastry chef.

I love that I can produce a tangible and visually appealing product with my hands that also tastes good. I also love the artistry and creativity involved in creating new desserts or cake designs, and that techniques and styles are always evolving. Some of the work in pastry can be highly detail-oriented, such as decorating a wedding cake with hand-piped lace, and I like that I can completely lose myself in the work. But even just learning to master a single task and repeating it over and over can be extremely satisfying; for example, rolling a perfect croissant and then repeating that action 300 times in a row. And I know this might sound corny, but dessert is often for celebrating birthdays, weddings, and other joyous occasions, and being able to contribute to those milestones by making people happy also makes me happy.

My husband and I had been thinking about moving abroad for a while, and the stars aligned when he was offered a job in the Netherlands two years ago. Luckily for me, being in the culinary industry means that you can find work almost anywhere. I am currently at Hotel Okura Amsterdam, where I have a wide range of duties, including preparing restaurant desserts, making chocolate bonbons, creating amenities for VIP guests, and setting up dessert buffets for banquets. Over the course of my career, I’ve become a jack-of-all-trades pastry chef, having worked in fine-dining restaurants, boutique hotels, catering, bakeries, a chocolate company, and as a custom cake designer. It has given me a scope of experience suited for working in a large hotel like the one I am at now.

Swarthmore definitely taught me how to organize my time and how to handle stress. Like the average Swattie, I was juggling a heavy courseload as a student, coupled with a lot of extracurricular activities and very little downtime. The culinary field requires similar skills, as the hours can be long and the environment high-pressure. To sustain a career like this (much like four years at Swarthmore) requires a lot of focus, organization, stamina, and drive.

I also did my Swarthmore winter externship with Royer Smith ’70 who, at the time, was the executive chef for the Philadelphia Convention Center. His encouragement left a mark and helped me realize that a post-Swarthmore career as a chef was not completely out of left field. Similarly, my fellow Swatties were open-minded people who embraced each other’s quirks and differences. Whenever I mentioned that I was thinking of becoming a pastry chef, my classmates, as well as some of my professors, were always enthusiastic and supportive. Had I gone to another school, I think I might have ended up in a more “conventional” post-college career.


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