I’ve interviewed plenty of young chefs who start their own places within years of graduating culinary school or shortly after some stints with the big dogs. And their places are all delicious and there’s no doubt that they work their fingers to the bone for their success. But there’s something to be said for being able to trust a chef who has truly climbed the ladder in the kitchen, perfecting each technique or mastering an ingredient before going from “cook” to “chef”.
Ghaya Oliviera, of acclaimed Chef Daniel Boulud’s DANIEL restaurant, is one such chef. She’s worked her way to the top literally from the bottom of the restaurant food chain, and still claims she’s never quite fully satisfied with what she presents on the plate. As I age or mature or ripen or however you’d like to call it, I find immense amounts of comfort and calm in restaurants like Daniel; warm but formal spaces where the notion of hospitality is given the utmost respect, spaces only a few years ago I would have been rather intimidated to enter. Yet on a frigid January morning, I found myself once again set into a deep banquette, listening to a story of grit and heart and passion. Here’s the full version of my discussion with Chef Oliveira.
Chef Ghaya Oliveira Rises, Like Cream, To the Top
Taken January, 2014
You’ve mentioned that you grew up dancing ballet and watching your mother create showpiece desserts. What was art and food like in your family growing up in Tunisia?
My mother started cooking really, really late, after I came into this life; my grandmother told her, “That’s it, I’m done cooking for you, it’s time to learn.” So all her inspiration started from big books; it was her only way to learn good French cuisine. Of course, she learned from her mother, too, but she wanted to prove to her mother she was capable of making these big dinners.
Tunisia was a French colony, correct?
Yes, absolutely, and my mothers origins are Austrian. She’s amazing, really amazing. Friends of my brothers and sisters new that big meals and big cakes were coming out on weekends, so they always wanted to spend time with. We always had people over.
Did your mother’s love for pastry carry over into you as a child?
I really didn’t bake a lot, but I loved to make crepes at home. I was very young, probably eleven or so; when I think about it I’m amazed they let me touch the fire. I used to make my own caramel lollipops; a dry caramel rolled on a pencil and frozen it so I could eat it. I think it was something I had in me since I was young but I never gave it much importance. And then I ended up here and things changed, for very personal reasons.
How? You had a business background when you came here; what pushed the decision to go into pastry over the edge?
I started in the kitchen from the bottom, as a dishwasher. I did prep on the side – spinach shrimp – but at the end I thought it was too messy; there’s no finesse in all of that and it wasn’t something I wanted to follow. So I went to the culinary academy of Long Island; a really basic, cheap school that was all I could afford at the time. And I learned the basics for mainly American baking, mostly just to fit in. I didn’t have much experience with American desserts and I didn’t really know much about New York yet, so I had to adapt myself. I think when you have something solid, after you can start to do your own thing.
Do you remember what the hardest adaptation was once you started working in the kitchen?
From the day one it was a challenge to me, but if you want something you need to keep going; you can’t stop. I started in a Placido Domingo restaurant on the Upper East Side, a very Spanish influenced restaurant. People were very tough in the kitchen; I was the only woman working there other than the amazing chef, Patricia Quintana, who took me on her side to do some Spanish pastry with her. I got really involved with that, and it’s sort of how I got started with pastries again. But there was no creativity in it; something was always missing for me. So while I was working there I started taking the classes and kept going on with my education.
What was missing?
The type of cuisine wasn’t delicate; it wasn’t what I was looking for exactly. I grew up with more flavors; in my family it was a lot of spices and delicate flavors, like rose jam that my grandmother used to make, or the tiny little pastries that we made at home before the holidays; very fine little things. I hadn’t found yet what pastry is to me, really; little meticulous things.
With Chef Quintana as the only other woman in the kitchen, were you aware of or challenged because of your gender?
At the time I wanted to learn so I wasn’t really paying attention to that. Afterwards I had flashbacks, remembering how people were with me at that time and I was like, oh, wow, I never paid attention but people were very mean.
More so because you are a woman?
Yeah. Also, I wasn’t very fluent in English and had very strong French accent, so maybe that was part of it, too.
Did coming to Daniel, it being a French restaurant, make things easier?
As far as communication, yes. But it wasn’t going to help me to adapt myself in this country, too, so I was spending time with American people to learn. It did not help me to speak French every day.
You moved up to your position with Daniel very much from the bottom to the top. What stayed with you prominently in moments where you might have been close to giving up?
There were times I was like, “That’s it, I’m done. This is over my limit.” 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. Sometimes my husband was like, “Okay, choose your work or me.” Yes, this is a very private thing but it did happen. It’s a big sacrifice.
You have to be patient if you want to learn; you have to take the time. In this business you learn every day. Every single day. I’m not done learning; no one is done learning, 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 like, “Oh my god, something is wrong, something is wrong!” I’m always biting my fingernails: “This is not good. This is not enough.” This is who I am. That’s me. For example, today I’m going to plate the 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!” I’m going to keep asking Lauren five thousand times what she thought. I think it comes from something 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.
What does a dessert need to have for you to feel as satisfied as possible?
I like it to be something different from what we’ve seen around. Every chef wants that. 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 kind of component can I add to it? 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.
You mentioned spices before; what about flavor is most important to you?
Delicate spices. I’m always looking for interesting spices that people will still respect. It was challenging when I first came here, because the desserts were very classic, so I was very scared of the feedback if I introduced or incorporated more spices into them, but I got very good feedback, so think people wanted that little extra something.
Which is harder; to restrain yourself or push yourself further?
I’m always looking for something new and always pushing up, always. If there’s no innovation then people get bored, even me. It’s fun always for us to create something different.
A lot of people right now are elevating certain foods to bring a sense of warmth and comfort into the dining experience. How do you do that in a fine dining environment? You can’t exactly just put a cherry pie on your menu?
Daniel would kill me! 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 a little bit, as a tiny touch or final dot to give it something extra, but I don’t think it helps create a full dessert. Desserts are disappearing on the plate, which is interesting and fun, but it’s not pastry; not the technique of building and composing components. I think that’s why people are kind of tired of seeing that in a lot of dining rooms lately, maybe that’s why they’re looking for pies and such. I can make a pie! There’s a fun way to turn things, but when you come to fine dining it gets a little difficult, so you have to do something new.
The Grapefruit Givre has been focused on as your sort of signature dessert. Why is it the one you’re most proud to share?
Once Daniel said he was going to open a Mediterranean restaurant and I was like, “That is so for me, right there!” Because it is my home; I grew up on the Mediterranean, which it is all about fish and spice. France and a lot of other countries colonized Tunisia so our cuisine has so many flavors and spices. I never liked grapefruit when I was growing up; it was too bitter to me. My brother and sister went to a camp somewhere in France and came back cutting it in half, segmenting it, sprinkling it with sugar and eating it with a spoon. That was the first time I tried it with sugar, which completely changed that bitter flavor.
So now why the grapefruit? Because you always try to look for something different. Citrus givre in the south of France is commonly orange or lemon, but why cannot I do it with grapefruit? The rest of the flavors are what grew up with; sesame, rose, halva. My dad had a friend in a factory where he used to work, 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. The grapefruit is really just to refresh the dessert.
How do you move on from that to your next signature dessert?
I guess it will just happen! Most people don’t think they like rose and not a lot of people like grapefruit, so I still don’t know how people really got into it. It’s strange to me. I think the presentation or maybe the portion? It’s really tasty – I’m not saying it’s not, I miss eating it. But it’s really fresh; it’s an easy dessert to eat.
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.
Is that what you want to do one day?
Of course, like every chef I want to open my own place; maybe a tiny restaurant. I don’t know. 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! I guess it’s the job; 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; we’re very busy thinking. So I get disturbed sometimes when people talk to me.
It’s a beautiful, 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 ready to work. He was there at six 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.
A lot of chefs refer to that, how the structure of the kitchen has changed much in the past ten or so years.
A lot has changed and has affected the quality of things. It’s how the old school learned themselves. Now you have to watch what you say, and be careful, and give them therapy every single day or a cook will quit. It’s a huge role reversal, which is not good at all. It’s not their fault. I guess it’s the schools. Maybe it’s not nice to say, but imagine you’re 19 and you’re paying $50,000 for culinary school. Imagine owing that at 19 years old! It’s not fair or right at all. That’s what makes them bitter I guess, too; “I need to be a chef right now.” You’d laugh to see the resumes of people who just came out. I’m all about experience, so if I see someone jumping six months here and six months there all the time, I don’t take them seriously. What did they really learn? You need to give it two years to really learn. It’s too hard.