Pastry Chef Ghaya Oliveira didn’t always create 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 and, many years later, finding herself 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 grew up dancing ballet and watching your mother make showcase desserts. What was that about?
My mother started cooking really, really late. After I came into this life, she started cooking, since 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 cook books, since they were her only way to learn good French cuisine. She wanted to prove to her mother she was capable of making these big dinners.
My mother’s origins are Austrian and she’s really amazing. We always had people over; friends of my brothers and sisters knew that big meals and big cakes were coming out, so they always wanted to spend time with us on the weekends.
And she loved pastry more than savory?
Yes, yes. Pastry was her main love. I don’t know why I got into baking, though. I really didn’t bake a lot, but I loved to make crepes. I was probably eleven or so, and I used to make my own caramel lollipops, making a dry caramel and rolling it on a pencil, then freezing it; now that I think about it I’m amazed they let me touch the fire. I think pastry was something I’d 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.
You ended up in mathematics. Was the inspiration amidst your family members balanced in the arts and sciences?
We have a lot of artists in my family, and a lot of creative people in general: my mom played the violin a little, and my aunt is a famous painter. I danced ballet. But my mother was also very conservative, so I couldn’t really go far in ballet; it was either ballet or my studies. So the artistic and creative side of me flowed into desserts.
What changed after you’d moved here that you shifted into pastry full time?
I started in the kitchen from the bottom, as a dishwasher. I did prep on the side – cleaning spinach and shrimp – but I thought it was too messy; there’s no finesse in all of that and so 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 of American baking there mostly just to fit in.
What was the learning curve like for you?
I didn’t have much experience with American desserts at the time and I thought it was something required here. I didn’t really know much about New York, so I thought it was the first thing I should to start with. I just had to adapt myself to this – to New York in general – at the beginning. I think after you have something solid you can start to do your own thing.
What other foundations did you build at school?
I took classes in restaurant management, which I think is very important too, because once you reach a certain level you kneed to know how to deal with everybody else. I don’t just do desserts; I have a big team to manage and have to deal with everybody else in the front and back of house, so it’s very important to know that side. Relationships are important.
What challenges from building your career stand out in you memory?
From day one, this has been a challenge for me. I started in the kitchen at a Placido Domingo restaurant on the Upper East Side. I think they closed a long time ago. It was 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 Kintana, who took me on her side to do some pastry with her, Spanish pastries. 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. Every day is a big challenge. But if you want something you need to keep going, you can’t stop.
What was missing there for you?
The type of cuisine wasn’t delicate. It wasn’t what I was looking for, exactly.
I grew up with so many flavors. It’s funny, because in my family we used a lot of spices and at the same time a lot of delicate flavors, like rose jam that my grandmother used to make at home all the time. We did little things like very tiny little pastries that we had to make together at home before the holidays, very fine little things. I hadn’t found that here yet. To me pastry was about really little meticulous things.
The pastry chef that took you under her wing was the only other woman at the restaurant. Do you feel it was a greater challenge because of a female absence back then?
At the time not really, because since I wanted to learn so badly I wasn’t really paying attention to that. But afterward I had flashbacks, remembering how people were with me at that time. I was like, “Oh, wow, I never paid attention, but people were very mean.
Because you were a woman?
Probably, yes. But also, I wasn’t very fluent in English, and I had very strong French accent, maybe that was part of it, too.
Did coming to Daniel, a French restaurant, make things easier?
As far as communication, yes. But it wasn’t going to help me to adapt in this country, too. I would do my work and then spend time with American people to learn their language. It did not help me, speaking French every day.
You really worked your way up from the bottom at this restaurant group. Now a lot of youngsters want to move very quickly…
Have you seen a lot of change?
A lot has changed. The old-school chefs learned the way I did. But now, you have to watch what you say. You have to be so careful. You can’t say anything, you have to watch your words, and you have to almost give your cooks therapy every day. It’s a role reversal, which is not good at all.
It’s not their fault. I guess it’s the schools. Imagine owing $50,000 in school loans at 19 years old. I totally understand that it’s not fair or right at all. That’s what makes them bitter I guess, with a need to “be a chef right now.” You’ll laugh if you see the resumes of people who just came out. If I see someone jumping six months here and six months there all the time, I don’t take them seriously. Do you care? Do you love what you’re doing? What did you really learn? There are a lot of steps. It’s hard to hire people because they’re not ready or complete at all. I’ve seen the old era and the new era of graduates, the patient ones and the impatient ones. All I can say is patience and sacrifice; if you’re not willing to do that you’re not going anywhere in this business.
It’s a beautiful, beautiful job. I wish people would take it more seriously.
To what do you attribute your persistence? Patience? Was there a time you wanted to throw in the towel and didn’t?
I felt every single step, I did every single step: I worked with old-school chefs, newer chefs. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen it all, but I started at the hardest time with chefs who made me want to leave every single day. With my old chef, if something wasn’t good he would just grab it and throw it against the wall! I’m not joking. My first week, I started working at six in the morning, and I think I screwed up the trains; the first one passed my stations. So I got there at 6:07 ready to work. I said, “Oh my god, please, earth! Open up and take me down!” He was there at six waiting for me! This is how it was. But it’s good to learn that. Discipline; that’s how it starts.
At 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. For a stager it’s even tougher. It’s really hard. Patience? I don’t have patience at all, not even a bit.
What makes you feel satisfied?
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, 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 think!” I’m going to keep asking Lauren five thousand times what she thought. I think it’s something my mom always told me: if you’re scared all the time, if you’re 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 different, something other than what we’ve seen around. Every chef wants something different. So I like to go to the roots of things, to do research. I take fruit, like an apple: what about this apple? How can I do something different with it? How can I make it look different? What flavors can I add to it that people won’t expect?
Creativity is a lot of things in a dessert. You need to follow a lot of steps. You have a fruit; what kind of component can I add to it? What other textures can combine two ingredients? You need always a surprise. If not, there’s nothing special about the dessert.
Do you incorporate the flavors and spices of your childhood?
Not strong spices, but delicate spices. I’m always looking for interesting spices, but something people will still respect. It was challenging when I first came here, because the desserts were very classic, so when introducing or incorporating spices I was very scared of what the feedback would be, that it would be too strong. But I got very good feedback, and think people wanted that little extra thing. I don’t like cinnamon, for example, but I like to look for the good cinnamon. At home we used cinnamon powder, and here I like to look for Ceylon cinnamon, a beautiful cinnamon that’s sort of sweet. If I’m going to use pepper, it’s going to be a long pepper, something different.
Which is harder; to restrain yourself of push yourself further?
I’m always looking for something new and always pushing up – always, always, always. If there’s no innovation then people get bored, even me. It’s fun always for us to create something different. But you always have to make something affordable taste-wise so that people will eat it.
Comfort foods are a big trend right now, even amongst find-dining chefs. How do you make desserts that are familiar and comforting within a 5-star restaurant?
It’s very simple. You stick to your classics in fine dining – tart tartine, mille feuille – but then you give them a little twist in flavor or presentation. They’ll have the same flavor but be composed differently. I like to use molecular cuisine as a tiny touch or final dot in the dessert to give it something extra, but I don’t think that helps create a full dessert. I don’t want that work to result in a powder on the plate.
I think people are kind of tired of seeing that in a lot of dining rooms lately. Maybe that’s why they’re looking more for pies and such. I can make a pie! But differently. 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.
Yeah, you can’t just serve a piece of cherry pie at Daniel.
Ha, Daniel will kill me!
The Grapefruit Givre has become sort of your signature dessert. Why is that the dessert you’re most proud to show off and share?
Once Daniel said he was going to open a Mediterranean restaurant and I was like, “That is so for me, right there!” Because that is my home; I grew up on the Mediterranean. France and a lot of other countries colonized Tunisia so our language is a mixture of languages; I found that out when I got to New York and was introduced to different cultures, and then realized they said things in their languages we say in mine. Our cuisine has it all, from flavors and spices.
So for this dessert: I never liked grapefruit when I was growing up. I think I was too young to eat it, it was too bitter to me. My brother and sister went on a camp trip to France somewhere and they came back having learned how to eat it by cutting it in half, segmenting it, sprinkling it with sugar and eating it with a spoon. I always remembered that; it’s sometimes I do that at home still.
But why the grapefruit now? Because I’m always trying to look for something different. Citrus givre is commonly made with orange or lemon in the south of France. So why cannot I do it with grapefruit? The flavors are all the flavors I grew up with, like sesame and halva. My father used to work in a tobacco factory in this zone with all the factories together, so going back home he always passed by the halva factory and used to bring it still warm, these 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 to fresh the dessert.
How do you look for the next something new?
I guess it will happen just like that! I don’t know! I still don’t understand why this one works so well. It’s a rose lecume, and most people don’t think they like rose. Not a lot of people like grapefruit. It’s strange to me. I think maybe the success with guests is in the presentation or maybe the portion, too? I don’t know. 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 continual learning is important to you. Is there something you’re itching to learn more about?
Of course! I really want to work on bread. Because when you open a shop, you have to have bread, a little savory side.
Is opening a shop something you want to do some day?
Of course. Like every chef I want to open my own place done day. Maybe not a shop; maybe a tiny restaurant. I don’t know. I like to cook very much, too. On the weekends I like to cook for my family… when I’m a nice person sometimes.