Sometimes you stumble upon a chef whose work just takes your breath away. Chef Maya Okada Erickson is one of those chefs. Currently the Pastry Chef at Langbaan in Portland, OR, Chef Maya has re-found her voice after losing part of it in the high-stress kitchen of one of San Francisco’s most acclaimed restaurants, Lazy Bear. Chef Okada Erickson’s road to success is one paved with many ups and downs, but it’s an unbelievably important one that sheds light onto a topic not very often discussed in the restaurant world. We sat down with her and had the privilege of hearing her story.
“My mom is Japanese, her name is Kimi Okada, and my dad is Leif Erickson. They gave me both names, which I don’t think is necessarily a traditional thing to do but I definitely do appreciate because it keeps me more in touch with my Japanese half.”
Alright, let’s not beat around the bush and get straight to it: current Me Too climate and all, how hard is it truly to be a female chef?
“I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was thirteen years old and definitely grew up in a ‘boys culture’. To preface, I think it’s always been very hard for women in this business. You’re supposed to be twice as tough, twice as talented, work twice as hard, be able to take twice as much shit and dish it out more than others while simultaneously remaining attractive to people in order to be taken seriously. The idea that finally we’re at a place where things don’t have to be this way anymore is really exciting. I’ve definitely experienced both sexual harassment as well as prejudice in the kitchen. For example, when a woman gets upset she’s deemed hysterical and ‘probably on her period’, yet when a man gets upset he’s just a ‘tough guy chef’ who deserves to be respected. It can get hard at times because this is just the way you’re raised in the industry. I still have to catch myself sometimes when stories come out to not automatically think: ’Oh, just suck it up, that’s just the way it is in the kitchen.’ I really have to check myself, because it’s not okay. That’s why it’s such a great thing that there’s a whole new generation of chefs coming up who are not trained to be believe this kind of behavior is normal and who are therefore making a difference.”
What do you think needs to be done in order for this conversation to end once and for all?
“Oh, I don’t know … I want to say that maybe male chefs and cooks just need to get over their sense of entitlement? Which could be applied to many professions I guess. In this case it comes down to women deserving to be in the kitchen just as much as men do. They’re just as talented – if not more talented in some cases – and work just as hard. They deserve a place at the table and you’re not being benevolent when giving a woman a chance.”
You said you started working when you were thirteen, you got an early start then.
“My mother is an amazing cook and growing up we had this huge vegetable garden of which she would always be cooking things. I grew up around food. Then when I was in middle school we did this project where we were supposed to apprentice with somebody in a field we thought interesting. I really wanted to do hairstyling but my mom didn’t think that was such a great idea. So, I ended up meeting a friend of my mom’s who was a pastry chef and that seemed like fun. I started cooking with him in his kitchens and kept cooking all the way through high school. I even had a little at-home catering company with one of my friends in high school. Then one day, through one of the events we did, I met a man who knew Elizabeth Falkner and she ended up becoming my mentor. I worked for her all the way till the end of high school and stayed on after that. From there I just sort of kept going.”
What’s the first thing she had you do?
“I made a lot of focaccia for a while, and crackers. Because she’s such a famous chef she wasn’t there a whole lot at the beginning, so I got delegated a lot of stuff from afar which was fun.”
Did you go to culinary school?
“No, I actually never went to culinary school. I worked at Citizen Cake for free for about a year and kind of treated that as my culinary training. At some point both the pastry chef and the pastry cook left at the same time, so they basically had no choice but to hire me [laughs]. Elizabeth was in the process of opening Orson at that time, so I would send her new ideas for the dessert menu and she’d let me execute them. From there I went to Orson where I became the Pastry Chef and from there to a restaurant called AQ, which is where I first started to receive recognition. From AQ I went to Lazy Bear.”
You were at Lazy Bear right at the very beginning of its massive success, right?
“Yes, I was there for two years but then decided I needed to get out of San Francisco. I was in quite a dark place in my life and needed to make a change. This led me to move to Portland, the best decision of my life.”
You wrote about this period in your life in a beautiful article on Taste. You were a chef struggling with an eating disorder.
“That was definitely one of the reasons I needed to leave. I was working sixteen hours a day and on top of that I’d walk forty-five minutes to and from work each day. It was getting to a point where the physical exhaustion I felt, and the anger this brought out in me, made me pretty difficult to work with. Beyond that I was also losing my creative drive. It was getting increasingly hard for me to understand why anybody would want to eat an entire tasting menu. The only things I would eat were foods with perceived nutritional value. If it didn’t give me vitamins, minerals or make my skin appear clearer, why would I eat it? At some point it was almost impossible for me to make anything. As a chef that was terrifying. Food has been my life since I was thirteen, the idea that the desire to make, appreciate and love food is taken away from you is hard to reconcile. After leaving Lazy Bear I was able to step back and fix my relationship with food a little. I was able to understand that there doesn’t have to be just ‘fat kid food’ and ‘healthy kid food’, there can be a happy medium. I can still put out food that I’m proud of but it doesn’t necessarily have to rely so heavy on sugar, butter or cream.”
When you were going through all this, how would you taste your food?
“I wouldn’t. Or I would taste it and spit it out.”
Do you remember the exact time your relationship with food changed for the worse?
“I had always struggled with it a little bit because I was coming from the dance world. But I never let it take over my life. Until then. I went through a bad break-up while simultaneously Lazy Bear was starting to get a lot of attention and a lot of press. It caused so much stress and I didn’t really know how to deal with it. The pressure of work and the voice in my head saying I got broken up with because I was too fat made the weight loss start. And once you start seeing result and people start complimenting you on how great you look, it’s easy to let it snowball into something you can’t control any longer.”
You’re now at Langbaan in Portland. A Thai restaurant.
“Yes. When I was leaving San Francisco I decided I was either going to go to LA or to New York. I had heard about Langbaan a bunch, so when I went up to Portland for chef’s week to do a guest chef’s dinner at my friend’s restaurant, I knew I had to go visit. My friend ended up going into business with the owner of Langbaan, so I actually got to eat there a lot and meet the owner. I didn’t even know I could apply for the position he then offered me, I didn’t think that was an option, but it was and I happily accepted. Langbaan is a really cool concept. There’s sister restaurant Paadee – which is more traditional Thai – and Langbaan is hidden behind a bookshelf in the back of it. Super small, intimate and showcasing a really cool, unique way of perceiving Thai food that I don’t think many Westerners get to see. We offer a tasting menu for which I make two dessert. It’s still very traditional in some ways, but on the other hand a refreshing way of presenting Thai food. I am the pastry chef at the restaurant and then I do production for the other restaurants in the group too – making ice cream and toppings amongst others.”
Did you have to learn a lot about Thai dessert?
“It was definitely a challenge.”
It’s not just Mango Sticky Rice we may presume.
“That’s the thing. My background is heavily Japanese influenced and I’ve done New American cuisine for most of my career. I’ve created many mash-ups of those cuisines and I’m very familiar with those flavors. So, it was kind of crazy going into this. I’d never even ordered dessert in a Thai restaurant. The one Thai dessert I could think of was Mango Sticky Rice. It was exciting to figure it all out though, and incredibly nerve-wracking at the same time. I was constantly doing research and cooking out of cookbooks trying to get a grasp on how to put things together. Since Langbaan airs on the side of traditional I didn’t want to insult anyone by doing some kind of fusion. I wanted to stay respectful. But at some point I came to the realization that I was hired for a reason, my boss knew the kind of food I was used to making when he offered me the job. That was the moment I figured out a way of making the desserts I wanted to make while staying true to Thai traditions. And that’s when the real fun started, that’s when I opened myself up to playing around with new ideas. It got even better after we went on a trip to Thailand as a restaurant. It was incredible and when I came back I was super inspired. I finally thought: ‘Alright, I got this now, I can do this.’ In a lot of East Asian cultures dessert in general is not really a prominent thing. Most Thai desserts are based on the same four ingredients: coconut, sugar, some kind of starch and maybe a fruit. It’s not like French pastry or even American pastry where you have all these different flavors to choose from and add on to. It’s been a very fun challenge finding new ways of making and presenting Thai desserts. I will admit that I finally made my first Mango Sticky Rice the other day though [laughs].”
Did you now?
“I made mango sorbet with turmeric rice cream and a sugar tuile with chili and salt. One of my favorite things I found in Thailand was this fresh mango with chili, lime and salt on it. I really wanted to incorporate that. It took me over a year though to find the guts to put Mango Sticky Rice on the menu.”
Out of fear or out of ‘I don’t want to touch that, that’s too cliche’?
“[Laughs} That’s too cliche, definitely. But I finally did it!”
And I bet it was amazing!
“It came out great and people really like it.”
Born and raised in?
What did your mother and father do?
“My mom is a choreographer and the Japanese Martha Stewart basically. She’s amazing. She would hand paint cookies for Christmas and make these insane cakes when I was little. My favorite book was The Secret Garden and she made me a Secret Garden birthday cake once, complete with pond and rocks made out of Russian tea cakes. She dug a hole in the middle of the cake, lined it with seran wrap and put water in to make the pond. It was amazing. I also still have some crazy handmade Halloween costumes lying around somewhere. She’s insane but amazing. I grew up in a very creative household. My dad was a graphic designer and collects match safes and cigar labels. I was always surrounded by art and food. And my mom taught me from a young age about where food comes from and how to grow it yourself. How to make wholesome nourishing food. To the point where I resented it so much as a child. All I wanted was to eat fruity pebbles and McDonald’s, but she wouldn’t let me. Of course now I am grateful for that.”
You have a very unique, beautiful style. I sense a hint of darkness, how so?
“I think my personal style has always been a little darker. Going back to my mother, she only wears black and so I think I just grew up with it. I read a lot of books – I always have – and this Gothic Romanticism really permeated my adolescence and now my adulthood. I’ve always been drawn to a darker color palette and to Surrealism, so it makes sense that it comes through in my food. My favorite dish I’ve ever made was this black sesame dessert. It’s all tones of grey, black and purple and it’s the most esthetically pleasing dish I’ve ever made. I also just did a dessert at Langbaan that I’m super happy with, Coconut Ash Crepes with gold on it.”
Coconut Ash Crepes?
“Coconut Ash is a very common ingredient in Thai desserts. Which is funny because activated charcoal – which is what it is basically – is now a super popular and highly Instagramable ingredient used in Western kitchens. This crepe was one of the first desserts I made after coming back from Thailand. It’s a crepe flavored with coconut ash, so it’s totally black, and I made a coffee cream that gets smoked with these Thai incense candles – which is probably my favorite ingredient that I’ve come across since working at Langbaan that I’d never seen before. They’re these incense candles that are made out of tons of different spices. They’re used specifically for smoking food and it has a flavor like nothing I can describe and nothing I’ve ever had before. It’s a super interesting flavor. So, I smoked a coffee cream with that, added some cashew nougatine in there, cured duck egg yolks which I grated in at the end, and then I rolled it all up and plated it. It looks incredible. I guess that’s a pretty Goth dessert I did too.”
It sounds amazing.
“It’s good. And it looks beautiful.”
What’s you biggest pet peeve in the kitchen?
“Hmmmm … I’m so much happier now, I don’t have a lot of peeves anymore [laughs]. A few years ago I probably could’ve given you ten right now. But it does really bug me when people say ‘I can’t’. I also can’t stand people who tear their tape instead of cutting it. Like, why would you do that? Just cut your tape, it’s so much easier. That’s a big thing [laughs].”
If you hadn’t become a chef, what do you think you would be doing right now?
“Well, I really wanted to be a dancer. My mom runs a dance school and my godmother is the founder of a pretty prominent dance school in San Francisco. So, I really wanted to be a dancer and I was on track to becoming one. But I hurt myself pretty badly and had to reconsider everything. I figured cooking would be a lot less hard on my body than dancing could ever be – which was a ridiculous thought it turns out – so, I ended up cooking instead. Which was the right choice, because I’m pretty sure I’m a much better cook than I ever would’ve been a ballerina. Now, if I had to switch careers today, I’d probably be doing something with plants. I love plants.”
What do you enjoy when you are not working?
“I buy a lot of plants [laughs]. I read a lot of books too. And I go drink sparkling rose in various different places with my friends. Living in Portland has opened me up to a life that I didn’t really know was accessible to a cook. Especially growing up San Francisco where it’s just so prohibitively expensive to live now. I have a house with a yard and a front yard right now, and I can walk to work which is really pleasant. That’s not to say that I don’t like San Francisco, it always feels like a homecoming going back, but it’s just such a different life. Also, working at Langbaan has granted me a lot of freedom to actually have a life next to my job – which is unheard of in my industry. There is no working till you feel like you’re going to die, which is what my life used to be. Before I’d work and sleep and then work again, which is pretty common for a chef. On your day off you’d go out and party or you’d just stay in bed all day. Now I actually have a life, and hobby’s, and friends who don’t work in the restaurant industry. It’s amazing.”
You also mentioned this lifestyle in your article, why do you think it is that a lot of chefs have such unhealthy habits?
“As a chef you’re around food all the time, but you’re not necessarily eating everything you make. And staff meals are usually an after thought – not in all places of course, but in a lot of them. On top of that cooks just want to eat garbage food for some reason.”
Why is that?
“I don’t know. Maybe because we’re around good food all the time? But things like poutine and fried chicken are high on a chef’s priority list usually. Also, you work such long hours that by the time you get off work nothing is open anymore, and you definitely don’t want to cook for yourself because you’ve been cooking all day. So, very often you just end up in a bar eating gross bar food while trying to get as drunk as possible before they close. It’s just so engrained in the culture that it becomes part of your life: work, drink, sleep, wake up, go to work again and try to get rid of the hangover before it’s time to go drink again. It’s a vicious circle.”
What has been the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the kitchen?
“When I was first at Citizen Cake, and totally new, I would still get very intimidated when Chef Elizabeth was there. One day when she came in I accidentally turned the giant Hobard on full-speed. It literally dumped flower everywhere. On me, on the kitchen, just everywhere. With Elizabeth ten feet away from me, observing, I cleaned up all the flower. Then I went on to spinning ice cream. To make up for my mistake I was really trying to look like I was busy, so I started wiping down the ice cream machine and accidentally opened the ice cream spout. All the ice cream that wasn’t frozen yet started pouring out, straight onto the floor.”
This was all in the same day??
“This was all in about a a thirty minute time span. So, yeah, that stuck with me for a while [laughs]. But my biggest mistake career-wise was probably getting an eating disorder.”
I highly doubt you did that on purpose.
“No, of course not. But I do think I’ve waisted a lot of time and energy on not being my best self, and that really messed with my head for a while. To the point where I didn’t know if I wanted to cook anymore. Looking back I really regret being so out of touch with what I really wanted to do. I was at this amazing restaurant where I was given a platform to really showcase my talent and all I could focus on were my own demons. This prohibited me from taking full advantage of the opportunity that was right there in front of me.”
What advice would you give a starting chef.
“Understand that it’s going to be hard for a long time and that it’s going to be a lot of hard work You may not be in a position you feel you deserve to be in, but you have to always remember that so many chefs have been there before you. Work hard and try to learn from every single person you work with. Whether it’s their bad habits that you don’t want to replicate or an ingredient that the stage from Korea brought and you really want to start working with. Try to learn from everything and everyone, because ten years down the road you’ll still be pulling from the experiences you have in the very beginning.”
“I don’t know. I know Portland is not necessarily my forever home, but I do hope to stay at Langbaan for a long time to come. Eventually I’d like to get my Burlesque Pastry Parties that I used to throw in San Francisco going again. Maybe even turn them into a business and take it on the road. That’s the dream. Having worked in the business for so many years and having seen so many restaurants struggle, the desire to open up one of my own sort of diminished. But having something that is mobile and fun, that sounds amazing to me.”
What should one think of when hearing Burlesque Pastry Party?
“It’s styled after the English High Tea format. We’d serve tea pots of tea-based punch cocktails and toppers of petit fours by girls dressed in these amazing Rococo meets Baroque outfits. We’d have a singer and a couple girls performing Burlesque on stage. It was just a lot of fun. To me dessert is such an opulent and unnecessary thing – which I love about it – pairing it with other opulent and over the top decadent things makes total sense. And it’s fun. Since there’s not a lot to do after dinner besides going to a bar and drink, I’ve always wanted to create something for people to enjoy after dinner. So, I did. And it’s been very well received. I’m really hoping to bring that back and introduce it to the world.”
You can find Maya and her beautiful creations on Instagram as @tuilesfromthecrypt. When in Portland visit her at Langbaan. And scroll down for the full recipe of her favorite Coconut Ash Crepes!
To read Maya’s own writing about her struggles with an eating disorder, here’s the link to her Girl vs. Food article on Taste.
130g sticky rice flour Just blend all the ingredients in a blender and cook in a nonstick pan on low like a regular crepe. Serve with coffee cream and cashews if so desired.
COCONUT ASH CREPES
Sometimes you stumble upon a chef whose work just takes your breath away. Chef Maya Okada Erickson is one of those chefs. Currently the Pastry Chef at Langbaan in Portland, OR, Chef Maya has re-found her voice after losing part of it in the high-stress kitchen of one of San Francisco’s most acclaimed restaurants, Lazy Bear...
130g rice flour
30g tapioca starch
30g potato starch
4 ea eggs
13g coconut ash (totally unnecessary)
2c coconut milk
4T coconut oil
130g sticky rice flour
Just blend all the ingredients in a blender and cook in a nonstick pan on low like a regular crepe. Serve with coffee cream and cashews if so desired.