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Cumming pastry chef flexes culinary muscles in national competition

POSTED: July 20, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Sara Guevara/The Times

Alex Hwang, assistant pastry chef at the Cherokee Town and Country Club, smooths out a thin layer of chocolate Monday with a spatula. Hwang will compete in the 2011 American Culinary Federation National Convention for the title of Pastry Chef of the Year.

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For chef Alex Hwang, competition is a piece of cake — literally.

This weekend, the Cumming resident and pastry chef will be vying for the title of 2011 Pastry Chef of the Year. The competition will be held in Dallas, during the 2011 American Culinary Federation National Convention.

"I’m nervous because this is a huge competition," Hwang said.

"Everyone wants to do it, but you have to be selected by winning a regional competition."

Hwang is the Southeast region champion. She will be competing against the Central, Northeast and Western region winners.

"We have to do three different types of pastries. We have to do a showpiece, a plated dessert and a mini dessert," Hwang said.

"I combined all three into one. So I used one of the leaves on my showpiece as a plate for my mini pastries and put one of the plated desserts out front."

Her design is a fantastical setup that includes pieces made from pulled, poured and molded sugar.

"This year, they let us come up with our own theme for our showpiece," Hwang said.

"I decided to do a fantasy theme. Since summer is really hot and everyone is tired, I wanted to do something that felt like a vacation, without actually going on vacation.

"That’s why I picked the water colors of blue, and the (tropical) flower and the butterflies. It’s like going somewhere else."

The assistant pastry chef at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta has been practicing on her own since the beginning of June. She began preparing with her apprentice for the competition two weeks ago.

"I couldn’t do all of this in two hours without her," Hwang said.

"She is like my right hand."

You couldn’t tell by looking at them practice that they haven’t been a team for years. When a sugar flower petal worked loose from the showpiece, without prompting, her apprentice wordlessly turned on the mini propane torch so that Hwang could reheat the petal’s tip and stick it back into place.

Although they’ve been practicing for weeks, their desserts won’t be finalized until the actual competition.

"We can make things like (our cakes and batters) in advance, but they always have some kind of twist in a mystery basket at the competition," Hwang said.

"So even though we have our own ingredients, it’s not set because we have to incorporate the surprise items."

There are typically four or five mystery ingredients, Hwang said, that generally include a nut and fruit.

"We can come up with the concept for our dessert before the competition, but the taste will be totally different with the mystery ingredients," Hwang said.

"Every time we practice, we use our own mystery basket of ingredients. We don’t know what we’re going to get at the competition, so if you don’t practice with mystery ingredients, you won’t know how to twist (your recipes) when you get there."

Her east meets west career and culinary training has helped give her a little background with working with new and unexpected ingredients. She relocated to the United states from South Korea in 1992 to begin her career as a pastry chef.

"To me, American desserts are really sweet and rich," Hwang said.

"I like Oreo pie. I like a really rich chocolate too, but I’m not used to eating a lot of desserts with a lot of sweet and richness.

"In (South Korea) we ate more fruit stuff for dessert."

Instead of rich cakes and other decadent desserts, Hwang says she’d like to see more menus incorporate lighter and more subtly sweet desserts like mousse.

Overall, Hwang says that people’s expectations for desserts and pastries continue to fluctuate between two extremes.

"They’re always back and forth," said Hwang.

"Sometimes they want things more of the traditional way, other times they want some trendy new thing."

Although she hopes to come home with the title, Hwang says win or lose, competitions are a great opportunity for growth.

"I try to compete at least once a year because you can’t progress if you just go to work and that’s it," Hwang said.

"I do lots of cake competitions because I love cakes. Competition is a lot of work, but it’s worth it because you learn lots of stuff that you can use over and over."


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