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"I've got some quince in the rice cooker right now," laughs Celeste Mah, pastry chef at Raymonds in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
This might sound like a weird experiment, but Mah easily shrugs it off. As someone who creates desserts that typically use very few ingredients, she deliberately pulls maximum flavour out of each one, ensuring every single component is spectacular on its own. "I like to work with just two or three ingredients, sometimes even one. Instead, I'd rather play around with techniques and textures and temperatures."
Even with such an impossibly short ingredients list, Mah never repeats her desserts. Like the environment she and her husband, Ross Larkin—who's also Chef de Cuisine at Raymonds—call home, their cooking is ever evolving.
With such a strong focus on minimal ingredients, Mah's learned to pair them expertly and discovered that "things that grow together, taste good together." Following this theory has led her to combining blueberries and Chanterelle mushrooms, which are often found close to one another. And she's discovered that Jerusalem artichokes—a local ingredient she loves using in desserts—taste fantastic with sunflower seeds because they belong to the same family.
To get the absolute freshest ingredients of the wildest variety, Mah often calls upon Shawn Dawson, whom she affectionately calls "her forager". Between her creative husband and her bountiful forager, she's always well-stocked and constantly challenged. Larkin once dropped a friendly challenge, "I wonder if you could make a dessert out of potatoes?" The answer to this is a resounding "yes!", in the form of a potato custard (think: pumpkin pie) with roasted potato skin ice cream topped with fried fingerling potato crisps coated in sugar. And Dawson, who often drops by with unusual foraged finds like under-ripe gooseberries or pineapple weed, once challenged her to make something equally delicious from his dried Chanterelles. So, naturally, she made a mushroom ice cream that was so exquisite it surprised them both.
How it all began
Her love of flavours and cooking started early on as she was surrounded by talented hands and kitchens while growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her grandfather was a chef in a Chinatown restaurant during the golden years of dim sum houses. Her mom made everything by hand, from dumplings to apple pies and Mah stayed close to her side, watching and mimicking. It was actually her mom who taught Mah how to use the rice cooker to blacken certain ingredients, as this was how she made black garlic herself. "You know the rice cookers with the 'keep warm' function? That's the perfect temperature for incubating garlic and starting the fermentation process."
After graduating from the Baking and Pastry Arts program at Vancouver Community College, Mah went on to work at top restaurants around the city including West, Lumière, Maenam and Chambar. She even helped out another Vancouver expat, Dale MacKay, at Ayden in Saskatoon before heading to St. John's in 2014, where she started working at Raymonds two days after arriving.
Since moving out to Newfoundland and Labrador with Larkin (who started at Raymonds two days after Mah did), she's embarked on a journey of embracing the province's diverse range of home-grown flavours and the restaurant's focus on hyper-local ingredients. "Back in Vancouver, you can get anything from anywhere any time of the year. After moving to St. John's, I learned if we can't get things on the island, the menu won't survive." Mah has found that using only what's available at her doorstep and prioritizing sustainability has made her a better, more focused pastry chef. She even stopped using chocolate in her desserts for nearly a year because she couldn't find quantities of good bean-to-bar chocolate made in Canada.
That's actually what first piqued her interest in blackening plants in the rice cooker. At the time, she was trying to find a local, sustainable replacement for chocolate and she started by roasting dandelion root in the oven. It was close, but not quite right. One of their sous chefs had just returned from Noma's highly creative fermentation lab, which gave her the idea to throw the dandelion root into the rice cooker. What emerged tasted "like all the best parts of a vanilla latté—lots of coffee notes but chocolate-y, a little creamy and very dark."
Her ongoing experiments are currently focused on perfecting macarons. To give her regular customers new flavour experiences, Mah has been trying her hand at sesame-based macarons instead of the traditional almond. And while she's using chocolate occasionally again, don't expect a traditional ganache filling. Mah is fully committed to the flavour profiles of her new home province, so she'll be serving up sea urchin macarons (really.)