This month’s Gluten Free Guest Chef Series has had to take a slightly different approach as our October Chef, none other than Australian/Chinese chef, Jennifer Angela Lee, has had to return to Australia due to COVID-19. Ordinarily, we invite our Guest Chefs into the kitchen but due to the circumstances, we’ve invited Jennifer into our home for what many will now recognise as a much-loved Zoom call.
Watch the video below and continue down the page to read the full article.
Usually based in Singapore, Jennifer is a food writer, world traveler, and founder of Mizbeth, an apparel and accessories company tailored for the food and beverage industry. With a creative background in design and textiles and 20 years worth of experience in the F&B industry, Jennifer’s wide skill-set perfectly positions her for life as a chef and apparel designer. She has worked for some of the best restaurants worldwide and in Singapore, and in 2011, together with her brother Ben Lee, she established the much loved Aussie café “Sarnies”.
Now, not only does she own her own business (www.mizbeth.com), she also writes her own regularly updated food history and culture blog (www.jenniferangelalee.com), and still finds time to cook up a storm in Singaporean kitchens (when a global pandemic hasn’t made that a little bit difficult). Jennifer credits her romance with culture to her time spent travelling across Europe, Australia, South East Asia and Latin America – experiences that helped shape her into the cultural aficionado she is today, as well as discover her love for Latin American food. Jennifer has drawn inspiration from a traditional, Mexican, hot chocolate drink known as champurrado often prepared with vanilla, cinnamon and masa harina. It is these three key ingredients that characterize Jennifer’s creation – delicious Gluten Free Chocolate Macadamia Cookies.
Jennifer sat with us over zoom and discussed her philosophy, her experience, and further delved into the motivation behind her Mexican-inspired Gluten Free Chocolate Macadamia Cookies.
Hi Jennifer! Welcome (via Zoom) into my home, would you like to start by introducing yourself?
My name is Jennifer Lee and I am an Australian/Chinese chef, food writer and owner of Mizbeth – an apparel and accessories company dedicated to the food and beverage industry. I’m usually based in Singapore however right now I’m in Australia.
Tell us more about your business, how did it start?
Mizbeth’s direction now is quite different from when I started. When I was working in the kitchen at Vasco, I was wearing these chef whites that were really heavy, very traditional, and it was an open kitchen so I would walk very uncomfortably in front of customers. I started designing jackets just for myself and after three full-on years working in the kitchen, I finally made the decision to leave [the industry] and start writing and making uniforms.
I remember you saying you started your blog in Mexico, is that right?
I actually started in around 2012 when I was in Singapore, but at the time it was a totally different blog, it was just about me creating recipes and experimenting then. So I would make a cake with 5 different types of butter, always the same cake but I would change the butter and just see which one baked the best. I started the current blog that you see now when I was in Mexico.
You’ve already mentioned it a little, but can you talk about how you have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Well…. the pandemic has made me return to Australia!
It was a last-minute decision, but it made sense at the time to come back and be with my family. I left my business that was just starting up in Singapore and, worst of all, left my little Shih Tzu behind. It is a temporary setback, but I am fortunate enough to have some great friends and colleagues who are helping look after my dog and helping with the business while I manage it from afar.
What do you think about the current and future of food after the pandemic?
Food and beverage establishments are usually run quite tightly, and this has been a true test of strength and sustainability during this time. This pandemic has allowed venues to think outside the box, offering delivery services, collaborations, dining at home, and packaged grocery boxes and food supplies.
The entire food supply chain has been affected which I believe will only strengthen the industry to be more sustainable in terms of sourcing more local ingredients. With limited access to ingredients and an erratic stream of consumers, venues are learning to streamline menus, in turn reducing food waste. As businesses also reduce manpower, stronger automation systems have grown but it will never replace the power of the human touch – people need to socialise and connect face to face. After things return to some kind of normality, I hope everyone appreciates the entire hospitality experience of the food and beverage industry and not take it for granted.
What have you created for our customers for the month of October and how did you come up with this?
I have created a chocolate cookie speckled with macadamia nuts with a dash of vanilla and cinnamon. The cookie is made from masa harina which is actually the corn flour used to make tortillas, arepas, and tamales, so that’s the base. I’ve also added a bit of tapioca flour, some cacao, macadamia nuts which are Australian, and then a touch of cinnamon and vanilla. The chocolate and cinnamon is inspired by a beverage in Mexico called champurrado, which is made with pieces of chocolate, milk, cinnamon, and the masa harina which makes it really thick.
Masa harina is made from dried corn that is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution (calcium hydroxide), rinsed and then ground into a dough. This process is called nixtamalization, which has been practiced in the Americas from as early 12,000BC, allowing the corn to be digested easily as well as enriching it with niacin and calcium. It is a truly unique flavour that brings back many memories of when I lived in Mexico.
You have a family connection to gluten free, right?
I’m very lucky not to have any food allergies, but moving back to Australia, both my brother’s new wife and my nephew are gluten intolerant. I always used to come back here and bake for everyone but now I make the same recipe but do a normal one and a gluten free one. It’s been really interesting because I’ve not worked that much with gluten free flour before.
From your experience, how has allergies changed the dining scene over time and are chefs now more open to accommodating these needs?
People these days seem more health-conscious and are more in tune with how their bodies react to certain foods. I think allergies were initially seen by chefs as an inconvenience but it is now becoming the new norm. Chefs have adapted to these needs out of necessity, and, in turn, it has resulted in a growth of some amazing products and businesses! Menus are being designed differently and more consciously which I believe is a positive thing.
As Chef Jennifer Angela Lee can’t be here we’ve invited Susan’s son and part-time sous-chef, Gael Soulard, to supervise operations and help make those delicious cookies.
What's your favourite meal for breakfast and do you have a specific regime?
I make sure I wake up early so I have time for a relaxing breakfast. I adore breakfast and I cook up something different every day. It usually consists of eggs, some type of salad/vegetables, a piece of fruit, and tortilla. I have a coffee at the end as I go through what I have to tackle for the day.
How do you keep a work/life balance?
The food and beverage industry IS a lifestyle which makes it difficult, but not impossible to create a balance. It does require a certain amount of discipline but the benefits of a routine and a timeout from work is important for both mental and physical health.
Now I am out of the kitchen full time, my day to day schedule changes but I make sure my mornings start with yoga, dog walking and a peaceful breakfast. I have a to-do list every day that I check off. It includes both work and personal tasks allocated to various parts of the day when I am most productive. I always make sure I get some kind of workout in the evening and a walk with my dog. I also schedule one day off a week where I catch up with friends, read, write and bake.
How have you found working in the FB industry in Singapore as a female? What has been the most challenging? What have you enjoyed the most?
I have been extremely fortunate to have had a wonderful experience working as a female chef in Singapore. I think I was questioned more on my skill than my gender as I am a self-taught cook. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to represent Singapore and Latin American cuisine in a variety of events around the region.
The most challenging part about being a chef in Singapore is not the cooking or my gender, but managing people. The most rewarding part has been seeing individuals who have started out working with me and have gone on to excel in their careers. I have also had the opportunity to work and become friends with some of the most amazing people from all around the world. The industry takes true grit and is not at all glamorous, despite what you see on TV/media, and not everyone is cut out for F&B.
Did you have any influences growing up and has this paved a way for you in the way you view and appreciate food today?
I was brought up as an Australian with a very western palate and unfortunately, my upbringing was not influenced by my Chinese heritage. When I left Australia at 24, the world opened up to me and I was fascinated by the people I met and their different cultural backgrounds. This initiated a wondrous journey of travelling, researching food history and cultures which I try to incorporate in my food to tell stories.
I always say everyone speaks the language of food – it breaks down barriers no matter where you are from and it has always been the easiest way for me to communicate with people.
With all of that in mind then, what’s next?
I’m actually planning on travelling around Australia for the next month or so which I’m hoping will be a good break. Other than that I’m with my family which is great, but really my priority is just trying to get back to Singapore so I can be with the business. It’s still a start up so I need to be there as I’m having my flatmate do all of my deliveries which isn’t great.
I also want to bring out a full range, I don’t just want to be known as the Apron lady because that was not really my intention. You know I started Mizbeth with the intention of providing chef clothing for women because I couldn't find anything that was a smaller size and lightweight. Then all the apron orders started coming in and from there a lot of male chefs started asking for custom jackets. So it’s gone from female chef focused to providing more fashionable clothes for all chefs.
And finally, a question we like to ask all of our Guest Chefs, what would be on your "last supper" menu?
My last supper would be a Sicilian style bucatini pasta, cannolo, a few good scoops of gelato (mascarpone & fig or pistachio), a platter of cured meats, cheeses and olives, accompanied with some crusty bread torn roughly and dipped in an extremely good olive oil.
Thank you so much, Jennifer, for joining us all the way from Australia, we’re going to give your recipe a go here, and we’ll be sending it out by the end of the week - we can even send a pack all the way to you...!
For the readers at home you can order here now for the weekend.