NESTLED in a small corner in PJ lies what appears to be one of the country’s best-kept secrets. I’d have missed the building completely if not for the small sign that reads ‘Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia’, placed at the entrance of the gates.
There’s nothing outstanding about this structure; it looks like any other building on this narrow stretch of road dotted by old office blocks and mammoth industrial warehouses in one of Petaling Jaya’s many lanes. The building isn’t new but it is the new home of the academy, which for five years had previously been housed in a relatively small space near PJ Hilton.
“We just moved in here last year,” shares an enthusiastic Chef Niklesh Sharma, as he welcomes me to the lobby of the academy. The affable Niklesh is also founder and managing director of the academy which he started six years ago with Jean Francois Arnoud, one of France’s top pastry chefs. The academy, he adds, moved in to this space to provide much improved kitchens, facilities and pantry space for the swelling number of students. In the lobby, a row of trophies are housed in a glass cabinet. What I see is both thrilling and surprising; the shiny cups sitting on each row are from international pastry championships, many of which were organised by the country most known for its exquisite pastry — France.
SCHOOL OF COOL
As soon as Niklesh opens the doors that lead to the academy’s many kitchens, the aroma of freshly baked bread wafts in the air while the sharper scent of melting chocolate ganache meanders through the corridors.
A few young men and women, decked in pristine white chef’s uniforms, walk from one kitchen to another, shyly smiling as they carry trays of cakes and cookies. Most of them are off to class, but not in the way we imagine.
Classes, in this sense, are the academy’s kitchens. There’s a dedicated kitchen for different types of pastry-making — from tarts and tortes to travel cakes, ice-creams and sorbets to chocolate displays and sugar art. The kitchens are large with ample space for at least four to six steel tables loaded with ingredients of every kind.
Young students gather around them, kneading, stirring, and blending while taking occasional glances at the white board filled with calculations and sketches of what appears to be a blueprint for a cake. “We have to understand that pastry is a science... skills come later,” points out Niklesh rather matter-of-factly. “You may be able to boil the perfect egg but you can’t do that without understanding how temperature works.”
But, studying theory, he points out, has to come with just as much time in the kitchen. At the academy (which he describes as “designed by chefs, made my chefs”), three weeks are spent on theory and 33 weeks are for practical training in the kitchen.
Despite being the head of the academy, it’s obvious how much at ease Niklesh’s students are with him. He cracks a joke with them before stealing a moment to observe how stress-free they look preparing raspberry souffles.
He beams with pride as he watches the students he addresses as chefs, prepare their masterpieces in the kitchens. “What many learn at pastry schools and what a pastry chef does in the industry is so different,” confides Niklesh, who kick-started his career with the luxurious Rajvilas in Jaipur more than two decades ago.
BREAD AND BUTTER OF LIFE
The Delhi native had no intention of starting a school until he was offered the position of Head Pastry Chef at the Renaissance Hotel, KL in 2008. While interviewing culinary art students for different positions at the hotel kitchen, he noticed an obvious gap. “What I wanted them to know and what they were telling me didn’t match. And I couldn’t understand why. They were, in fact, not industry-prepared.”
He subsequently decided to check out a number of culinary art and pastry schools to get acquainted with the programmes offered and methods of learning. “There was so much theory, and so little practical. There was a clear missing link,” he recalls.
But the missing link Niklesh is referring to was also something he experienced as a chef of Five Star establishments in and around India. While helming the pastry kitchen as an executive Pastry Chef at the Taj West End in Bengaluru, Niklesh decided to head to Singapore for an F&B tradeshow.
“I thought I knew everything,” he confides, speaking openly of his utter disappointmentwith himself. At the trade show, he witnessed so many new advancements in pastry and met chefs of different calibre. All this made him realise just how much he still had to learn. “I was the perfect example of all that was wrong.”
He traded in his comfortable job to travel around the world to learn everything he could about different pastries, new technologies and techniques. The combination of his year-long learning trips and the problematic gap in the industry triggered the idea for an academy. “I didn’t want this younger generation of chefs to end up like me so I gathered a few chefs in KL and spoke about this idea. They asked me, “Are you sure? You want us to go back to school?”,” he adds, chuckling.
He recalls the chefs he met all over the world and remembers them fondly as people who viewed the profession in such a visionary manner. “The best pastry chefs don’t just make pastries. For me, this is a vision I have for the industry and for the country.”
CREAM OF THE CROP
In the six years since its inception, the academy has won numerous accolades including coming in fourth and second place at the World Pastry Cup competitions.
One of their chefs was also Asia Pastry Champion in 2014. This year, Chef Otto Tay was crowned Top Patissier of Asia at the recent Asian Pastry Championships in Shanghai.
“People have this misconception that only if you go and study pastry in Europe you are good,” says Niklesh, before going on to share that the academy has now opened branches in the Philippines and India. “But look how many Malaysians have been named some of the best in the world!”
Every year, chefs from all over the world (a majority of whom are chefs awarded with France’s highest Un des Meilleurs de France title) meet in Malaysia to give master classes to both the students and the 16 Malaysian chefs who teach at the academy. “When students come in, they’re usually intimidated and excited at the same time. But after nine months, you can see how much they’ve matured and how confident they are of their abilities.”
The academy’s culture, he notes, is different from many other institutions. “We’re like a family here,” says Niklesh with a contented smile. He shares how old students return often to ask for advice, help with space or equipment and more often than not, interact and learn with their juniors. “The best pastry chefs are those who continue to learn to grow better and share that knowledge.”
He picks out one instance in his long, colourful career to share. At his first job interview at Rajvillas, he was rejected. After the devastating news, he asked the panel of employers to point out where he went wrong. A few days later, he received an unexpected call — they offered him the job he was interviewed for.
Recalls Niklesh: “They said, ‘We rejected you but you were the only candidate who asked us how you could improve yourself. So when can you start?’”
The secret ingredient, reveals Niklesh, is clearly in the willingness to learn.
Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia International Campus
WHERE No. 16, Jalan 51A/223, Petaling Jaya, Selangor,