On the last night of his 12-day pop-up at Maestoso in Hillcrest, pastry chef Jason Licker drops this shocker to a diner: “I don’t like desserts! I’m over it.”
Which leads us to ask: “Whaaaaaat?”
The globe-trotting chef — whose self-published book, “Lickerland,” was a finalist for a James Beard Award in 2017 — came up with 15 desserts during the course of his most recent San Diego visit, his third in less than a year. Yet, he admits, he’s not a big fan of sweets.
“I really don’t eat much sweets or desserts anymore,” says the Long Island-born Licker, who made a name for himself creating Asian-accented desserts at resorts in China, Macau, Bangkok and Hong Kong. “I was a young, fat kid that ate every candy bar and drank gallons of soda non-stop. I just got sick of sugar. I will go like a madman in France or Japan — that is where I feel is the top quality in the world. I would rather eat a mountain of nachos instead of even one cookie.”
But just because he doesn’t like to eat desserts doesn’t mean he’s stopped making them. As a matter of fact, his passion for the craft is stronger than ever.
In between caramelizing sugar and whipping up sorbets, Licker answered some questions about his San Diego stint at Maestoso, the Italian restaurant on University Avenue helmed by chef Marco Maestoso.
Q: This is your third visit to San Diego’s Maestoso. Obviously, past experiences have been good, or you wouldn’t come back. What is it about San Diego’s culinary scene that’s appealing to you?
A: There are a few reasons why I love coming back to San Diego. First and foremost, the chemistry chef Marco, his team and I have for our passion for culinary arts and hospitality is electric. I have now been in the kitchen with them for over six weeks in my three visits, and it feels like a family. Marco lets me make, create and innovate all things pastry in the heart of his restaurant — that itself is an amazing showcase for me.
The other main reason is San Diego’s emerging culinary scene. San Diego is carving out its own niche becoming a food destination, especially with visionaries like Marco with his restaurant, Maestoso. I heard there are quite a few incredible projects opening in the near future, which will continue to attract more and more people to dine out and cement San Diego as a food destination.
Q: What was this last visit like for you? You said you created 15 menu items for this visit?
A: This visit, like the first two, was full of delicious desserts and a lot of laughs. The second I land, I am already thinking about what I am going to prepare for San Diego. I knew I had three full weekends and wanted to make three menus of five items, all different and unique. I know that seems like a lot, and it is. But when you are in an electric environment with guests that specially come in to eat your dessert and see what you are doing, it inspires me to do more. I try to make desserts that become a memorable experience that you wake up in the middle of the night craving for.
Q: Which one proved to be the most popular? And why?
A: I think it was a tie between The Tastes & Textures of Chocolate, which featured three different percentages of chocolate with accompaniments to bring out a new chocolate experience, and the Ginger Cappuccino, which was layers of ginger-soaked cake croutons, coconut mousse, salted almond crumble and coconut-ginger foam. I think these are flavors that people identify and can relate to, so they order them right away. Though I must say, it was a pretty even distribution amongst the desserts sales, which shows me that people want to try new flavors.
Q: What were some of your inspirations for this visit, dessert-wise?
A: My inspiration comes from traveling — experiencing new cultures, walking through the aisles of supermarkets and being around creative chefs. I like to find ingredients or ideas that people are not so familiar with, then exploit them. For this visit specifically, I just wanted to make yummy desserts and make people laugh. Sweet and simple.
Q: When you visit an area, do you look at what local ingredients are available and then try to create some desserts based on those ingredients?
A: When I visit an area, I first look to see what the freshest produce and dairy is available and then go from there. Always use the highest quality of produce to have superior flavor.
Q: When you’re in San Diego, what is a food you must eat, or a restaurant you must visit?
A: I lived here in 2008 for six months helping open Nobu San Diego, and I sorely missed the Mexican food here. Tacos Libertad is right across the street from Maestoso. I also love Tacos El Gordo, Adalberto’s. Marco and I checked out a few restaurants, and it’s great to see chefs pushing San Diego to become a food mecca.
Q: When are you coming back?
A: Hmmm … I will be back in the fall!
For more information about Jason Licker and his book, “Lickerland,” visit his website, jasonlicker.com.