Acclaimed pastry chef Jason Licker pops up in Hillcrest this week
Last year, a self-published cookbook by pastry chef Jason Licker was a surprise finalist for the James Beard Award.
That’s a long way to come from a self-confessed former chubby kid from Long Island who hid Twinkies under his bed and mini-Snickers in his socks.
It’s rare for a self-published cookbook to earn a James Beard nomination. But that’s not the only reason the New York culinary organization took notice.
Licker, 41, not only crafted an unusually artistic and personal cookbook. The winner of “Iron Chef Thailand” is also on the cutting edge of pastry design with his signature “Asian-accented” desserts, a skillset he honed working at resorts in China, Macau, Bangkok and Hong Kong over the past 12 years.
Licker is back in the U.S. this year doing dessert pop-ups, cookbook signings and restaurant consulting around the country. His latest event is now under way through Sunday, April 1, at Maestoso restaurant in Hillcrest. Beginning Wednesday, March 28, he’ll be presenting a menu of three Asian and three Italian-accented desserts at the 3-week-old modern Italian restaurant.
Among the Italian items he’s planning to serve are a Lemon Cappucino, which will have lemon cake “croutons,” lemon curd vanilla mousse in a cappucino cup topped with a Limoncello foam. On the Asian side, he’s developing a passion fruit/guava crème brulee, among other items.
Licker’s signature is to create desserts that reach all four taste centers on the tongue — sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
“When you create a well-balanced dessert, you won’t slide into a sugar coma,” he said. “I think American culture just knows heavy desserts. Mine create a dynamic flavor profile with multiple flavors, textures and temperatures.”
Licker grew up in a family where the prevailing food philosophy was the more the better and “no doughnut was safe.” But in seventh grade, a girl told him he was “funny but fat” and he immediately changed his ways.
When he was in college studying to become a high school English teacher, his mom was diagnosed with cancer. He kept her spirits up by devising healthier low-sugar, low-fat desserts that they could bake and eat together.
When his mother passed away, he coped with his loss by writing poetry. And when he stopped writing poetry, he started making pastry to fill the creative void, discovering his passion in the process.
He started his career doing stages (unpaid internships) in New York City. First, he worked and trained six days at a week at Union Square Cafe, then he moved to the prestigious Jean-Georges.
By 22, he landed a paid pastry chef position at Charlie Palmer’s Metrazur. Two years later, he was hired as the executive pastry chef at the Shore Club in Miami, where he oversaw multiple restaurants, including Nobu.
That was his first exposure to Japanese ingredients and a love affair was born.
Two years later, he returned to New York as the executive pastry chef of the Peninsula Hotel, where in 2004 he earned a Rising Stars Award from StarChefs.com.
Eager for a change, he sent out resumes to resorts around the world and in 2005 was hired as executive pastry chef at the Westin Bund Hotel in Shanghai, China, where he oversaw a team of 32 pastry and chocolate workers.
That was the beginning of a dozen-year odyssey in Asia, where he says he relished every opportunity to travel to different countries and visit farmers markets to discover native ingredients to incorporate into his pastries.
“People are used to having yuzu in sushi but not a dessert. I take pride in taking ingredients you’ve had before and morphing it into a style all its own,” he said. “Asian ingredients are my favorite because they’re so dynamic, but no matter what genre of cooking you do, you can tweak it and make it your own.”
Some of his signature creations are vanilla udon noodles, molten matcha tarts, calamansi cubes, Thai tea s’mores, Chinese five-spice chocolate mousse and white chocolate Junmai, with sake cream, yuzu-scented fruit and shiso gelee cubes.
In 2016, he was looking to open his own restaurant with some friends. But when that deal fell apart, he used his savings to publish his first cookbook, “Lickerland: Asian-Accented Desserts by Jason Licker.”
The 350-page cookbook, which took nine months to create, features 56 recipes, each accompanied by a story of the dish’s creation and Licker’s own experiences in Asia.
The rock ’n’ roll-inspired book has dazzling photos by Jason Michael Lang and a dedication to his late mom. The day after its publication, and two days after the entry deadline for the 2017 James Beard Awards, Licker shipped seven copies of “Lickerland” to New York and then promptly forgot about it.
A little over two months later, he learned he was one of just three nominees in the Cooking from a Professional Point of View category. He didn’t win last spring, but was honored to lose to Pierre Koffman, a London-based chef whose most recent restaurant had three Michelin stars.
“Lickerland” has also been nominated in two categories for the upcoming World Gourmand Cookbook Awards this summer in China.
Licker said his cookbook has been a good entrée back into the U.S. after so many years away.
“It’s been a weird, wild ride,” he said,” he said. “Over there, you’re the talented foreigner. Over here, I’m just a guy. So coming off the James Beard nomination I’ve landed some big consulting jobs and am doing the pop-ups.”
Over the next year, Licker said his schedule includes more pop-ups and a teaching assignment in China. He’s also planning to start on his second cookbook, which will be home cooking-oriented. But eventually his goal is to open his own dessert shop and San Diego is “on the shortlist” of places he’s considering.
Back in 2007, Licker spent six months in San Diego as the opening pastry chef for the Nobu restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Ever since then, he’s had a love for the region, and in the 11 years since his last visit he said he’s noticed a rise in San Diego diners’ sophistication and adventurousness.
He’s enjoying meeting diners while prepping for this week’s desserts at Maestoso, where he’s working side-by-side with friend and founding chef Marco Maestoso. He loves the new restaurant’s concept, where chefs interact heavily with the customers. That suits his own gregarious personality, because he loves meeting local diners and hopefully selling a few cookbooks.
“I love the concept at Maestoso,” he said. “It’s so in your face. If you’re a social person, you just walk around and meet everyone.”
Jason Licker dessert pop-up
What: Six Asian and Italian-inspired desserts ($12 each). Autographed copies of “Lickerland: Asian-Accented Desserts by Jason Licker” available for sale ($30)
When: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Where: Maestoso restaurant, The Hub Hillcrest, 1040 University Ave., Suite B101, San Diego
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