IT’S like a home baker’s Cinderella story. Malaysian Jennifer Pou, 23, started as a home baker learning off tutorials on YouTube, but now she’s poised to start a new job under award-winning pastry chef Margarita Manzke in Republique, a popular Los Angeles restaurant.
Pou had planned on applying for some culinary schools in France to hone her techniques; but during a three-month stint at Blue, a French fine-dining establishment in Laos, she decided to take a chance and send job applications to restaurants around the world.
“Republique was actually the first place I applied to – but the last to reply,” said Pou, who grew up in Petaling Jaya.
Pou discovered Republique during a family holiday in March 2016 to visit her brother, who lives in Los Angeles. It was love at first sight.
The restaurant has received acclaim pretty much since its inception in 2013. It made the Los Angeles Times’ Best Restaurants of 2015 list.
And Manzke, an alumni of many critically acclaimed LA restaurants, is the star of Republique. She was named as LA’s Pastry Chef of the Year 2016 by Eater.com, taking both the Editor’s and Reader’s Choice awards.
“I knew I wanted to work there. Margarita is such an inspiration and you can see she loves what she does.
“I did some research online and found I was eligible for a working visa and the rest is history,” she said.
While her comfort zone is American-style baked goods, Pou feels she’s ready to tackle the more complicated world of French desserts, and aims to soak up as much as possible in Republique.
“Republique serves breakfast during the day, but at night they switch to modern French cuisine and desserts.
“I want to challenge myself with plated dinner desserts and learn how to bake in the French style. I don’t want to just follow a recipe, I want to practise over and over again,” said Pou.
“In Laos, the fine dining scene isn’t as lively – the restaurant may get around 30 customers a night. Republique is crowded all the time, which will keep me busy, but I like that hustle and bustle.”
During her stint in Laos with Blue, Pou worked under another young Malaysian chef, International Young Chef Olympiad Gold Medal winner Ashwin Nicholas Oon. It was the perfect training ground for her.
“Professional kitchens have their own set of rules and etiquette,” she said. “I was used to making my own rules and doing things at my own pace (as a home baker).”
Despite her initial difficulty in adjusting to the punishing pace of a professional kitchen (“I was scolded every day for the first two weeks!”), Pou found the experience enriching.
“They used many more elements per dish than I was used to, which produced different textures. That elevates a dish to a whole new level,” she said.
“I was forced to think outside the box, and play with flavours and textures, and now my interest in the French style of baking has grown.”
While Pou is in no hurry to start a restaurant of her own, she does have an entrepreneurial side with her online baking business, JennPouPou.
But running an online baking business can be every bit as tough.
“I made 900 quiches and my signature tarts for a Maxis management event,” she said proudly.
It was back-breaking work. She had to enlist help from her mother and a friend.
“When I heard it was Maxis, I had to do it! It’s the biggest event I’ve catered for. It was totally nerve-wracking, but I had fun and it was good money.”
Having studied business in university, Pou believes being a home baker can be a profitable venture.
Surprisingly, though, Pou doesn’t see social media as essential to a home baking business. She uses Facebook and Instagram to promote her cakes and tarts, but insists the most important thing for any F&B business is just really good food.
“Part of me feels having a social media platform is important in Malaysia,” she said. “But if your food is good enough, you don’t need social media.
“Republique didn’t use any social media when they first started. They built up their clientele through good food.”
Pou is quick to credit her success to the support she had from her family.
While her father was skeptical at first, he eventually came around after seeing how passionate she was.
“He told me baking would be hard work, that it would be easier to sit in an office,” she said.
“But this is what drives and motivates me, so I thought, ‘why not make it a full-time career?’”
Luckily for her, once her parents understood how passionate she was about baking, they were extremely supportive. So supportive, in fact, they sponsored all the equipment she needed to start off.
Pou has one important piece of advice for home bakers thinking of hitting the professional scene – keep learning.
“Learning from other chefs and working in different restaurants is where you’ll learn the most and discover things you never knew about.
“If you work well with your boss, they may take you under their wing and nurture you as a chef,” she said.
And that’s exactly what she plans to do when she starts her new career at Republique.