Karyn Nakhleh: A Pastry Chef Portrait

Mint bark!
Peanut brittle!
Sucre à crême!

These are the little treats my great friend Karyn Nakhleh brought over just before Christmas. She made them all herself. She actually sells them during the holiday season. They were so good! Last Christmas, 6 months ago, this blog had started. You see Karyn is a trained pastry chef and she creates her masterpieces as a sideline. What a great interview opportunity! She graciously answered all my question and its a great and funny read. Enjoy!

When did you start baking?
I have been baking since I was a little girl. My mom was always baking or cooking something so I was always exposed to activity in the kitchen and wanted to make my own things. I was probably 8 or 9 years old.

Wedding Cake

Who got you started in this art?
Well, that would be my mom and my granny. Both cooked as well as baked all sorts of things, and since my family is made up of two very different nationalities, I had exposure to many different types of ethnic desserts and sweets. My mom was always making things like banana bread or poached pears with chocolate sauce and my granny used to make mamoul (arabic cookies, some filled with dates, others with nuts) so I was exposed to very different desserts from a young age.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in food?
Well, it sort of occurred to me one day that I might be good at that sort of thing. Before I had considered going to pastry school, it was the norm for me to make a dozen different types of cookies at Christmas time, paired with sweets, dessert sauces, and candies. Furthermore, I’m a very creative person, so I thought I’d be good at wedding cakes and designing my own creations.

Is there a website or blog where we can see something about you and your baking?
Yes, I have an online portfolio that I update on a regular basis. It really gives people an idea of what I’m able to do, and for me personally, it’s a diary of what I’ve made from my insane collection of dessert cookbooks.

Sugarwork Rose

What culinary training have you received? Where have you learned more, in class or by experimenting?
I attended the Pearson School of Culinary Arts, which is part of the PACC (Pearson Adult Career Centre). It was an intensive, 15 month program, 6 1/2 hours a day, 5 days a week, and I was working full time at the same time. School definitely gave me the basis to grow on and I think it would be a very accurate statement to say that I learn something each time I make a new dessert. You always see a better way to do things.. or learn a better way from the recipe in question. You never stop learning, and even when I am not successful at something I attempt, as long as I learn from it, or understand what went wrong, I’m pleased.

How and where did you get your first job as a professional baker?
Once I graduated from school, I apprenticed for a few months at a wedding cake baker, and then I landed a job doing dessert service and light prep at 40 Westt, which is a high end restaurant in the West Island. Actually, I had applied to another restaurant with the same owner and he asked me to go to 40 Westt, which I was quite intimidated by. Working there was a great experience. I was there for 2.5 years and learned a lot about working in a restaurant including doing huge group service and helping out on the hot side.

How would you define your style?
Hmm.. interesting question. I am not subtle.. I like bold flavors, looks, colors.

What is your favorite ingredient to bake with and why?
I would probably have to say chocolate, but good quality chocolate. It is so versatile and touches all aspects of pastry. Also fruit purées in general. You can do so much with them and the flavor that you get in a good purée is fantastic.

What is your signature dish or your favorite recipe?
I usually try to make something different every time I can, so this is a hard one. I’d have to say my mango mousse cake. Everyone loves that one.


Tobi’s Chocolate Shoes   –   Cupcake Wedding   –   Raspberry Marshmallows

What is your favorite baking gadget?
Oh my… I have so many very very cool pastry gadgets.. one of the coolest things I have are a set of Magyfleur molds. They are from France, and sell for around 400$ a set.

Who have been the biggest inspirations in your career?
Jacques Torres was a big influence on me. Seeing his TV show and the wonderful creations he would just effortlessly whip up with not many exotic tools made this metier so appealing. I was lucky enough to meet him on two occasions and he is a gracious man who always has time to say hello.

Buttercream Wedding Cake

Do you have an funny kitchen incident to share with us?

Oh my yes. I was delivering a wedding cake to a reception hall, and had to finish assembling the cake on site. It was a 3 tiered, butter cream cake with different piping patterns on each level that had to be added on site. The bride had ordered her flowers for the cake topper, but the florist didn’t make a bouquet for me, they just gave me the flowers. A friend of mine had come to assist me with the cake and while I was piping the pattern onto the cake, made a nice bouquet with the flowers, and wrapped the stems in saran so the stems wouldn’t come into contact with the cake. Once the bouquet was inserted into the cake and the piping was done, I took a final look at my creation, and found that I could see a bit of the saran sticking out from the cake. I took my pliers (pastry chefs have ALL sorts of tools.. ) and pushed the stem into the cake.. OK.. perfect. I was done, and moving away from the cake, pliers in my butter cream coated hands.. and the pliers fell out of my hands and plunked themselves perfectly into the 2nd tier of the cake, sticking out like a huge sore thumb. The bride was less than 30 minutes away at this point and there was no time to panic. I calmly pried the pliers out of the cake, got my spatula, extra butter cream in both the icing and piping colors and proceeded to repair the damage. The cake was given a 1/4 turn and it once again was perfect. I asked my friend (also a pastry chef) what she was thinking as I was doing all of this, and she replied that she would have been crying. My response to her was that there was no time to panic or cry and that the bride was on her way and I had to fix the cake prior to her arrival, there was no other option. And fixed it was. The only regret I have for this episode is that I should have taken a picture of the cake with the pliers in it.

If you were stranded on a deserted island for one year, what dish would ask to eat after your rescue?
Only one dish, and not a meal? No fair.

If any chef in the world could prepare a meal for you, who would it be?
Oh boy. First hand I would say Fernand Adria in Spain.  He is a master at what he does and in a league of his own, a real pioneer or Molecular Gastronomy. That would be a meal of a lifetime.

Single Knot Egg Buns

Is there something you hate to see when you go to a restaurant as a customer?
Desserts that are not made in house. Some restaurants will go all out for the savory meals they serve, and then when it comes to dessert – the last thing you will eat before leaving – they serve some pre-made, shipped in, lesser quality item. Oh and fake whipped cream. Nothing turns me off more, and some restaurants will defend this act as one that is necessary because real whipped cream is not only expensive, but also won’t hold itself in a cake, for example. This is false, and there are ways to overcome the delicate nature of whipped cream, it just takes a bit more effort.

What tendencies do you see coming on strong?
I see more people experimenting with exotic fruits, which is very nice. Mango’s time has come.

What new techniques are you interested in learning?
I would love to learn more about Molecular Gastronomy. I find it very interesting and it’s a hot topic in the food world. People are pretty divided about it, as we’re mixing chemicals with our food that we eat.. but the results can be phenomenal.

Rainbow Jello Mold

What advice would you give to someone in high school who would like to pursue a culinary career?
First of all, it’s a very rewarding field to be in, but it’s a lot of hard work. It is not easy to work in a kitchen. You have long hours and you are always on your feet. Try and find a kitchen that has chairs in it for it’s employees, it won’t be an easy task. It is very different from say, an office job. If your goal is to be on TV like Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay, know this: it probably won’t happen and those guys put years of hard work into their careers before they made it big. And don’t think you’ll get rich doing this kind of work either. The real reward is seeing the reactions and smiles on the faces of the people who taste your creations.

What would you say to a novice in the kitchen to help them get over their fear of baking?
Don’t be intimidated by measurements. The biggest thing that people say about baking is that it’s such an exact science because of the chemical reactions that are required to make cakes rise etc.. it’s very different from cooking. Check measurements twice, take your time, and be organized. Always read the whole recipe before you start. Don’t be afraid to attempt anything! Write down any changes that you make to a recipe, because you might not remember what you did later on, and if you’re going to multiply or divide a recipe, do your calculations before hand, and check them twice!

All foods were made by and photographed by Karyn Nakhleh

If you would like to contact Karyn for an order please email her at knakhleh at live dot ca

4 comments to Karyn Nakhleh: A Pastry Chef Portrait

  • Evelyne, thank you so much for doing this portrait on me. It was a pleasure to do it and I hope that it gives people a clearer insight into the world of this wonderful métier. I look forward to sharing more of my creations with you, my great friend.

  • Evelyne…fabulous discovery. What a talented take-charge chef she seems to be.
    I found myself nodding my head in agreement several times. I mostly totally agreed about great restaurants not having their own proprietary desserts. Very disappointing…especailly to a sweet tooth like myself who has a tendency to review the dessert menu first;o)
    Flavourful wishes, Claudia

  • Isabelle Duchesneau

    Karyn is a passionate woman and what she touch turns to gold! Even at the first try, believe me!!! I’m sure i gain 10 pounds trying all the good stuff she does. You have to try her chocolate stuff and cakes. WOW! Tobi’s chocolate shoes looks amazing! If you invite her for supper and she insist on bringing desert, God, let her do you will be pleased!!!

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