Sweet Talk with Elle Cowan
California grown Elle Cowan is shaking up Bangkok’s fine dining dessert scene with her fanciful chocolates using local spices, and cakes that pay homage to her American upbringing.
Pastry CHEF Elizabeth, better known as Elle, Cowan is the kind of person you have a conversation with and immediately feel comfortable around. Warm, engaged, and eloquent, the 27-year old American is almost as sweet as the desserts she plates. But that doesn’t mean she’s as soft as her oh-so-light whipped mango cheesecake. As a female in an industry saturated with men, Cowan has worked hard in securing her place as a serious Chef. Her no-bullshit attitude in the kitchen and unwavering dedication to creating high quality, innovative desserts just adds to her charm.
As a result of living and working in Bangkok—a city with a penchant for melding exotic flavors—Cowan can toggle everything from traditional Thai dessert kanom chan to the American favorite key lime pie to chocolate bonbons infused with local chillies. After two years as the pastry CHEF of nouveau American eatery Bunker, Cowen has recently taken on the title of executive pastry CHEF for Think Beyond group, where she will set up a new pastry program for some of the city’s favorite restaurants like Roast and Sathorn newcomer, Ocken. We sat down with the American import to Bangkok to talk about cuisine as a creative outlet, cultural adaptation in the kitchen, and whats in store for the future.
So, Elle, where did your culinary journey begin?
I started working in restaurants at 16 years old at a local spot in my hometown, Davis, California. I eventually got involved in the catering business, but after working in their corporate office I realized I belonged in the kitchen. At 19 I moved to Los Angeles where I waited tables in order to support myself through culinary school. On top of classes and waitressing, I worked my first pastry job at New American style restaurant Tar & Roses. After running pastry programs at several restaurants in LA, I made the decision to move to New York where I became the lead chocolatier of NUNU Chocolates’ two storefronts.
How did you end up in Asia?
My urge to travel and experience new cultures and food got the best of me after two years and I decided to pack up and leave NYC for Southeast Asia. Eventually, I settled down in Thailand—it seemed like the perfect place, with its beautiful food culture, friendly smiling faces, exotic fruit and the ever-so-intriguing street food. Through friends of friends, I heard that this restaurant called Bunker had just opened and they were looking for a pastry chef. I took the job and haven’t looked back since.
I think a lot of pleasant memories are surrounded by cake or pastries. When you think of celebrations like birthdays or weddings, there is always a cake involved. Being able to bring joy to a person through food has always been a part of my life. Growing up making all my friends and family their birthday cake was always a source of pure joy for me. I was never a great cook, but pastries and cakes made sense to me. It’s more about science and precision, which is more my style.
Do you feel like cooking is your creative outlet? How so?
I wasn’t a very talented artist growing up. I would look at a sketch or a drawing a friend had made and knew I could never be that creative on paper. But what drew me to pastry at first was the impressively artistic sugar flowers and realistic figurines that decorated cakes. I was amazed at how something could be both beautiful and delicious all at once.
But after culinary school, I found that I wasn’t very good at making figurines and definitely didn’t want to be stuck making gum paste flowers all day. It was bread and chocolate that I fell in love with, and when I found my niche, I found myself. Now, it's easier for me to develop flavors and dishes based off of memories and feelings, which is when I find myself to be the most creative.
Why do you like about Bangkok?
I was drawn to Bangkok, mostly, because of the food culture. Food is a huge part of everyone’s daily lives here. One of the most common questions I am asked in Thai, other than how I am doing, is whether or not I’ve eaten yet. Plus, I’m a city girl so the clashes of cultures here and the accessibility of everything really I think I chose Bangkok specifically because I’m a city girl. Especially coming from places in the US like Los Angeles and NYC, I love city life. I like accessibility and the fact that there are more mixed cultures, which I find to be beautiful.
What about Thai food?
Most types of cuisines only have one or two distinctive flavors that its known for, but Thai food is both salty and spicy, sweet and sour. I love the use of herbs and vegetables here— having a huge bowl of herbs to either wrap your food in or to be used as a palate cleanser in between bites is just brilliant!
Can you describe being a Chef in a foreign country?
A lot of chefs that struggle with adapting to working in a foreign kitchen, however, I’ve really come to love it. I’ve learned so much from just working with Thai people. Some people struggle because they can’t communicate with the staff, which can be very frustrating for both parties. For me, the only solution is to learn Thai myself. The people who struggle the most in this way are the ones unwilling to adapt to their new home, and who are, to put it frankly, ignorant. Afterall, we are the foreigners in the country and should try to fit in rather than expect Thais to try to learn English.
How has living in Thailand affected your work in the kitchen?
I’m continually learning new things here. The amount of tropical fruit that I didn’t know existed seems unlimited! Who knew that there was more than one type of banana and that you use them for different purposes? And people get so excited about Durian season. It’s a thing. People really pay attention to when fruits are available here. It’s not like in the US where strawberries, even though are only in season in the summer, can still be found in grocery stores year-round. Not to say that that doesn’t exist in bigger chain stores here, but most Thais would prefer to eat what’s in season because they want the best.
And how about in your desserts?
I think learning about Thai food has given me a new perspective on food and influenced what ingredients I use. For me, instead of importing foreign ingredients, I am actively trying to discover local alternatives to the products I am used to. For instance, using pandan leaves instead of vanilla. Continually learning about new fruits and vegetables has really kept me on my toes. One of the best parts about being a chef is that you’re always discovering new things. In Thailand, I feel like a kid again.
Tell us a bit about your new gig.
Ocken is a free concept of cooking great food that we as cooks enjoy eating. There are really no limitations as to what could be on the menu, so I can’t encapsulate it in one type of cuisine. I’m hoping to create delicious food that is fun & simple, yet slightly more complex. Flavors that are familiar but challenges your idea of how the ingredients can be used.
What is the dish that you created for the restaurant that you are most excited about?
I put an ice cream sandwich on the dessert menu that will change structure and flavor every season or so. Right now, I’m making a peanut butter and jelly ice cream sandwich. It’s a bit of a challenge because peanut butter is something that not a lot of people, other than Americans, are used to. I’m playing with a peanut sponge cake or a brioche bun for the outside, with a creamy peanut butter ice cream and raspberry sorbet middle. Stay tuned!