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East-meets-West dessert: Sichuan peppercorns in gelato ice cream

THOUGH most Chinese go for fruit instead of sweet desserts, an American pastry chef is here scouting unusual ingredients for her own after-dinner treats. Sam Riley takes a bite.

While most people are still flicking through the savory offerings on a restaurant's menu, top-ranking American pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom is casting an expert eye over the desserts.

French-trained, Lozada-Hissom has worked with top chefs in New York and has taken a break from her two restaurants in Denver, Colorado, to visit Shanghai on a two-week culinary fact-finding mission.

Chinese diners are more inclined to finish a meal with fruit rather than something sweet so, at first glance, it seems a strange choice for a dessert expert's gourmet sojourn.

But Lozada-Hissom says she is looking for interesting cooking techniques and ingredients to use in her own desserts.

Her creations are known for their elegant, understated pairing of flavors and textures, and she has previously used Chinese ingredients, such as a dash of Sichuan peppercorns, in her gelati.

"I love when people ask 'What is in this? It's wonderful, but I don't know why'," Lozada-Hissom says.

"So if I have a creme freche or a gelato and I put a touch of peppers or something different, it conjures a memory. People may have tasted it, but can't quite figure it out. To see people's faces, I love that," she adds.

Lozada-Hissom says a childhood watching her mother and grandmother cooking was her inspiration to forge a career in the kitchen.

Born in Venezuela, Lozada-Hissom spent her formative years in Arequipa, a city perched in the Andes mountains in southern Peru.

Food and family were part of the fabric of daily life, with fresh natural produce a central focus.

"Food was a big part of daily life and every meal was a celebration," she says. "Watching my grandmother cook was a joy. I have two cousins that are chefs, my grandmother had a big influence and my mother was also a great baker."

Her formative food memories continue to inform her cooking style, with Lozada-Hissom's desserts much more likely to come from the heart using classic, fresh flavors rather than be heavily constructed, intellectualized works in the molecular cooking style.

"What I see in New York, Chicago and San Francisco is more and more chefs using local and fresh ingredients," she says. "That is more gutsy than food that is too intellectualized, that you see on a plate, and it is almost sterile. It doesn't really tell you who cooked that."

Fresh seasonal fruits are a staple of her dessert menus, and classically executed tarts with intelligent flavor matchings are another of Lozada-Hissom's signature desserts.

Simple ingredients such as honey and walnuts are allowed to shine in a precisely prepared tart.

After finishing medical school in Peru, Lozada-Hissom decided to pursue her first love of cooking, moving to Paris to study in La Sorbonne. Then she moved on to New York where she worked with top names such as Gary Robins and Katy Sparks.

In Denver, she is one half of the city's power culinary couple, with keynote eateries Duo Restaurant and the Mediterranean-influenced Olivea, which she operates with her husband, executive chef and food writer Josh Broening.

She has also branched out into the retail food world, making a brand of healthy sugar-free granola, from a recipe that originates from her grandmother in Peru.

Udi's, her brand of granola, is now sold in more than 4,000 stores across the United States and Canada.

Despite being kept busy with a range of restaurant and business ventures, Lozada-Hissom says she is still driven by the joys of cooking and a love of food.

The anticipation of opening the oven to see the results, a freshly baked tart with a cup of coffee on her patio at home, are just some of the simple pleasures that energize her creativity, she says.

"I think my reward is to know that I gave that last memory of a meal and I made someone happy with that last memory, and that I closed that meal with something that gave them pleasure," says the chef.


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