Orchestrating Flavours in Talita’s Kitchen

by Julius Kensan
17th February 2014
Over afternoon tea, we talk to rising pastry chef Talita Setyadi on the importance of staying focused and perfectionism.

Pastry has, unofficially, earned itself a similar status to that of Fashion. In a sense that just like Fashion, pastry is marked with trends, especially for the past few years. First it was doughnut, and then came cupcakes to macaroons and finally cronuts. What will be the next big thing is anyone’s guess. But Talita Setyadi does not concern herself with that, for it is the crafts that she’s after, not trends.

The name, Talita Setyadi may induce some head-scratching moment, but that is all set to change. One month after my visit, the rising pastry chef has been featured in Martha Stewart Living Magazine. It is definitely a leap, instead of a step, for Setyadi, given that a big part of her success was largely due to her modest blog, Talita’s Kitchen.

It’s not hard to grasp why her blog is a success. In it, Talita shares her recipes and thoughts on pastry generously along with photos of her beautiful creations. A beautiful “girl-next-door” lady and impeccable pastry, so what’s not to love?

“It sounds so cliché but it started after I watched the movie Julie and Julia.”

We plant ourselves in her dining room over a pot of black tea and various pastries, courtesy of Setyadi. Right before the start of the interview, Setyadi glares at the pot of black tea and vexes, “It’s supposed to turn black…” But she pours us each a cup of tea anyway.

Setyadi’s journey in pastry is not unlike that of a movie script. Ironically, it is thanks to a movie that ignites her passion in cooking.

“It sounds so cliché but it started after I watched the movie Julie and Julia. I was completely oblivious to this culinary world until I saw that movie and I don’t even know who Julia Child is. I went to the bookstore the next day and got the Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking book,” she explains. It appears that Setyadi herself is still amazed by that fact, even up to this day.

“The next day I made Bourguignon and I thought, ‘You know what? I might as well do what Julie Powell did and took a picture of it.’ But I wasn’t going to do the whole book. A lot of my friends, who are also bloggers, checked it out and encouraged me to keep going. I think I did a few more dishes from the book. I just thought, ‘Wow, French technique is quite interesting.’ From there I cooked more dishes and took more pictures,” she recalls.

It is also interesting to point out that prior to finding her passion in cooking, Setyadi studied Jazz Performance in New Zealand. While there, she was also involved a band called Teacups, where they opened for big Indie names such as, Cat Power and Jose Gonzalez.

“Cooking was the one thing that kept distracting me from practicing music. I tried to do my Master’s and just couldn’t stop thinking about food. For me, my type of personality is that I focus on one thing or nothing at all. It’s like someone incepted the idea of food into my brain and I just couldn’t think of anything else anymore,” she says.

Perhaps her passion for cooking was established early as a child – her grandma used to own a bakery and her mum used to make birthday cakes. “I guess I’ve always been into cooking but didn’t think about making it my career. I never went beyond muffins or cupcakes,” she says.

“I set a goal for myself that I’m going to get number one.”

Setyadi speaks in a tone that is very precise and clear – a reflection on her knowledge in music. She pronounces each word with clarity as if she’s able to virtually see the musical notes in every syllable of the words.

She decided to pursue her passion further to study cuisine and patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “It was a big decision that I made within two weeks. My parents were happy with me doing anything else but music. They always let us kids do whatever we like but deep down they’re like, ‘What are they going to do with music? Is she going to be a teacher?’” she laughs.

What was it like to studying in one of, if not, the most prestigious culinary school in the world? “It was tough. I’m deadly focused and fiercely competitive. As soon as I found out they have placements, I set a goal for myself that I’m going to get number one,” she says.

And she did. Setyadi graduated ranking first in Patisserie. With such strong and unwavering commitment, I ask if she is a perfectionist.

“On things I can control, like cakes. I guess life isn’t perfect. Sometimes I put my frustration into my cakes so they have to look nice. But there are a lot of failed attempts,” she says as a matter of fact.

“Learn the changes and forget them.”

At this point, she urges me to try her pastry that has been sitting in the middle of the table. Among them are mini Strawberry Tarts, Madeleines and other pastry with names that are too hard to commit into memory. I pop the mini Madeleine into my mouth and ask what does she think of her own work.

“There is transfer skills, how the things you’ve studied in the past and you applied it to the field you’re doing at the moment. Because I studied music, and my thought was the quote from Charlie Parker (famous American jazz saxophonist and composer), which says, ‘Learn the changes and forget them,’” she recalls with deep concentration.

“So what he’s saying is, learn the course of the music, learn the scales and learn your instrument well. Then forget it and you create. That’s basically the fundamental of Jazz. What I thought was, during my time in Le Cordon Bleu, I’ve to learn all the basics and all the different components of the cakes. After I left Cordon Bleu, I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve learnt all the components, I’m not going to go out into the world and just bake Cordon Bleu cakes.’ That’s the point. After I graduated, I decided to make my own creations using the inspirations and components that I’ve learnt at school but putting them in different combinations that I’ve haven’t seen before from pastry shops and have my friends to taste it,” she says.

“You’re supposed to notice everything.”

In the present climate, pastry has been getting plenty of recognition thanks to social media, such as Instagram. It is largely due to the fact that with the ‘picture-worthy’ appearance of the pastry itself, it is too hard to resist oneself from snapping a picture and posting it online. Sweet tooth, sweet nothings or sweet as honey, the hashtags practically wrote themselves.

“I think that’s the thing about French Patisserie. Well, in Patisserie, people take as much pride on its appearances as they do on the tastes,” she explains. “To gain popularity through social media, your food needs to look good before someone goes to your store to find it. So it’s definitely important. Maybe Patisserie wasn’t such a big field five years ago and now everyone is so into it. And the competition is tough. You need to take the effort to make sure your food looks good.”

Appearances aside, I wonder what she thinks about the “one-note” taste of pastry in Jakarta, which is generally too sweet?

“If you listen to an orchestra or you listen to a Jazz band, you’re not supposed to pick out the difference. You’re not supposed to notice one thing, ‘Oh, the drum is too loud.’ When you hear music as a whole thing, it’s just beautiful,” Setyadi explains while clearly pronouncing each word. “I feel that same thing applies to food. You eat something too salty; you notice the salt but then if it’s just right, everything is nicely blend in. I think sugar is a facilitator, just like salt. You’re supposed to notice everything.”

And that belief was present in every bite of her pastry. It’s true. With her pastry, it was as if different flavours have come together in flawless harmony – an orchestra of flavours.

“I think it’s necessary to have a good balance.”

With such firmly established principles, it is no surprise then that Setyadi was featured in So Good Magazine on July 2013. (For the uninitiated, So Good Magazine is an international magazine that focuses on pastry in all it forms and varieties.) “It’s crazy. I’m the first amateur they put on there. If you look through all of them, they are world’s best pastry chefs,” she enthuses. And with that, it officially cemented her status as one of the best and newest pastry chefs to watch.

Being so thoroughly focused, it is obvious that Setyadi has plenty of goals set for the future. “I’m in the process of starting my own kitchen, an actual Talita’s Kitchen. I want to start really small first and supply to cafes,” she pauses.

As if already foreseeing what lies ahead, she continues, “I don’t want to open a whole café or restaurant just yet. I think that’s too much pressure. I like to experiment. So I don’t want to be inundated with orders to the point where I don’t have time for myself to experiment and create. I think it’s necessary to have a good balance. So I’d rather start simple first.”

She takes a sip of tea and notices the empty pot of tea. And as if serving a point to the importance of having time for oneself, Setyadi stands up and coolly says, “Let me get us another pot of tea.”