When I met Jason Licker for the first time in Hong Kong this November, he came bouncing down the street wearing a baggy pair of jeans, oversized t-shirt, giant backpack, and the biggest grin I’ve ever seen. He greeted me like he’s known me for 20 years.
A friend of a friend, Jason kindly offered to connect with me and share about his experiences living in Asia.
Leading us down a bustling street, Licker suggested one of his favorite dim sum spots and while we stood in line, within the first 5 minutes, I got his abbreviated life story, about 25 expletives, and the news he’d soon be publishing his own cookbook Lickerland.
Some people tell me I have a big personality, but I’m pretty much a gerbil compared to the 39 year old pastry chef from Long Island.
At lunch, Jason and I talked cookbooks, agents and publishing given I spent two years working in marketing a Simon and Schuster.
He gave me the schpeal on self publishing, we inhaled our lunch, and said we’d chat when he came to NYC for his book tour.
Then bam, a few months later, I'm scrolling round on my phone and Jason blows up on insta he got nominated for a beard award. I was so jazzed for him. Years and years in the industry, this Star Chefs rising star chef has been in the industry since staging in his teens and colleges working kitchens such as Jean Georges, all the way up to holding executive roles at The Peninsula hotel, Nobu, The Venetian Macao Resort and Hotel, and the JW Marriott Hong Kong to name a few.
Lucky for us, Jason is totally down to earth and came to sit down and share what this whole experience has been like and a litte about his life as a chef. Here’s some of our interview and ridiculous photos of Licker’s asian inspired desserts from the book Lickerland which is available on amazon.com.
Interview with Jason Licker By Danielle Rehfeld
DR: You were nominated for a James Beard award, but you almost didn't submit. What happened?
JL: I got the book December 11th. The cutoff date was December 9th, and I think they were a little lenient because I was a little far away. I was in Bangkok … and the pastry chef at Robuchon … we were doing a little drinking and he was screaming at me. He’s like, "Submit it! Submit it!" And I'm like, "Shut up." … So then we wrote a huge email and they wrote the next day. Then you have to send a few books in and do the paperwork and then I just FedExed it and I forgot about it. Because I was like, ‘You know what, I just spent $500 on a FedEx, I don't want to even think about this’ … and then I got an email that said the category was changed from “pastry and baking” to “cooking from a professional point of view”... So I was like, 'Wow, O.K., I guess they like it that they changed it ... I think.’ So then I knew the Facebook Live thing was coming up … I was in Europe visiting a friend and I was in an Airbnb, so the internet connection was bad. So I had to call my stepmother. She had to play it on her Facebook Live, on speakerphone, and then we heard it and we both went screaming, to crying, to laughing. You know, it was pretty surreal...
DR: Before we officially began the interview, you were about to tell me a story about publishing the book. What was it?
JL: So I wrote everything and I was going around around ... meeting the different printers to get quotes, and one guy pulled me aside, he's like, “Khun (Mr.) Jason” -- we're in Thailand --he's like "You know when this is printed, it's forever. I suggest you go reread what you wrote.” I have a full blown meltdown ... meanwhile, the photographer and designers … they saw me just turn pale white and just start sweating. And they're like, “Are you O.K.?” ... And I'm like, “I need to find an editor.” I got lucky, I have a friend of friend, he’s American but he's been in Hong Kong 20 years, and I was actually recommended him months before … he gave me a great deal ... The guy, Jason, cut everything back, cleaned it up … Each dessert has a story. That was really important. And not like a crappy story like some other books that I have bought ... We wanted to do it very organically and against the grain and have everything have, like, a human connection to it. All the cookbooks I have, I read the first paragraph and I'm bored.
DR: When you came down the street to greet me after just a couple of emails back and forth in Hong Kong, you were coming over as if you had known me for 25 years. And the feeling I got is that you bring the reader in like you've known the reader for 25 years. The book is so conversational. It has you kind of written all over it.
JL: That's what we're trying to do but there's also a fine line of sounding like a moron. As I'm writing it you know, you start second-guessing yourself. When you're doing it yourself and you don't have a publishing company behind you...
DR: What propelled you to self-publish?
JL: When I turned 40, I'm like, ‘O.K., I need to do something.’... Every chef wants to do a book so I sent a bunch of emails out to publishing companies. I heard from like one or two ... So I told them my ideas. We spoke on the phone, and they're like, “O.K. we don't like the name” … and they're like, “We like your work, but we don't like this.”....So I was like, “You know what, I've saved some money ... I'm gonna do this myself.”
DR: Tell me about the “Licker Laws” in the book.
JL: We have “Understanding Your Palate,” my story, the ingredients, the ingredient map … and I'm like, we need to do the ‘Licker Laws.' The idea behind that was: This is the key to use this book. If you complain about any recipe I'm going to say, go to page 29 and Licker Law #3....The first one is: Use common sense.
DR: What are easiest and most technical recipes in the book?
JL: The simplest one is the Matcha Oreos … which is just like a shortbread cookie with matcha powder … Matcha Oreos is the easiest, the most technical is probably the big cakes.
DR: What attracted you to pastry versus savory?
JL: Well, we were always fat pigs growing up in Long Island. You know, I lived on a diet of Burger King, pizza and Coca-Cola, and then one girl in the seventh grade said I was funny but fat, and then I lost the weight, started going to the gym. And then when I was 19, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. So she was placed on a special diet. Well, you know, she still needed her sugar fix, because we were animals … Snackwell's devil's food cookies we'd eat, like, by the box. So we started cooking low sugar, low fat, low salt, and it was fun. Things were coming out O.K., to terrible, to not bad, to good. And I was like, ‘O.K.’, and I was interested, and that's just when the Food TV Network came out. I was watching as much as possible ... (my mom) never knew I went to culinary school or became a chef.
DR: You dedicated the book to your mom. What do you think it was that you took from your mother and that she tried to impart to you?
JL: She just had a love for food. I mean she was a terrible cook, terrible, but I mean they loved food, and loved to travel, and she had a big mouth. It's probably where I get it. She wasn't shy, but she wasn't overly aggressive, but you know, she'll tell you what she thinks. And she just liked to laugh. So I think that's what I've taken.
DR: Did you ever think, when you'd decided to self-publish a book, that you were going to get a James Beard nomination?
JL: I didn't think about even sending it. It's my friend that was, like, in my face, screaming at me.
DR: It's a very generous book.
JL: Well if I can do it, anyone can do it, if you want to. And you're gonna have to sacrifice and, you know, bust your balls to do it, but it depends what's important to you. You know, this was important to me. It also had to do with my mother, too ... You know, sometimes you need to give back to get somewhere else.
DR: What do you love about being a chef and what do you love about being a pastry chef?
JL: It's interesting. Before I became a pastry chef I used to write a lot of poetry and I stopped writing when I started cooking. So for me it's ... creative expression.
DR: What is your creative process like? How do you develop a dessert? What do you start with, or how does that go for you?
JL: I think, as I mentioned before, being a young, overweight, vacuum cleaner, helped. You know, I've always had a love affair with food so you're always interested in trying something new. It's ironic that I lived in China; I grew up eating Chinese food. There's some parallels. Because you have to train your palate like anything else, like your training a sport. You're just not gonna walk into a baseball field and hit a homerun. You're not gonna do that with making a dessert, either. So I think you need to try to travel as much as you can -- but if you're in a place like New York City, you don't need to. There's every single genre of food here. You have to push yourself outside the box. If you want to learn something, you will. If you don't, then you won't.
DR: For an aspiring pastry chef or for an aspiring home cook, What are three basic techniques that you would pass on to that person as things to master?
JL: Get a gram scale ... pastry's exact. That's number one. Tempering (eggs) is super important. If you do it in three separate increments, then you're not going to overcook your egg yolks or eggs. You know, you bring it up to temperature, and I think that's really important. Buy a thermometer and just use it. People I think are resistant to that … Guess what? Use it.
DR: What needs to be in your toolkit?
1. Small spatula with (curved) corners
2. Silicone mat
3. A thermometer
6. Cake cones
7. Know your oven, make sure it's calibrated
DR: What is the payoff for someone who wants to go into the hospitality industry or into cooking?
JL: This is the worst business. The worst. The worst business. I really think so. So you better love it. And if you really love it, then it's the best. If you're 50-50, don't do it ... I love it. I mean I didn't know that going to Shanghai in 2005 was going to open up a whole new world. I wouldn't change anything ... I'm going to be travelling a lot now because I'm willing to go anywhere to do anything to make a little magic.