Muse
Sweet Recipe
Grace Lim 
Students are guided by internationally renowned chefs
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When it comes to equipping yourself with the skills to be a top chef, France’s Le Cordon Bleu and Switzerland’s Culinary Arts Academy are at the top of the list. But right here in Petaling Jaya, the Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia is carving a reputation as the go-to culinary school for aspiring pastry chefs.

The school is the brainchild of Niklesh Sharma from New Delhi. The 43-year-old hotel management graduate cut his teeth by helping to open various hotels in India, which included setting up their pastry kitchens. He then moved to Singapore to become an executive pastry chef.

“I realised then that there were many things that I didn’t know. But I was determined to be a great pastry chef and that was when I started planning my personal journey to get to achieve that goal.”

He began by travelling to Europe, the US and Taiwan to hone his skills further. In 2007, he became the executive pastry chef at Renaissance Kuala Lumpur Hotel, leading a team of 32.

“During my time there I would interview students who were interested in joining us after they graduated. They were fresh graduates but they lacked practical experience. I also went to various universities and colleges to judge culinary competitions, and I noticed that a majority of the courses were more academic than practical – too much time was spent in a classroom instead of in a kitchen,” Niklesh observes.

He decided to open his own pastry school to address the issue. “I wanted to groom the younger generation to be more confident in what they do.”

It took him 10 months to structure the programme. The Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia was opened in 2010 with the help of two chefs. A year later, Niklesh quit his job to focus on running the academy full-time.

“We started with a nine-month programme which is divided into three levels – basic, intermediate and advanced. Each level takes three months to complete, with one week of theory and 11 weeks in the kitchen,” he elaborates.

Since then, the academy has expanded its programme offerings to accommodate students of different levels and commitments, including a three-month part-time programme with classes held on weekends.

The academy does not have a strict entry requirement; you just need to have an interest in culinary arts. “We’ve had students in their 20s as well as in their 50s.”

Many of the graduates have gone on to greener pastures. One of the first graduates is Xiaoly Koh, who now runs her own patisserie, Xiao by Crustz in Petaling Jaya. She reveals that she was deciding between Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok and the academy.

“I decided to study here in the end because I knew the teaching chefs had hotel background and were very passionate about culinary arts,” she says. “It has not only given me the knowledge I needed to be a pastry chef but also expanded my view on what I could do in this field. The people I met at the academy were amazing, and they drove me to be better.”

What has she learnt most there? “Never compromise on visuals for taste. Also, always stay humble and share your knowledge,” she replies.

The academy currently has 16 permanent instructors and 32 visiting pastry chefs from all over the world, the latter a huge contributor to its attraction. One of the visiting experts is Lawrence Cheong,  who won the Best Chocolate Display at the World Pastry Cup and was named the top chef Patissier of Asia in Shanghai last year. Then there is Jean Francois Arnaud, an international consultant who was awarded the Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) in 2000. The MOF is a prestigious craftsman award in France, granted to the cream of the crop in their respective fields.

To further motivate the students, they are required to participate in pastry competitions such as Food Hotel Malaysia Awards, World Pastry Cup and Mondial des Arts Sucre.

 

Niklesh (left) wants to create a platform for aspiring pastry chefs get the right balance of theoretical and practical skills; Koh credits her training at the academy for her success today

Niklesh explains: “We don’t ask them to compete to prove they are the best, but we want them to set an example for the younger generation. Most of them are just looking for someone to look up to, and when you compete, you also get new ideas.”

 

Niklesh has since opened two schools in India and one in the Philippines, and is currently looking to partner with a school in Singapore.

“You don’t have to go overseas to study how to be a world class chef. Malaysia has the talent, evidenced by how well our students have done at these competitions. Once you have armed yourself with all the necessary knowledge and skill, the next step is to expand your ideas and translate them on a plate,” he smiles.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 249.