21 March, 2012

That Girl: Jennifer Cheung of Sift Desserts

21 March, 2012

This week’s That Girl is Jennifer Cheung, founder of Sift Desserts i.e. Team Sassy’s absolute favourite cupcake place bar none! If you’ve not had one of their Smores cupcakes… (or the salty caramel ones… or the Oreo ones… or any really!), you don‘t know what you’re missing out on!

We chat to Jennifer about her fantasy flavour cupcakes, the best places for Chinese desserts and how to turn a passion into a business.

Fill us in on your background and where you grew up. Are you and your family originally from Hong Kong?
I grew up here in Hong Kong and left for boarding school in the States at 15. I then continued to college at Harvard and spent half a year abroad living in Paris.

Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I now live on Bowen Road. I love flowers, candles, books and photos and have tried to fill my home with them as much as possible.

How would you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change?
I guess I’d describe it as understated, simple and cool. I like androgynous pieces and things that are not overly ornate. I also don’t fuss with details so I veer away from items that are a) uncomfortable and b) require too much effort to put together.

Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds you can let us in on?
I’m usually too busy to do too much shopping to be honest. I’ll do quick stops at my favorite brands but really do most of my shopping online – prices are usually better too!

What are your must-have beauty products? Where do you go for hair/nails/maintenance?
I am extremely low maintenance in the beauty products department. I swear by Elemis and La Prairie Day Cream and toner, and only occasionally put on blush. I never do my nails actually (the kitchen calls for clean, unpolished nails so I never get manicures). For haircuts, I adore Shane Chandler and will go to him for a gorgeous trimming when schedule allows.

What is your favourite thing to do at the weekend?
I work most weekends but if I’m not, my favorite thing to do is really just have a good meal, do a good hike when it’s nice out and cook breakfast at home.

What are your favourite restaurants in Hong Kong?
For Chinese, I’d say Lei Garden, One Harbour Road at the Grand Hyatt and Forum are my favourites. For Italian, it’s Da Domenico and Otto e Mezzo; for Japanese, I adore Kenjo, and Dan Ryan’s remains an all time childhood favourite.

We all know Sift is the go-to place for desserts… but do you have any tips for where to get good Chinese desserts in HK? What are your favourite local desserts?
I love old-fashioned egg tarts with the puff pastry edges. Fook Lam Moon does a great version of it with their dim sum selection. Occasionally I’ll go to Honeymoon Dessert for other Chinese desserts, but to be honest I’m always more of a Western desserts fan!

What inspired you to start Sift?
The love for desserts!

Which is your favourite dessert at Sift? Which is the most popular?
My favourite is our salty caramel cupcake. Our red velvet and chocolate cupcakes are our two best sellers and we sell hundreds of each every day.

What is your fantasy flavour cupcake? Do you have any particular weird or wonderful ideas up your sleeve? Have you ever had any flavours that just didn’t work?
I don’t know about a fantasy cupcake but there’s a list – Ube, Maple, Caramel Apple, Flourless Chocolate for Passover – that we are working on. Some we’ve tried and didn’t turn out quite satisfactory, and we’re still continuously working on those!

Prior to founding Sift, you worked at Deutsche Bank’s Equity Capital Markets division. What prompted the career change? Do you miss anything about it?
I was working 100+ hour weeks and was not passionate about what I was doing. While I sometimes still work those hours, Sift being my own business and it being something I’m crazy about doing makes all the difference. I really don’t miss much about banking actually!

Have you ever had that ‘Ratatouille’ moment where a certain taste takes you back to a specific time or place (like in the Pixar film where the food critic is taken back to their childhood when they eat the ratatouille!)?
I have a crazy memory, I really rarely forget much, and it’s many a time that my food memories have helped me remember experiences decades past.

My very first food memory was when I was about 3 or 4 years old and I followed a recipe for the very first time. It was a banana milk shake recipe I did with my mom and I still remember the whole process: mashing the bananas, blending it with the milk and ice cream… I loved every second of it! To this day as I sift, mix, whip, pipe in my kitchen, the thing I still love most about baking is the metamorphosis of the entire process; how you turn simple ingredients into extraordinary desserts.

How difficult has it been turning your love of home baking into a business?
Any entrepreneur will tell you, starting and running a business is not easy, especially one in Food & Beverage. You run into problems and challenges that no textbook, classroom and any previous experience can either really prepare you for or teach you what to do. But at the end of the day, when you’re crazy about what you do, it’s just not that much hard work. So while it might still be manically stressful at times, the passion you have for the content inspires you to move forward.

You trained at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education and interned as a pastry chef in the city. How do tastes vary between here and the States? Which country has the sweeter tooth?! 
In general, I’d say the local population here have a much milder palette when it comes to desserts. Certainly American desserts are a lot sweeter. I do think however the palette fabric of this city is changing. Given the myriad of new dessert establishments that have opened in the past few years, I do believe that our propensity for all things sweet has evolved and grown.

Do you have any advice for girls wanting to start their own business here?
Failure is a part of the process. It’s how you learn, grow and evolve, so never be afraid to fail. When you discover an opportunity and something you love doing, take that leap of faith and everything else will fall into step. You always regret more what you don’t do rather than things that you do. Set goals for yourself and work relentlessly towards those goals. Success in anything requires hard work and there are no shortcuts in life. Finding what you love doing in life is like falling in love. Stay true to what you believe in and you can make it happen.

All photos in the That Girl article above were taken by the hugely-talented Sabrina Sikora of Sabrina Sikora Photography – get in touch with her at [email protected].

Check out the rest of our That Girls here!

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