Chef Jason Licker came from a family of “eaters” as he puts it. However, his interest in desserts was ironically sparked by Snackwells. A fat-free, low-sugar sandwich cookie that was marketed as a ‘healthy dessert option’. Incentivized by the idea of ‘healthy’ desserts, Chef Jason decided that he would embark on his first baking attempt. He landed on a ‘healthy’ banana bread recipe (replacing the butter, sugar etc.) and while the results were (admittedly) less than desirable, the experience of baking ignited his love of pastry.
Chef Jason has come a long way since then; his career trajectory has been somewhat unique, spanning across the world, including stages at some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants, TV spots on renowned shows, and now, a self-published cookbook.
As a university student at Cortland College in upstate New York, Chef Jason was yearning to develop his passion for pastry. One day, he pulled out his trusty Zagat guide and found the 10 best restaurants in the city. His mission? To work in one of these kitchens.
Chef Jason arrived in person at Union Square Cafe, willing to work for free in exchange for the experience and knowledge he would gain. With no previous pastry know-how, the chef took a chance on him. With this whirlwind of a stage under his belt, Chef Jason made the decision to go back to school for a six-month pastry program.
With virtually no kitchen experience, Chef Jason kept his nose to the grind to find a pastry job that fit his goals. And after graduating from the pastry program, Chef Jason worked to become one of the youngest managers at Charlie Palmer’s Metrazur in Grand Central Station. Throughout his career, one thing seems to be constant, Chef Jason Licker knows how to hustle.
I think it’s this can-do, will-do attitude that propelled Chef Jason to first branch out work abroad in Asia. Chef Jason was first introduced to Asian-style ingredients and dishes while working at Nobu. This sparked a love and appreciation for Asian-inspired flavours and when it came time to expand his horizons, he made the jump to Shanghai.
From Shanghai, Chef Jason moved on to take a job in Macau, before taking time off to explore his newfound surroundings. This Asia adventure took him to Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia (among other places) where he partook in “food hunting,” as he termed it. After a three year stint at the JW Marriott Hong Kong, Jason wound up opening Ke De Ta Bangkok. it didn’t take long for Chef Jason to find his next challenge: Iron Chef Thailand.
Chef Jason won the intense competition that he calls “crazy and chaotic.” After Iron Chef, Chef Jason returned to Hong Kong to open the newest outpost of restaurant brand Ce La Vi. Conquering one feat after the next, Chef Jason was turning 40 and had the thought to take on something new – open a restaurant. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, even the best-laid plans go awry, and the deal fell through.
Chef Jason found himself at a loss. Though an inkling of an idea was forming – why not write a cookbook? After reaching out to a number of publishers, Jason hadn’t gotten any bites; nevertheless, his entrepreneurial spirit did not let him down. That drive and hustle fuelled the self-publishing of his cookbook, ‘Lickerland’.
Chef Jason strikes me as a ‘jump in, feet first’ kinda guy, and he echoes this as he talks about the process of writing his first cookbook. He began the journey in an unconventional way – with the design first, writing second, editing third. He admits, laughing that, “We did everything wrong.”
Chef Jason and his team started with photo shoots, shooting the dishes during the off-hours at his restaurant, Ce La Vi. Chef Jason was working full-time at the restaurant and on the side, writing the recipes and the accompanying text as they shot photos of the dishes.
Self-publishing his own book meant that Chef Jason was not only chiefly involved in the writing, producing, and design, but also the rather ‘unsexy’ details of book publishing like shipping, selling, and marketing. It wasn’t easy, but it was a labour of love for Chef Jason who says that he wanted to invest in himself as well as share his knowledge and story.
The idea to self-publish came out of necessity in large part, but Chef Jason emphasizes his belief that every individual has the power to create their own success, that one just needs to sit and dedicate themselves to the task in order to realize it. It’s this belief that exemplifies how heavily self-reliant Chef Jason is, and of course, he wanted to carry over this philosophy when it came to publishing ‘Lickerland’.
Given the climate of the publishing industry today, it might be surprising that Chef Jason opted to produce a physical book instead of a less expensive e-book, or invest his time in a blog. However, Chef Jason highlights that, “You’re not making books for money, it’s more about building your brand. That being said, I do think it’s easier to make money by self-publishing, without an agent. For me, this book has really opened doors to other gigs and that’s been the biggest benefit.”
Like Chef Jason’s career, ‘Lickerland’ is a fusion of Asian and Western flavours that combines both traditional and modern approaches and techniques. The cookbook is focused solely on desserts, written more so for the industry rather than the average home cook.
Though Chef Jason’s professional life has been defined by pastry, unexpectedly, he himself isn’t the biggest dessert fan. What attracts him to the art of pastry is the precision needed when developing dishes. “I like the discipline and creativity of pastry, you can’t just throw salt and pepper on it and fix a dessert,” he says. While Chef Jason laughingly refers to himself as an “animal in life”, he underlines that he follows an army-like dedication in the kitchen.
Chef Jason refers to the “three Ts”: taste, temperature, and texture as his approach to pastry. He prefers to create dishes that aren’t overly heavy. He’s a stickler for flavour combinations and ensuring a balanced palate to his desserts. His travels and work in Asia have expanded his horizons to tastes that he would have never discovered otherwise. “Every country has their own indigenous ingredients,” he explains. Going to local markets in every city has allowed him to explore new combinations, like a smoked and salted plum juice from Taiwan.
Venturing across Asia has not only changed his approach to recipe development and creation, but also how he works, lives, and thinks about the art of cooking.
“In Asia, trends are faster;” he elaborates, “things can be stagnant in the West. It tends to be a handful of ‘big boys’ who rule the industry but here in Asia, you get amazing chefs coming out of nowhere. It’s a completely different ballgame.”