An artist at Play
By RG Davis
With a persona as delightful and sweet as his desserts, one gets the feeling that Executive Pastry Chef Ryan Witcher’s purpose on Earth is to bring joy to others with his playful and flamboyant desserts. If pastry-making is an art, then the sweet and savoury ingredients of the world are his medium.
Pairing unconventional flavours like lavender with chocolate ganache or basil and wild strawberries, Chef Ryan Witcher quickly earned a reputation as a master confectioner, fusing the sweet and savoury for tantalizing yet subtle combos that blossom on the palate before gently melting away.
With a light-hearted and contagiously positive demeanour about him, Witcher has a genuine enthusiasm for his craft and insists dessert should be a fun and playful experience – a “pick-you-up” to the end of a meal. His passion is evident in the copious attention to detail he pours into the presentation of signature creations like pink, strawberry-basil lollipops or shimmering and glossy, air-brushed pralines.
Spending nearly half of his life in the industry, the 31-year-old chef started washing dishes at age 15 and saw “how much fun the cooks were having on the line,” and began working his way through different kitchens as a line cook and sous chef before transition to pastries around the age of 20. With previous executive pastry experience at numerous high-end properties, including the Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons Hotels, Witcher now oversees all pastry and bakery production for the integrated resort Marina Bay Sands. His team supplies baked goods to 25 different Marina Bay Sands outlets, as well as conventions, in addition to fashioning mouth-watering works of art for The Chocolate Bar on the Sands Sky Park and Sweet Spot, the hotel’s espresso bar, dessert and bakery outlet. And he does it all with a smile.
What inspired the transition from cooking meals to pastry-making?
I was kind of bored with hot food. You can be very creative but there’s only so much you can do with appetizers or entrees. It wasn’t a creative enough outlet for me. I like shiny things, bright colours and that doesn’t really mesh well with savoury cooking. So at one of the last jobs in Michigan, the executive chef asked me if I’d like to try pastries…and it was awesome. I loved it.
You seem to genuinely enjoy what you do and thrive at bringing that joy to others. Where does this passionate approach that dessert should be ‘fun and playful’ stem from?
Food is supposed to be an overall experience; not a stuffy, feel like you have to dress up affair. So I like more of the playful approach where it adds that extra something. And a lot of the reason I like pastry is because I’m really competitive too. So it was always fun for me in the restaurants ‘cause dessert is the last impression that the guest gets – so it’s kinda fun. The meal could be bad or good – the dessert can either save a bad meal or make the meal the best they’ve ever had. With pastries, you can do so much more on presentation than you can with the savoury foods. So it’s always fun to walk by the chefs and be like ‘yeah that’s cool, but look at this!’
Speaking of presentation, your desserts are so imaginative and artistic but what is your all-time favourite dessert?
We used to have these family reunions and my grandma used to bring sprinkles, so she had like 50 different kinds of sprinkles and every time we went to her house we got to eat ice cream and pick two sprinkles to eat with it. It’s my favourite dessert still to this day. It’s like a good memory – very fond and helps keep things in balance too. Where you can see my desserts are more on the playful end as opposed to the typical European style where everything is very precise. I want more to ‘bring out the kid in you.’
So how did you come up with these sweet & savoury, elegant yet lively combinations, like the strawberry-basil or chocolate infused with thyme?
A lot of it was from Michigan. One of my best friends owned a farm and I used to go there a lot… see the different produce and taste the different vegetables and herbs. It resonated with me. It was familiar. So when I started cooking savoury, I learned the different cooking techniques and what I found when switching from savoury to pastry is that a lot of the cooking technique make more sense in a pastry aspect. The example I use to explain this is rice pudding: usually people just dump everything in a pot, cook it until the rice is al dente and then they pull it off and cool it down. You get a good flavour out of it but when you get down to the rice, you’re pretty much just eating rice. But if you cook rice pudding in a risotto style…it just keeps reducing the liquid down and down so it diffuses the flavour actually into the rice and you get a better taste profile in the end. So that’s one savoury technique that I applied to pastry right away.
And your inspiration for light, fragrant flavours like lavender whipped ganache?
I would say 90% of pastries I taste are way too sweet. There’s too much sugar in it and so I was always looking for the way to balance it. I always want the guest to leave refreshed, playful, lightened. And you can’t do that with a heavy meal and a heavy dessert at the end. Especially for a fine dining restaurant, I always take that into mind and go off the textures and balance. So it’s a lot of collaboration with the executive chef to get that perfect dining experience so everything complements each other.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
Yes and No. I do until someone asks me to draw something on paper. I see it in my head and I make it. But I get a lot of inspiration from art galleries and reading magazines, also this building too. There’s so much inspiration with the architectural designs, shops and walking around here that keeps feeding your creativity.
So what’s next?
Honestly, right now I can’t see what’s better than this. I work for on of the top properties in the world…It’s one of the best opportunities.