By Hillary Haenes
August may only mark her second year in Bakersfield, but Mai Giffard, assistant pastry chef at the Padre Hotel, is no stranger to the community.
“I have been fortunate enough to have made a lot of connections with many people in the community, and a handful of very close friends through networking,” said Giffard. “Many of whom are supporters of art, good food and wine.”
Giffard, 26, attended The International Culinary Schools at the Art Institute of Orange County in her hometown of Santa Ana. There she studied culinary arts and management, then brought her impressive skills up north where she has really established herself.
A lot of people hear about her work via word of mouth after she cooks at a dinner party, caters mixers at Metro Galleries or has made a birthday cake for loved ones.
Her most exciting experience in the kitchen was when she recently had the opportunity to spend a day at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley.
“I met her at the Buena Vista Edible Schoolyard fundraiser, and she invited my good friend and fellow pastry chef to come work for a day. She is an amazing woman, food activist, chef, restaurateur, philanthropist and one of my biggest role models,” Giffard said, who is inspired by Waters’ philosophy on farm-to-table/seed-to-plate food.
When Giffard isn’t in the kitchen at the iconic downtown hotel or freelancing cakes and French pastries for parties, she enjoys doing makeup (she also used her creative skills as a makeup artist while in college) for weddings, special events and collaborating with photographers. She loves yoga, painting, continuing to become fluent in Spanish and French as well as practicing the guitar and piano.
I developed an interest in cooking and baking when: I was very young, watching and helping my mother cook dinner every day and baking with my older sister.
How often I cook at home: Almost every day, even after a long shift, and even if it is just a simple meal of fresh vegetables or eggs. At the very least, it’s three times a week, in which case I make big batches of healthy meals I can reheat throughout the week.
Ingredients that I love to use in my recipes are: Garlic and salt. I am a cook’s cook — these are my flavor-enhancing friends.
My favorite piece of cooking equipment is: My All-Clad pans. They are amazing to cook in.
My ideal dinner menu consists of: Sashimi or poke as an appetizer; seasonal salad; grilled fish and seasonal vegetables as an entree and seasonal fruit sorbet as dessert.
I buy this in bulk: Almond flour — I love baking Parisian macaroons and I like to have this ingredient on hand at all times. A nut company I buy from makes the finest, clump-free variety.
I’m addicted to: Carrot juice.
I always mess up: A cookie here and there, so I can eat it.
I rock at making: I make some pretty mean macaroons and croissants.
Cake I am most proud of baking: One of my dearest friend’s birthday cake. A two-tiered chocolate cake with salted caramel and salted caramel buttercream filling. Decorated with a very teal buttercream, yellow and white flowers, gray bead accents and yellow inscription. It was very her, very me and very modern.
My go-to cocktail is: An old-fashioned.
My splurge at the grocery store: Fresh seafood.
My kitchen disaster: I can’t remember honestly, because when I make a mistake, I immediately plan and execute a solution and move on. No time to dwell.
Worst kitchen injury: I cut my thumb while carelessly opening a bag and had to have five stitches. I was working two restaurant jobs and going to culinary school. We were short-staffed that day, so I bandaged my finger and put a glove on, worked a full eight-hour shift before going to urgent care, then when straight to class.
Ingredients I avoid/dislike: Artificial flavorings and extracts; anything with hydrogenated oils.
My go-to ingredient: Savory fresh herbs and fresh spices or sweet vanilla bean.
Number of cookbooks I own: A lot. But a few of my favorites are “Ad Hoc at Home” by Thomas Keller, “The Perfect Finish” by Bill Yosses and “The Perfect Scoop” by David Lebovitz.
If I could spend a day with a famous chef or fellow foodie, it would be: Anthony Bourdain, so that I could pick his brain and travel somewhere, eat and drink with him.
Advice I would ask him: How to start up, run and maintain successful restaurants, while getting to write about food and travel for a living.
My favorite local restaurant and my order: The Belvedere Room at the Padre Hotel. For an appetizer: yellowtail crudo and duck confit; entrée: shrimp pasta — made with our housemade black rigatoni — or Pacific ling cod with long beans, fresh baby corn, shitake mushroom and lemongrass consomme. (I also really love Mama Roomba, Uricchio’s, Enzo and Chef’s Choice Noodle Bar as well as all of our Basque restaurants!)
My favorite cuisine/dish: Fresh, local, seasonal and sustainable. I am open to many different types of cuisine that utilize fresh, local, seasonal food. I am most partial to French, Vietnamese and Japanese cuisine although, I love Peruvian, Indian, Italian, Thai, Greek, Filipino, Mexican ... the list goes on.
My favorite cooking show to watch is: I actually don’t have time to watch, but I make time to watch “No Reservations” and “Top Chef.”
My most expensive meal: My honeymoon splurge dinner at L’Atelier De Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas.
Best food memory: The smell and taste of fresh breads and croissants in Paris. And my entire (respective) meals at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Chez Panisse!
Worst food memory: Getting a fish bone in my throat when I was a kid.
Weirdest food I like: Shrimp paste. It is an accoutrement to a Vietnamse soup called bún riêu cua — rice noodles served with tomato broth, stewed tomatoes and crab meat.
Favorite fruit: Mangoes.
Favorite ice cream bar: La Rosa strawberry ice cream bars.
My favorite comfort food: Pasta of any variety.
Where I find inspiration to create a new dish: I pair what’s in season or available at the market with memories of meals I have loved in the past.
The local restaurant I want to eat at that I haven’t yet is: Moo Creamery — I have heard great things but haven’t made the trip out yet.
Favorite dessert: Homemade vanilla bean ice cream or fruit sorbet.
Cake I ask for on my birthday: I actually prefer a French-Vietnamese-style fruit tart — the shell is made of crisp puff pastry rather than traditional French pate sucree. My mom would get them from local French-Vietnamese bakeries for me growing up.
My favorite midnight snack: Toasted hazelnuts and dark chocolate or Popchips.
The tastiest thing I’ve eaten this month: Chanterelle pizza straight out of the wood-fired oven at Chez Panisse.
My favorite food discovery of 2011: The mberry (miracle fruit tablets).