Mai Nguyen, 32, is the executive pastry chef at the Seaport’s new brasserie, Coquette, inside the enormous and freshly launched Omni Seaport Hotel. Eventually, she’ll provide breads and desserts for the entire property. Coquette is also the newest destination for the COJE Management Group, which runs stylish spots around town such as Mariel and Yvonne’s.
Nguyen is originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., where her family settled after fleeing Vietnam.
“My dad’s family was the first family sponsored in Michigan. They were provided with a house. He has eight siblings, and my mom has 13,” she says. Most of them are still in Michigan.
She’s making a name for herself in the family as a talented chef, fresh off a three-year stint at Flour Bakery in the Back Bay and South End; before that, she worked in the Napa Valley for Thomas Keller at Bouchon and at Morimoto Napa. She met her fiancée at Bouchon; wildfires prompted the pair to head east.
What’s the difference between the restaurant scene on the West Coast versus Boston?
I would say the West Coast is a lot more intense for sure. You have people fly in from all across the United States just to work anywhere. Everybody there is really hard-working, dedicated, fighting to be there. Everybody has passion. It’s a lot of competition. I really enjoyed working with people with the same priorities.
What’s it like to work at Flour?
So coming from the really intense restaurant scene in Napa Valley to Joanne Chang’s Flour Bakery was completely different. She focuses on having a great atmosphere and creating her own culture. Everyone’s nice. It’s completely different. But I’ve definitely learned a lot of management skills from Flour. She provides a lot of professional development classes, from financials to how to mentally manage your team to properly doing paperwork as far as HR things and proper procedures and how to write a formal e-mail. It definitely taught me a lot of professionalism and a lot of management skills, for sure.
What do you think is the future of hospitality in Boston? No one quite knows when tourism is going to totally come back.
I’ll be honest. In the beginning, I was really worried. I was like: Am I going to have to switch careers? Now, I’m very optimistic. Boston is great. We bounce back. I commute in, and even driving these past two weeks, it’s been more and more traffic every single day. Our restaurants are full. I’m very optimistic.
What do you think will drive people to restaurants? Who’s your customer base?
We’re connected to the convention center, of course, so all of those customers. COJE is an awesome restaurant group; I feel like we have a nice following. Anytime we open a new restaurant, people check out anything we’re working on. [There will be] a lot of tourists because of the hotel, but I think COJE has a pretty big following.
What made you want to get into the restaurant world? Was there a first job or first experience that really sparked your interest in pastry?
When you’re young, nobody knows what they’re going to school for. I wanted to do radiology, I was waitlisted for a program. I loved making cakes, and it branched off from there. So while I was waitlisted for this radiology program, I joined the Art Institute of Michigan, where I went to school for baking and pastry. I love working with my hands. I’m a very creative individual, and being able to create things with my hands is a creative outlet. I ditched the radiology. I didn’t look back.
Do you have any early food memories that influenced you?
I grew up in Ann Arbor. As a treat for us after church, we’d go for dim sum. The place next door was a bakery, and I’d always look forward to this chocolate cake with sprinkles. I love sprinkles. I love Asian pastries. And I always had ice cream cake as a kid. You know, getting dessert was always a treat.
What skills does being a pastry chef require that other types of cooking might not?
Precision. I feel like pastry departments are always underrated in a restaurant. People think we’re playing with sugar. We’re making cookies every day. They don’t take us seriously. There’s a lot of skill that goes behind it as far as measurement. We weigh everything! And of course, always using the highest quality ingredients. You can’t just look at something and say, “Hey, this needs to be a little fluffy. I’m just going to sprinkle baking soda on it.”
What’s the most challenging and most rewarding part of your job?
Those are the same! I love mentoring people. I mean, at the same time, managing is always one of the most difficult, because you are managing people individually. You know, you’re not just managing a team. You’re managing every single personality differently, because everybody responds differently. But, at the same time, it’s so rewarding. I always get people to come back to me and say, “You’ve been the greatest mentor and greatest boss I’ve worked for. So it’s awesome that I actually hired people back in Boston who worked for me previously.”
What’s your signature dessert?
We have this apple Armagnac dessert. It’s like a blossoming tart. When you read the description, you wouldn’t even picture it coming to your table. So it’s this blossoming apple tart with almond cream inside and apple pie spices, cooked in Armagnac. We do a salted honey ice cream with that. We coat everything in powdered sugar and caramel drizzle.
Do you have a favorite snack?
I love making spring rolls. That’s something quick, easy, and fresh. In the winter, I’m always making pho. I’m always going to have a pot of that in my fridge for sure. Snacking-wise? Honestly, probably cheese sticks.
Any advice for amateur bakers at home?
Get a scale and measure everything in grams.