Nosh's pastry chef offers French classics with a Japanese twist
It is just a couple of months since Nosh opened its doors, adding to the foodie transformation of Upper Station Street in Sheung Wan, and it's already hard to find a table for weekend brunch.
The inside-outside seating is perfect for soaking up the winter sun and the airy interior is dominated by a mural by local illustrator Lee Chi-ching. But walk in at the right time of day and your attention will be monopolised by the pastries.
Lined up in the glass cabinet they gleam like ornaments. For this venue that can barely seat 30 has its own pastry chef, and these little plates of perfection are created daily by chef Aki Yamamoto.
The tall, slim co-manager of Nosh, originally from Tokyo, emerges from her tiny kitchen bearing a tray of lemon tarts - her signature dish. Her excitement at having created another batch of goodies for her customers is evident as she carefully arranges them.
A self-confessed perfectionist who has always loved cooking, she mastered fried rice at the age of six. Her parents' jobs took her to Thailand and China, while she has spent her adult life in the US and Italy, as well as Japan. She soaked up the culinary cultures of wherever she was living, while teaching herself traditional Japanese dishes at home.
At first, she became an art student, but was soon tempted to take a Cordon Bleu course. That was delayed because of 2011's Fukushima earthquake, so she bought a Cordon Bleu book.
The desserts she made were so good her neighbours and friends persuaded her to start teaching them, and her love of pastries blossomed.
After finally taking the course in Kobe, she came to Hong Kong and put her new skills to work, first on the desserts at Lily and Bloom, and then Cépage in Wan Chai, where she moved between cooking stations.
"I loved them all but pastry was my favourite. I get bored really fast. Only pastry can keep me interested this long," she says.
It was at Cépage that she met her future co-manager, chef Danielle Yuen. They dreamed of having their own cafe, and grabbed the chance when Nosh came up.
"So now I have my own kitchen," says Yamamoto.
Her days are anything but easy. She starts baking at 5.30am and her long shift is filled with making the breads, croissants and pains au chocolat for Nosh's breakfast fare. Then she begins on the pastries, such as the apple tart tatin and mille-feuille, that emerge mid-morning and in the afternoon. She makes 10 of each every day and they sell fast.
Before lunchtime, when the cafe gets busy, she is kicked out of the kitchen and finishes her lemon tarts on the coffee bar.
The tarts are her most famous pastry. Concentrated lemon cream with a tangy curd intensity sits in the middle of whisker-thin pastry shells. It is covered with a light, fluffy lemon mousse and on the top is an even lighter, fluffier Italian-style meringue. Get here at midday to ensure you get one.
"My basic style is French because I love their culture, but I changed it a bit. Sorry about that," she laughs.
"The French-style lemon tart is about tradition, history and culture, but I add a bit of Japan, which is my personality. I like the traditional tart but it is too heavy for me and there is something missing. I changed it to the mousse - Japanese people love mousse - so is it OK to call it French-Japanese style?"
She's also keen to make new creations. "When I create a dessert I'm thinking about what kind of balance you want, what kind of texture.
"Inside there must be crunchiness, as even mousse can get a bit boring!"