Executive Pastry Chef
Four Seasons Tenure
- First hired 2004; now since 2013
- First Four Seasons Assignment: Pastry Chef, Four Seasons Hotel Lisbon
Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues Geneva; Hotel Fortaleza do Guincho Relais & Chateaux, Cascais, Portugal; Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon; Bica do Sapato, Lisbon; Hotel Fortaleza do Guincho Relais & Chateaux, Cascais, Portugal; Le Buerehiesel, Strasbourg, France; Salle Saint-Jean - Hotel de Ville de Paris, Le Marais, France; Le Domain de Clairefontaine, Lyon, France
- Culinary Certificate, Lycée CFA Francois Rabelais, Lyon, France
- Republic of Vanuatu, South Pacific
- French, Portuguese, English
“We try to give guests art on the plate,” says Fabian Nguyen of the desserts he creates daily with his team as Executive Pastry Chef of Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon. One look at the striking temptations offered on the Hotel’s pastry menus, and there’s no doubt Nguyen is an artist, indeed.
Beyond flamboyant colour and artistic assembly, the key to success for Nguyen is simplicity. He never uses more than three or four flavours per dessert, he says, “Otherwise there is too much and guests won’t be able to distinguish one from the other.” Sweetness, too, is kept in check: “We don’t use too much sugar; instead, we focus on acidity.” Textures are combined expressly to dazzle the palate: a crispy or crunchy element such as a biscuit or toasted nuts, say, to play off something smooth and velvety like whipped cream, ice cream or custard.
Perhaps most important, Nguyen likes to keep things light. “Dessert is the last course; no one wants to walk away from the table feeling stuffed.”
From the Discovery Menu of Varanda Restaurant, for instance, guests can finish off their appetites with lip-smacking creations such as the deconstructed Black Forest assembled with cèpes biscuit, hazelnuts, chocolate, black garlic and sour cherry sorbet. At lunch, both at Varanda Restaurant and the Ritz Bar, Nguyen’s mille-feuille is the Hotel’s most beloved dessert - with layer upon layer of crème patissière, a dash of vanilla and his homemade raspberry jam. The latter was the focus of the very first Ritz Masterclass, a series launched in 2018 that gives guests opportunities to learn hands-on cooking techniques and tour the Hotel kitchen with talent from culinary team. “And,” adds Nguyen, “to have a lot of fun.”
Meanwhile, the Chef and his team regularly draw inspiration from the seasons and the city to create sweet and savory pastry selections for themed Afternoon Teas, such as the Jacaranda Tea inspired by fragrant flowers blooming on lilac trees all over Lisbon in early summer, or the Portuguese Tea with bite-sized offerings such as pastéis de feijão (bean tarts), queijadas de sintra (fresh cheese and almond tarts), and delicate sweets alluding to the designs of traditional Portuguese tiles.
Just as Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon has become influential to a new wave of gastronomy in the city, so the Hotel is a hotspot for pastry on the local scene. Unlike in the US and the UK, there are no cooking shows trumpeting the pastry arts on television in Portugal. But there are plenty of sweet-toothed Portuguese. “We have a lot of people who come here who are drawn by our classic and elegant desserts,” notes Nguyen. “From the service they receive to the pastries on the plate, we reward all of their desires.”
Nguyen’s path the pastry kitchen began in his home country, the Republic of Vanuatu, an archipelago of some 80 islands in the South Pacific about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometres) east of Australia. He dropped out of school early because he didn’t feel he was learning anything that would help him land a career. An uncle who had taken a pastry course in France suggested it might it a good avenue to pursue. “He said restaurants are always looking for skilled workers. So when I was 14, my father sent me to culinary school in Lyon.”
Wow, quite an undertaking for a 14-year-old. “Well,” he remembers with laugh, “when you’re young and live in a small country where you don’t know what a train is or what snow looks like, you’re excited to see something new.”
After earning his culinary certificate, Nguyen did his best to land a job at a top restaurant, but found little interest. “I focused on a Michelin-starred restaurant in Lyon. I called three or four times, and the chef would answer, but he would never give me an interview.” So Nguyen called again. “He told me, ‘It’s difficult here. This is not going to be for you.’”
So in a last-ditch effort, Nguyen offered to prove himself for no pay. “I said, ‘Give me chance.’ He gave me two weeks, full of tests.” Result? “Once I had that Michelin star on my CV, it was a lot easier to get jobs elsewhere.”
Nguyen arrived in Portugal in 1998 for a position at a Michelin-starred Relais & Chateaux hotel on the Atlantic coast not far from Lisbon. He has only worked outside of the country once since: as a Pastry Sous Chef at Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues Geneva.
Things have changed a lot during his time in Portugal, he says. Dining out has become very popular for locals; new fine dining restaurants are opening all the time; and sourcing quality ingredients for the pastry kitchen has become easier than ever. “Five or six years ago, it was difficult to get good product here. Now it’s like being in France.”
Though half a world from home in Vanuatu, Nguyen plans to stay. “I like the weather here. There’s good fishing on a small beach in the town where I live on the Atlantic Coast. And the people are very kind.”