Ashutosh Kumar, Executive Pastry Chef at Hilton Salwa Beach Resort & Villas, specialises in haute patisserie, chocolate work, Viennoiserie and global cuisines. He chats with FACT about origins, influences and alternatives to sugar, ‘a necessary evil’.

What first led you to baking and sweet sensations, and what have been the most exciting destinations to work in?
I remember watching my mother prepare Gajar Halwa, a carrot pudding, as a nine-year-old, and spending time in the kitchen whenever she would prepare any sugary delights. One day, I turned an almost burnt, over-cooked milk into a sweet Indian confection; technically that is when it started!
Malaysia and Macao have been the most exciting places as they presented me with unique challenges of working with non-conventional pastry ingredients and creating contemporary desserts.
Malaysia has its own range of traditional sweets called Malay Kuih, this involves exotic ingredients and flavours, such as coconut milk, mango, pandan leaves, palm sugar and sago. Chinese-influenced desserts were also quite popular in Malaysia. Macau offered a more evolved and sophisticated dining destination, somewhat similar to Hong Kong – with some Portuguese influence from its past. From high-end Michelinstarred restaurants to traditional Macanese street hawkers, inspiration was everywhere. These two destinations provided me with unique challenges and opportunities.

Sugar is often vilified – is it possible to create world-class desserts without sugar?
I would say “Sugar is a necessary evil”!
It’s important to lead a healthy lifestyle and be conscious about what one eats.
While there are many alternatives to sugar in pastry making, the more practical approach is less sugar added or no added sugar in some cases. Alternatives for sugar are products like plant-derived inulin that can aid in preparing desserts with a low calorific value. Moreover, a lot of research is still in progress to find more ways that can lead to healthier desserts with lower calories. Plant based, low sugar and low fat will be the key drivers in the future of the dessert industry.

What’s your opinion of Middle Eastern desserts? How do baklava and kunafa compare with macarons and meringue?
Middle Eastern desserts offer an interesting and challenging prospect, as these rely heavily on specialised labour-intensive traditional techniques. Another challenging aspect is the rich produce from the region, for example dates, nuts, saffron, spices, local cheeses and dairy products.
It’s not fair to compare baklava and kunafa with macarons and meringue, these are all culinary wonders in their own right. In fact, the preparation of baklava and kunafa involves even more meticulous techniques that only come from experience.
At Hilton Salwa Beach Resort, we try to elevate some of the local delights and make them our own signature; Katayef served at Levantine, our Arabic Restaurant, is one of them! We create local delights with a twist, by putting our own unique signature in it.

Can you share with us your signature dish or style and explain what makes it special to you?
Red Berries Mille Feuille, created for our regional ‘Life is Sweet’ campaign launching in November, is something very close to my heart.
and sophisticated. I believe a dessert should have an element of surprise and yet be true in nature. I usually start with the components – flavour, taste and texture – and also consider the presentation to ensure the final outcome appeals to the guests. It is important for the presentation and garnish to complement the actual dessert. This is how I would create a signature dish. ✤