It’s not a typical story,” says Canadian Pastry Chef Liz Stevenson. “I had done an undergrad in visual arts then I spent a winter in Cotonou, Benin, teaching web design to teachers - just trying to make it in the world as an artist!” Upon returning home the necessity to make rent drove her to a job that ultimately turned into a career in the kitchen. Stevenson’s artistry found a home in the pastry kitchen, where she still enjoys the ability to create and engage her hands, albeit with food and appeal to multiple senses.
“It’s very process-based for visual arts or pastry. You’re essentially following a process to get what you want once you’ve determined your idea,” she explains. “In pastry you also deal with chemical processes as well, so you really have to pay attention to every detail.” In 2004 she moved to London from Montreal and began working for Gordon Ramsay’s Boxwood Café. “I hadn’t been cooking that long and it was a very, very challenging environment,” she recalls. “At the time kitchens were known to be extremely tough, quite masochistic, a little violent.” The pastry kitchen proved gentler: “A place where I could really concentrate on what I was doing.”
Despite her positions largely being in pastry, including her current role at Rüya Dubai, Stevenson suspects that while she enjoys the odd chocolate truffle, it is her lack of preference for desserts that give her an edge. Paired with pastry meticulousness, this results in an approach focused on paring down ingredients to let them shine. “I’m not into the complicated, I like to push ingredients to their full potential to bring out their beauty but with a modern twist,” she explains, referencing an unassuming new chocolate mousse dish. Its clean chocolate flavour is topped by a black sesame praline with a side of yoghurt sorbet for acidity that “looks simple, but there’s a lot going on in your mouth,” she says. Or, another new dessert, a traditional Turkish cheesecake made of semolina and actual cheese served with smoked apricot. “The process for making it is simple, but paired with a burnt milk ice cream, the three non-overtly complicated components come together to make a very nice dish that looks pretty as well,” adds Stevenson.
Hazelnut Baklava: whipped kaymak, caramelised milk sorbet
She isn’t afraid to take risks, even if that means going with ‘less-is-more’. “I critically assess and do sweetness tests periodically,” she explains, acknowledging a regional tendency towards decadence. “A lot of my recipes have sugar cut to the absolute minimum, any lower and it technically wouldn’t be sweet anymore! It’s just not my palate, but I find people’s palates are changing in general and it’s interesting to reassess that.” Ironically it is a rich, heavy dark chocolate “kebbe” resting on a nest of chocolate that is arguably one of her signature dishes, but likely because Stevenson loves to work with chocolate rather than revel in its intensity. “There are techniques and things I love to do or make,” she explains. “For example, I’m a huge nerd when it comes to engineering ice cream, and I play a lot with nut or seed pralines.”
Chef Liz with a Hazelnut Baklava: whipped kaymak, caramelised milk sorbet
Stevenson takes risks on a larger scale as well—particularly by working in a region with a strong, specific approach to pastry. Prior to Rüya, she worked at Middle Eastern eatery Qbara, also alongside Rüya’s Executive Chef Colin Clague. “Qbara was such an exciting thing, a huge learning curve,” she recounts. “We did a ton of research, a lot of eating, we went to different areas to find unusual or different things… a lot of learning.” Rüya encompassed the same, including with trips to Turkey and months of dedicated effort to learn how to make dishes authentically, test menus, and have them approved by the restaurant’s Turkish owners. “We were learning recipes we weren’t familiar with and putting them into a contemporary context, trying not to alienate or offend anyone,” she explains of the perennial chef’s challenge of maintaining integrity of the dish alongside a personal culinary approach. “Chefs are always up for that challenge, but you have to be careful!” she notes. “Within the restaurant industry you always take something that’s successful from where you’ve been and put it into what you’re about to create, otherwise it can’t work.”
And the background from which Stevenson pulls is diverse. After 11 years in Dubai, she consults and is working with Bull&Roo to revamp their baking concept Rise & Dawn Bakehouse, which provides Viennoiserie to outlets such as Tom & Serge or Common Grounds. “I’m also partnered with a company called The Tasting Class where we’re co-developing a course about chocolate that is focused on terroir and how it’s grown and made,” she says, adding she also has a degree in food security and graduate specialisation in Food Governance & Law.
“A lot of what I do in my spare time is write about food systems,” she says. “I didn’t think anyone would be interested but it turns out a lot of people are!” Food systems aren’t well understood locally, so be it from a sustainability, security, distribution or economic standpoint, she is finding a ready and interested audience. “It’s quite relevant here, a lot of my research is based on this region, an area that’s gone from 0 to 100 in a short period of time so the food system hasn’t developed organically, it’s been modeled after other countries with a lot of private enterprise setting it up.” She adds with a laugh that an additional challenge is “taking it from an academic, theoretical place and trying to put it on Instagram where maybe people can learn something in 20 seconds!”
Firin Sutlaç: traditional Anatolian rice pudding, raspberries, rose ice cream and lokum
Stevenson’s journey has been holistic and although opening her own business in the near future is in the cards, her route is still atypical. “Another initiative I’m excited about which hasn’t quite gotten off the ground yet is Eat DXB,” she reveals.
“It’s about linking local chefs, restaurants and hospitality professionals so that we all know each other, not just through corporate soirees, but a genuine community of people.” This includes helping forge pathways for local producers and farmers who are still developing the resources and accessibility to sell at larger scales. At a self-admitted career crossroads, the path forward is hardly singular. “Most of my time is spent between Rüya and Bull&Roo, but I definitely want to be writing more and be engaged more with the food community,” she says. “It’s just something I’m passionate about.”
Photography by Adel Rashid
From the Winter 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors