In our 'Patissiers of Shanghai' series, Dominic Ngai and Betty Richardson speak to some of Shanghai’s makers and bakers, digging deep into different aspects of their work. Up first is Kim Melvin of Commune Social.
For Chef Kim Melvin, the pastry kitchen is usually one of the calmest places in a restaurant, but that wasn’t the case on a particular day at Maze in London. “That was the moment where I thought to myself, ‘This is it. I’m going to double check everything for the rest of my life. It’s gotta be perfect every single time,’” she says, recalling the most memorable experience during her decade-long career as a pastry chef. It was one of the few times she got yelled at by her big boss, Jason Atherton – whom she’s been working with for nine years now.
The incident happened when they were working with a new dessert that required a very thin piece of white chocolate, and the tableside presentation of the infusion of hot olive oil and coriander. While plating up the dessert for a VIP table under the watchful eyes of Atherton, Melvin removed a thin piece of acetate that came with the chocolate, as she would normally do. This time, however, the particular chocolate she was working with had two pieces of plastic instead of one. The dessert was sent back to the kitchen, and Atherton flew into a rage.
Halfway across the world and with a few more years of experience under her belt, that moment still burns in the memory of the executive pastry chef of Commune Social. Originally from South Africa, Melvin started her culinary career in the hot kitchen when she was 19, but always knew her true calling is pastry. She spent a year in Durban working as a ‘regular chef’ while taking part-time courses on pastry. Shortly after graduating from the program, she moved to the UK, where she started working with Atherton.
“The hot kitchen, especially in London, is always under pressure. In pastry, you’re the last course. You always know when you need to start preparing for different tables. You know how many people are in the restaurant already. There’s less ‘on-the-spot’ pressure,” Melvin tells us.
Though she had expected to still be working in the same field at the 10-year mark of her career, the 30-year-old chef never would have imagine she’d be doing it in Shanghai.
Compared to her experience working in more formal restaurants in London (Savoy Grill and Maze), where the hours are long and interactions with the rest of the kitchen staff, front of house team and customers were few and far between, Melvin much prefers working in the more casual vibe of restaurants like Commune Social, where it’s much easier to talk to guests in an open kitchen setting. “Here, you can always tell which tables would order dessert and which ones won’t. If there’s a lady at the table, the chances of them ordering a dessert is much higher.” Her current role also gives her a lot of creative freedom, another aspect that she relishes. “I hate doing the same things over and over again,” Melvin adds.
Since becoming a mum in 2015, she’s still been logging in around the same number of hours as before, but mostly during the day “like an office worker,” which is quite rare for her profession. Slight changes to the way she comes up with new ideas have been working well so far.
“I now take a few extra days to conceptualize a dish to make sure I have the idea down,” she explains. After coming up with a few possible recipes, she asks her staff to try them out for her, and the restaurant’s executive chef (and also her husband) Scott Melvin to decide on the best – a process that she would’ve done alone before she started a family.
“It’s good for [my team] too; they can improve by practicing and by going through the trial and error process, which is what I had done when I was in their position [years ago],” she elaborates.
Thinking back on the ‘acetate incident,’ Melvin admits that she’s become somewhat of a perfectionist since then – the stereotypical trait of a pastry chef. Double, or even triple, checking dishes before they’re sent out. Coming into work in the morning and seeing a clean, well-organized kitchen is often a small highlight of the day for her. “At the restaurant, I am happy to help the ayi wash the dishes right away. But at home I occasionally leave them in the sink until the next day,” she laughs, revealing a more bubbly side that her friends would see when she’s not in the kitchen. This reminds us of her creations, which always end the meal at Commune Social on a fun and sweet note.
See a listing for Commune Social here.
Read more profiles of Shanghai Patissiers here.