Nasha Fondeur Rules at Puerto Rican Pastries
Nasha Fondeur’s reputation precedes her. If you talk to enough chefs in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she’s the executive pastry chef at 1919 Restaurant in the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, you’ll hear whispers about her skills: She’s the best on the island, they say, and creates everything from rum baba to relaxation-inducing bonbons.
When did you know you wanted to be a pastry chef?
I never went to pastry school, but I studied culinary arts in 2000. In 2007, I decorated wedding and birthday cakes for my then mother-in-law Evelyn Lopez’s business, Sweet Creations. That’s where I realized I wanted to dedicate myself to this for the rest of my life.
How does Puerto Rico inspire your cooking style?
It’s my major inspiration. We have fruits like coconut, passion fruit, mango and soursop that inspire me to make dishes with the flavors of the island. One of my favorite combinations is passionfruit and chocolate. These two tropical flavors are naturally complementary because of the former’s acidity and latter’s richness.
Why did you create the rum baba?
The dish is a favorite of my chef, Juan Jose Cuevas. I was in a competition with the national culinary team of Puerto Rico, and he challenged me to make it. It wasn’t easy. The dough is like both cake and bread, so it can overproof in the climate. Eventually, I figured out the technique, but the flavor was the hardest part. When I first tasted it, it was awful. But once I infused it with the fruit and added the ice cream, everything came together.
What are your favorite Caribbean desserts?
Definitely flan de queso and el tembleque. Since I was a girl, I’ve loved flan—most of all, the one made by my grandmother, Thelma. Tembleque is one of the most traditional desserts here in Puerto Rico for Christmas; it’s a coconut cream I would make with my grandfather for the holidays.
Are there challenges to being a pastry chef in Puerto Rico?
I would say there are many challenges that we as pastry chefs have in our country. Because of the temperature, we have to be careful with chocolate and sugar pieces. The climate affects everything we do. We cannot bring mousses, gelatins or creams outside. When I do a dessert station on the patio and make ice cream, I’ll use liquid nitrogen or it won’t get cold enough.
How does your work complement the cooking of Chef Cuevas?
I think this is my favorite question. Working for Chef Cuevas has been the best experience. He’s a unique chef with an unstoppable imagination. He’s such a blessing. He challenges me, and he’s helped me become a professional. He’s my biggest inspiration and my mentor.
There’s one dish I serve that’s a brownie with peanut butter crème anglaise, mint ice cream and popcorn caramel. When he asked me [to make] a dessert with real mint, peanut butter and chocolate, I said, “Ew!” But when I got those flavors together, it was incredible.
When did you start making bonbons?
Three years ago, I had the honor of taking a class with pastry chef Antonio Bachour. He taught me how to temper chocolate correctly and how to make bonbons. He’s the pastry chef who’s inspired me most and helped me in my career. My other inspiration when working with chocolate is art. As a child I loved to draw. I love making these bonbons today; it’s relaxation therapy for me.