Inside the box is a pilot who’s crashed in the Sahara, a delicate rose with only four thorns, a wise fox and an elusive sheep. There’s also a little planet-hopping prince in green.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s memorable cast of characters are baked into the world’s culture, millions of minds and now the delicious fare of one Bangkok pastry chef.
Pop culture has been deliciously interpreted by Surat Shikari ever since he quit his job at a Michelin-starred restaurant and started Befor.Tart, an online shop where he combines his years of baking experience and favorite pastime.
Recently, to pay tribute to the 75th anniversary of classic children’s book “The Little Prince,” he whipped up a unique collection of four mini-tarts, or tartlets.
The first is pleasantly sweet and made from sheep’s milk to capture the innocence of the pilot when, in the story, he draws a box-as-sheep. The central object of the prince’s love, a lovely yet haughty rose, is represented by a rose jam-filled raspberry tart. Fox – his moral guide – becomes wheat flakes topped with a green apple cream. Twin dark chocolate tarts filled with mint gel evoke the bittersweet farewell between the young prince and the pilot.
Since late 2016, Surat has woken before dawn to bake pastries – adding buttery, sweet and sour fillings to his own designs – that he will personally put into his customers’ hands before noon.
A geography graduate, the 34-year-old took a leap by chasing a career in cuisine. He apprenticed for one year at The Oriental Hotel before interning for another at a hotel in the United States. He returned to Bangkok and worked as a pastry chef at a few restaurants including Michelin-starred Gaggan and world-renowned L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
And then he quit.
“I wanted to have something of my own,” Surat said, reasoning that fine dining wasn’t the destination he’d set out for. “After some time, I realized I didn’t want to be a chef at a restaurant because it has other duties such as ordering ingredients and managing colleagues’ work schedules.”
“So I was thinking, ‘What should I do so I can bake all the time?’” Surat said.
A self-confessed cinephile, Surat revisited his own obsession. He brought the idea of the movie handbills he’d collected since his teen years to the kitchen counter. “Each handbill has a unique design dedicated to that a specific movie, so I went, ‘Okay, let’s do that with sweet dishes,’” Surat said.
The business scheme was met with frowns from his friends who didn’t see the sense in it. It didn’t help that Surat chose a niche arthouse movie franchise – Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy – as the theme for his first tart collection.
“Some friends told me I was daydreaming. Others encouraged me, but I could see their disbelief,” Surat said, laughing.
So far Surat has created eight collections. They include Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi mindbender “Inception,” the futuristic Siri-alike “Her,” Hong Kong cult classic “Comrades: Almost a Love Story” and the Oscar-winning “La La Land.”
Completing each collection – getting the texture, flavors and presentation just right – requires heavy, detailed research.
“I went to cinemas and watched “La La Land” almost 10 times, sometimes just to see the colors of the costumes the characters wore,” Surat said. “I bought the movie’s soundtrack CD and listened to it in the car over and over.”
The efforts culminated in four pieces of art tarts, each dedicated to a song from the film. “Someone in the Crowd,” heard when Emma Stone’s Mia and her girlfriends sashay in colorful dresses, is represented by a “feminine sweet” blueberry and matched with cream cheese.
Mia and Sebastian’s tap dance routine set to “A Lovely Night” becomes a panna cotta with two flavors: mango for Emma Stone’s yellow dress and coconut for Ryan Gosling’s white shirt. The two fruit jams slope down each side of the tart to meet in the middle. “When you eat it from one side to another, you can feel the change of tastes, just like Mia and Sebastian’s shifting moves back and forth,” said Surat.
“Every story is hidden in each layer. Every single piece of tart is like my own child,” Surat said, smiling.
While one boxed collection is 350 baht, Surat also offers custom, made-to-order desserts he sells for 750 baht.
The high prices are matched by the tough tasks he must tackle, such as when customers challenge him with material he is unfamiliar with. One fangirl ordered tarts to portray the life of a K-pop idol Surat had never heard of.
Another time, an art enthusiast asked Surat to incorporate Macbeth-inspired, immersive play “Sleep No More” into the dessert. Surat took about a week to gather information by reading interviews with the producer and watching footage from a New York production. He came up with three sets of tarts containing five flavors to mimic the actual play, which loops three times a day simultaneously on each floor of a five-story hotel.
“I don’t make the most delicious tarts, but I put an experience in them,” he says.
What’s next? Surat will keep making tarts until he can afford to open his own shop. Of course, making that dream complete means also hosting movie screenings for everyone enjoying the tarts.