Las Vegas might be America’s playground, but for Pastry Chef D’Andre Balaoing, it’s more of a wonderland. Known for whimsical, colorful, intriguing, and utterly delicious desserts (and cuisine… okay, and cocktails), you might also recognize D’Andre from Season 7 of MasterChef, which was a launchpad for his career and an opportunity to highlight him as a LGBTQ+ culinary talent.
From MasterChef to Pastry Chef at Scarpetta, D’Andre is now about to start something new and big; tapped by Season 7 MasterChef winner Shaun O’Neale, a new Vegas restaurant is on the horizon and will be open this summer… stay tuned for something real sweet.
In the meantime, we caught up with D’Andre for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s creative side, approach to menus, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know D’Andre Balaoing below:
People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?
“(Laughs) This is a big question. Right off the bat, I’ll say that I have what I call my ‘flavor memories’; mental health is incredibly important to me, and I’ve struggled with it in the past. Mental health issues can come with side effects, including memory loss and retention difficulty. Oftentimes, inspiration comes from these flavor memories, to conjure a feeling, or time and place. I’ll think about the past— maybe, what it felt like to ask out a prom date. What color was their shirt? What were the smells swirling around that high-school cafeteria?
I try to associate memories and feelings with flavors and textures to recreate them on the plate – it definitely leads to interesting flavor combinations! Memories have a wonderful thing about them: they become more elastic over time, and in time, they stop belonging to you altogether. That’s really beautiful to me.
I get inspiration for social media, keeping a finger on the pulse of what fellow chefs are doing. Also, cookbook stores – there’s one here in Las Vegas that has rare and hard-to-find cookbooks, and I love seeing the notes in the margins or people using them as a journal. Sometimes pages are dog-eared or stained with a ring of coffee, and it’s like I’m there with them: I know I found a real winner.”
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“It was learned from my Mom who raised me as a single parent- we couldn’t afford a lot. I remember we used to hang out at the library, and rent old Julia Child cooking tapes. Mom cooked often and was actually an excellent home cook, but she often repeated meals from week to week.
We always had classic leftovers in the fridge like tuna noodle casserole, which I still love, but also Philipino dishes. When I was a kid, my classmates often said the lunches I brought to school looked and smelled funny – I was the only kid bringing adobo and pancit noodles with fish sauce. That made me want to learn more Pan-American cuisine, I wanted to learn how to fit in through food.
Of course as I’ve grown, my goal now is to not fit in, but stand out. Now people break down my door for the oxtail.”
What’s your dish ideation and creation process?
“I wish I had a romantic answer for you, but it’s totally through trial and error. (laughs) I still burn things and fail; I take a science-forward approach to my food. I’m constantly questioning the why and why nots of techniques and ingredients.
I do keep a notebook filled with random thoughts and tasting notes when I’m eating or watching others cook. Once I find a winning idea, I run with it and start looking to see how it can be made more perfect, more tasty, and more honest.”
What was the biggest impact of living and cooking around Asia on your cuisine?
“I identify as an American, but I didn’t live here until I was an adult. Looking back, the first time I was ever grounded as a kid when I was living in Japan. I’d snuck out after curfew with my friends to attend a night market. I’ll never forget it: the hawker stalls, the glow of the lanterns… it was a real sight to see! We ran around, stuffing ourselves with yakitori and other grilled meats on sticks. I was truly living. It was these early moments of eating and cookery – that helped shape my culinary form-language. Living abroad gave me the gift of having deeper conversations about food – that were less utilitarian and industrial, and more about preserving tradition, and culture. Food can be about much more than sustenance.
I also saw farming and butchery up close, experienced new languages and multicultural traditions. It forced my horizons to expand, and ultimately made me curious to try new things.”
How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art?
“Yes, however that doesn’t mean every dish needs to be ‘pretty’ – I take plating as an opportunity to package a meal for you, and stoke what it is that I want you to feel.
I get plating inspiration from fashion, music, emotions – it’s all about how I want you to take in the meal. Some of the best dishes in American cuisine come from ugly histories – you can express that through aggressive and almost abstract plating. Or you can take a refined, subdued approach and let the ingredients sing. But for my desserts, I always strive for childlike wonder. It HAS to bring joy.”
Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block?
“I retreat inward because I’m pretty much never home. If I’m in a block, I try my best to stay in; couch self-care is how I get myself out. I spend time with my chickens and my partner – I also enjoy going through old photo albums– old photos are hazy stories and those memories and stories jog my creative senses. I try to reconnect with what’s important.”
What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?
“I get this question a lot – and full disclosure: I never went to culinary school, and I’m self taught.
If you want to be in the culinary industry but aren’t in school yet, or just don’t plan to go – please don’t stop your work, just because no one is clapping. My biggest mistake in my journey, was that it was done in the pursuit of validation, and let me tell you – you already have what it takes.
There are things you can’t learn in culinary school, and you’re just going to have to experience it in the kitchen. You might not get credit for a dish, people might not like a dish, but please don’t stop. Living for other people broke me down, and I hurting my own feelings because of it. Don’t resent the career path – it’s hard, even if you’re a natural or have a gift. Try to find those moments of joy, and root for yourself.”
What advice for members of the LGBTQ+ community who want to enter the culinary world?
“This question is shaking up a lot of memories; not only do you have to prove yourself, but you have added barriers. I’ll say this – you deserve to be in the kitchen, just like everyone else. You deserve to be fully authentic and honest to yourself, even when people say you shouldn’t. I was told by Chefs to tone it down. No, don’t turn it down – turn it UP. Food is one of the only things we all have in common, and it doesn’t matter how far you go, the barriers won’t go away until you smash through them.
You’ll never be able to share your gift, until you can show up as who you are. If you feel alone, if you ever feel like no one will fight for you— know that I, and so many others are here for you.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“I experiment mainly with spices – they echo different nationalities, cultures and flavors. Spices are the first things I reach for when working on something new.”
Do you feel competitive with other chefs?
“Yes. Yes. Yes. (laughs) I didn’t go to culinary school, and I was competing with people who did. My career was launched by a competition show (MasterChef), but these days I’m competing with myself. Yes, I feel competitive, but it’s not a bad thing, it’s not born out of toxicity. It means I’m being pushed forward by other people. My circle is made up entirely of people that I want to be when I grow up. I’m so lucky to have them.”
How do you see restaurants operating in 2022?
“I see restaurants becoming more necessary. Yes we’re essential, but restaurants have become the main avenue for comfort. In hard times, restaurants are meeting spaces, public commissaries and beacons of normalcy. On the operational level, expenses are going up, which means an increase in cost for diners, but I’m thankful diners are receptive to it and pay it here in Las Vegas.
There’s been a cultural shift; not everyone’s going to return to work in the restaurant industry after the pandemic, and we have to be proud of our teams wherever they go. But if your staff comes back it’s because they want to be there. The importance of talent has changed and the benchmark for quality is higher. I’m seeing more respect and humanity on the line and in the kitchen; we’re no longer treating each other like machines.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“I have an affinity for eggs as someone who keeps chickens; I haven’t bought eggs from a store in years. The quality of a backyard egg is amazing. When you have a good one – it up-levels everything in the flavor.
Also, fish sauce. In an Asian/Pacific Islander API home, we had five to six different fish sauces, and I didn’t understand why. We’d call them ‘messages in a bottle.’ It’s not just fermented fish, there’s a whole lot going on, and it’s the closest thing to bottling a time and place. We would make fish sauce from scratch and from scraps; one year we had onion flowers that we fermented in the sauce for six months, and later when the spring onion bolts were out of season, you could open the bottle and taste the past season. Fish sauce tells a story.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned along the way that even home cooks could use?
“This one’s just in time for summer: put your peeler away when making a Peach Pie. Blanch and shock your peaches and the peels slide right off. You also keep that beautiful round peach shape and it intensifies the color – it literally looks like peach emoji. (laughs)”
What would you consider a defining trait of the Las Vegas food scene and chef community?
“We don’t have a scene, but more of a culture of being more fearless than most cities. Vegas has never really had a problem with authenticity – people feel emboldened to cook here, and there’s an eclectic grab bag nature to restaurants here. You can literally get anything you want, at any time of day… you just need to know who (and how) to ask. ;)”
Favorite dish to cook for yourself?
“I always keep cabbage in the fridge to make okonomiyaki. It’s my kind of homestyle comfort; I take yamaimo, any protein scraps I have or seafood, and tempura bits. I make a good cabbage omelet at least two to three times a week. (laughs) I’ll literally throw anything in there: spaghetti, leftover chips, you name it.”
Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?
“I love a nice braised and stewed oxtail. I cook it the traditional way – my Step Dad was Jamiaican and taught me. Those oxtail dumplings suck up all the delicious rendered fat in the stew and nothing goes to waste. Also, I love a good pie – pies and tarts and especially homemade ice cream.”
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Coriander – it deserves its time in the sun. Like most seeded herbs, I love the different varieties and florality. It brings out delicate flavors in fish, and in pho it can echo spices and really carry a chile, giving the impression of spiciness without being spicy. It’s my MVP, and I actually toast and grind the coriander myself. It goes in everything.”
Favorite cocktail to make for yourself?
“The Aviation: Gin, Creme de Violet, lemon, and maraschino – it’s refreshing, floral and deliciously tart. I’ve been using The Botanist gin which is steeped with botanicals, including coriander! The cocktail has a beautiful color and vibrant flavor that pairs well with grilled veggies, and more delicate proteins. But every cocktail needs a snack, and I love an Amaro cherry. At first the Creme de Violet Flavor was giving me Downy softener vibes, but you notice the nuance the more you sip. Also if you don’t have Creme de Violet, you can buy organic flowers and infuse them in a neutral alcohol to make a flower liqueur. I also love a Ramos Gin Fizz – I brulee the meringue.
Everyone talks about the different techniques a Chef should know… I’d wager that a true Chef worth their salt should know how to shake at least one damned good cocktail.”
What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Vegas?
“First we’re starting late night and meeting at Herbs & Rye. It’s an off-Strip, speakeasy steakhouse – it’s also the first place I worked and where I learned a love of spirits. It has one of the best mixology programs in the city, if not the country. They have a daily industry happy hour from 12-3 a.m., so there’s no excuse for BOH staff to settle for fast food after work. You walk in there during that time, and everyone’s in crocs, and Dansko clogs. When you walk into any place and you find industry- you’ve found a winner.
For breakfast we’re headed to the Cosmopolitan to hit up Milk Bar since they’re open early and you can get their famous pie and they serve boozy, “fancy” shakes – this is a true breakfast of champions and has never failed me after a night out, to tie one on. Eggslut also happens to be right around the corner.
Finally, join me for a parade of fabulous Spanish tapas and wine at EDO. Chef Oscar Amador Edo takes an imaginative approach to classic Spanish small plates— through the lens of modern technique and just really great cookery. If you’ve got the room to spare, show up early and share a Paella!
In Vegas, the nights run long— and they run hot. Whether you’re out for an incredible meal or taking in a Drag show with me: wear comfy shoes, grab your dollars, and bring your appetite for adventure. I’ll see you out there.”