French pâtisserie meets dim sum in Clapham’s gorgeous On Café, the brainchild of gifted Singaporean chef Loretta Liu
Words: Sudi Pigott
It’s Saturday night and I’m kneading bao dough under the supervision of Singaporean chef Loretta Liu at her gorgeous new On Café in Clapham.
Liu explains that is important to knead vigorously yet gently using the base of my palm to make the dough delectably fluffy and light. Baking powder and yeast adds to their blowsy texture.
I’m partaking in Liu’s regular dim sum class, and we go on to make Bejing and crystal skin dumplings, all filled with a delicious mix of cabbage, spring onion, chicken, coriander, chilli and oyster sauce. Learning how to pleat the crystal skin dumplings dexterously folding with my thumb into a shape, not unlike a tortellini, is immensely satisfying, almost like origami. My fellow participants are all fairly keen home cooks and we enjoy a convivial supper together afterwards.
Liu’s route is a fascinating one, declaring herself a born fighter. She was born in Singapore and knew from the age of 12 that she wanted to train as a chef, but her parents didn’t approve. Determined, she joined Raffles Hotel as a trainee commis chef and worked closely with Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagnaire.
It was here she first discovered her love of patisserie and began her quest for the perfect macaron. Next, Liu came to the UK and worked at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons. Fast forward through a career break to marry and to have her son John, the lure of the kitchen was strong. ‘I missed the creativity,’ she recalls.
I first met Liu when she was running a macaron stall at the South Bank. Macarons remain one of her greatest passions. ‘I won’t pretend making macarons is easy,’ she says. ‘They’re sensitive and unforgiving. The macronage, or folding, has to be done calmly and gently.’
Liu’s macarons, made in traditional French style, are updated to include spices such as nutmeg and Asian flavours including sakura cherry blossom and lotus bean paste. In her macaron classes, she teaches ‘how to understand meringue and the balance of yin and yang required: it is important to be both gentle and fast.
‘On’ means balance, and Liu offers a balanced menu of light dim sum alongside exceptional patisserie. Not only are there macarons, but also choux buns with exotic flavours and wonderful tarts. Liu runs classes in ‘haute patisserie’, too. ‘My desserts are not rich with sugar or carbs, they’re all about technique and texture.’
What sets On Café apart from many Chinatown offerings is that everything is homemade and less artificially sweet, with no MSG. Sustainably sourced ingredients include plenty of fresh herbs. Even the noodles are made each day. ‘It is unusual to offer so many vegetable dishes, but it’s important to me,’ adds Liu.
Community based projects have always been essential for Liu and she is setting up a low-price baking club to meet every Tuesday and Thursday. ‘The idea is that we come together to read cookbooks and bake bread and other treats for the family and share inspiration. It is much more fun and rewarding than cooking alone.’
Liu works hard and her life revolves around food and drink. She confesses that when she is off, her favourite pastime is people and shopping watching at Venn Street market. Liu rarely eats out, though her local favourite is the soupy noodles at Vietnamese Mien Tay in Battersea. ‘I enjoy dining here as, like at On Café, it has a really homey family run feeling making it possible to properly relax. I am always happiest when I am thinking about what to cook and eat next.’
Visit oncafe.london for full details of all cookery courses starting £34: quote SW Resident when booking for a discount