Diane Moua was raised to be in the kitchen, but she didn’t turn out to be a traditional Hmong woman. Her roots in cooking grew into a passion for plating delicate desserts as a nationally recognized pastry chef.
Today the 2018 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef finalist and three-time nominee can be found making some of the most innovative and stunning plates in the pastry world.
And while customers admire Moua’s plates for their beauty and unique combinations of colors and textures, most don’t get to see that every plate has one important element — balance.
“You have to have an eye for it,” Moua said. “Like putting something too close to the room (on the plate) is going to look different than putting it just (a) little offset of it.”
Moua’s unique plates are featured on her Instagram page. The photos feature a variety of colors and kinds of desserts, all with geometric cubes, lines and splashes of color accented by complimentary sweets and fruits.
Moua’s lemon crepe cake is a neat stack of crepes, filled with whipped cream and garnished with fresh lemon slices and raspberries lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar.
“It visually has to come together too because you eat with your eyes first,” Moua said.
The plated desserts represent Moua and the life she balances as a Hmong-American woman, mother of two and nationally recognized executive pastry chef overseeing three of Minnesota’s premier restaurants: Bellecour in Wayzata, and Spoon and Stable and Demi in Minneapolis.
Moua’s Path to Pastries
But Moua’s career did not begin with the perfect plate. It took time for her to find that balance.
After graduating high school, Moua was married with a new baby to care for and no idea what she wanted to do for a living. She was intrigued by a commercial for culinary school and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Minneapolis/St. Paul, where she landed an internship at La Belle Vie in Stillwater and was mentored by three-time Beard House cook and experienced New York pastry chef Adrienne Odom.
“Somehow out of, like, five, six dodges … I got the job, this Asian chick who’s never worked in a kitchen before,” Moua said. “Oh, and on my first day I was 45 minutes late.”
However, first-day tardiness didn’t end Moua’s career as a pastry chef. She and Odom continued to work together for the next six years at two different restaurants.
Helping her parents understand her job was also a challenge.
“It was hard to explain to my parents,” Moua said. “(They’d say,) ‘What are you doing (being) a pastry chef?’”
It wasn’t until 2018, when she was nominated for a James Beard Award, that Moua’s parents recognized all the amazing work she was creating. The James Beard Foundation Awards are presented to top culinary professionals in the United States every year to recognize their work in the food industry. From the list of the top 20, Moua made it to the top five finalists.
“I think that for once they finally understood what I did,” Moua said. “That was all I wanted them to see, so that was probably my biggest accomplishment of just letting them know what I do. I didn’t need a win.”
Moua Gains Inspiration from Family
Moua said her family’s support inspires her to continue striving for success in her career. However, her traditional Hmong cultural views and her career ambitions have not always aligned.
“Being in this field is really hard … when you’re married,” Moua said. “I was the first one in my family to actually go through a divorce. That was … looked down upon in our culture.”
Yet, her newfound freedom allowed her to refocus in the kitchen.
“For the first time (in) my whole life … being free is like the biggest thing to me,” Moua said. “I’m happy. Being free helps me a lot with my team, my kids, everything in life. I totally, for once, understand the (need to) surround yourself with good people.”
Moua Changes Pastry Chef, Industry Culture
Now, Moua intends to change the pastry industry by treating people the way they want to be treated. Moua said when budgets are cut in the restaurant industry, pastry chefs and their staff are usually the first to go.
“Let’s fix this. Let’s work together. How we can maintain it, make money and still be a part of the restaurant,” Moua said. “Because we are the ending part of it, and it’s very important to me.”
Moua plans to travel with her family and make the most of this upcoming year before deciding whether she wants to pursue her own shop.
“I surround myself with amazing people, and I think that’s how I got to where I am,” Moua. “My mom and dad are my biggest mentors. They always steer me in the right direction.”