By Marites Sison
Special to The Toronto Sun
It's been just over a month since Eduardo Ong moved to a new office, and the telltale signs of things not being where they should be are still there: A golf bag with a full set of clubs is dumped with a laptop case, a large mirror leans precariously against a wall.
Yet, there is one item -- a framed poster showing the silhouette of a biker atop a boulder -- that has clearly found its home. It's on the wall where Ong's line of vision is when he sits in his chair. It is there for a reason: It states his life's mantra: "Only when you push yourself do you truly know what you can achieve."
Pushing himself to the limit is what Ong, originally from a small town in the Southern Phillipines, does best. At the age of 10, he hung around his uncle's bakery to eat as much fresh bread as he could. Not wanting to be a freeloader, he offered to help with chores, and eventually learned the fundamentals of mixing and kneading flour.
Still, he dreamed of becoming a pilot. But his family couldn't afford to send him to college. The years spent in his uncle's bakery proved to be his salvation. A neighbor recommended him to work as a kitchen helper at Puerto Azul, an upscale beach resort south of Manila, the capital city.
Three years later, in 1983, he was off to the Middle East as a baker for The Marriot Hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Ong was only 18.
"The biggest challenge for me was adjusting to different nationalities," Ong recalls. "Our pastry chef was German; he was meticulous, but brilliant."
He learned how to make the finest croissants, and was introduced to the widest array of chocolates available for baking. "We never used substitutes," he says with pride.
In 1998, he became the executive pastry chef at the Holiday Inn in Oman. Still, Ong says he kept wishing for a career in aviation catering, the closest he could get to fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a pilot.
He applied at Oman Aviation Catering, which handles the in-flight desserts for Emirates Air, but was turned down for lack of airline experience. He persisted, befriending the head of the catering service, and constantly asked that he be given a chance.
One day he got a call asking if he could bake a cake in the form of an airplane to celebrate an inaugural flight. Ong delivered a 12 x 18, three-dimensional Airbus 320 cake, which bore the logo of Emirates Air. He was immediately offered the executive pastry chef position.
Getting the job proved to be the easy part. "I was used to hotel service where food was served right away. Here, the challenge was how to make desserts that would be served a week or a month later," he says, smiling at his naivete. "I also had to memorize the flight routes, the passenger load and the menu. Plus, there were other things to consider, like passenger preferences. You know -- kosher, no nuts."
The pressure was greater if dignitaries were on board. He recalls having prepared desserts for various heads of state and kings, and the late Princess Diana.
"These people eat with their eyes. The dessert has to look appealing. One challenge is making desserts that have centrepieces that won't fall off when the flight attendant serves them," he says.
To improve his skills, Ong says he took up lessons in Paris and later, at the famous Felchin Chocolate in Zurich, to learn the art of making chocolate.
Ong was clearly on Cloud Nine. But after 15 years in the Middle East and a growing family, he and his wife thought of settling down.
In 1996, Ong, his wife, and their three kids emigrated to Toronto. His culinary certificates in tow, he applied for a job at a five-star hotel in the city. He was turned down for "lack of Canadian experience." The doors were perpetually slammed and he decided to work as janitor.
"I felt rejected," he says. "But I swore to myself that this was temporary."
He later landed a job as counter help for a bagel shop before moving on to become a baker for a kosher bakery.
"I was happy because I was touching flour again," he says, laughing.
After a year he moved to a bigger bakery that supplied pastries to hotels across the GTA.
"I really wanted to prove that I had talent. My philosophy is that like a river, talent must be released in order to be replenished," he says.
Someone alerted him to an opening for a pastry chef at The National Club in downtown Toronto. After a "trade test," he got the job.
There, the club newsletter noted, the chef and guests marvelled at his "special talent with chocolate exquisitely exemplified in the White Chocolate Mousse Charlotte."
But the small fish wanted to swim in the big ocean. In 2000, Ong set up his own pastry shop, Desserts 2000 (www.philippinescanada.com/desserts2000
"Our objective is to maintain the tradition of good taste and provide fresh desserts to Filipinos in Toronto," he says. "(But we also want to) impart a wonderful, exotic dessert experience to the multi-racial society of North America."
Desserts 2000 has since moved to a bigger location in Scarborough from its previous shop at Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue.
(Marites Sison (firstname.lastname@example.org
)is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)
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