A Recipe for Success

February 2, 2009 by Abby Cohn
Anita Chu

Anita Chu (B.S.’98, M.S.’99 CEE) is an engineer, a pastry chef, an award-winning dessert blogger and photographer, and recently published her first cookbook. (Photo by Abby Cohn)

Baking a French-inspired strawberry tart and running engineering calculations for a building project make a perfect pairing for Anita Chu (B.S.’98, M.S.’99 CEE).

The San Francisco engineer is a pastry chef, an award-winning dessert blogger and photographer, and recently published her first cookbook, Field Guide to Cookies: How to Identify and Bake Virtually Every Cookie Imaginable, which hit bookstores in time for the holidays and is already on its second printing.

“I think there are a lot of similarities between engineering and pastry,” Chu says. “Pastry is all about very precise measurement and technique, and that applies to engineering, too.” A Bay Area native with an unabashed weakness for sweets — “I very rarely skip dessert,” she confesses — Chu blends her culinary passion with a part-time consulting job as a design engineer for Rutherford & Chekene, a structural and geotechnical engineering firm. These days, her busy schedule limits her baking to just once or twice a week.

“Sometimes it feels like a juggling act,” says Chu, who is working on construction projects at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital and California Pacific Medical Center. Answering the call of the kitchen, she is busy with author interviews and events, has started on a second cookbook, and regularly shares her fondness for all things sugary at Dessert First, her three-year-old blog that gets about 1,100 hits daily. The site combines Chu’s lyrical postings with recipes, artful photos, reader comments and links. “I started the blog to document my experience and experiments,” she says, adding that the site has introduced her to “a wonderful online community” of food bloggers and enthusiasts.

In 2007, it drew a different kind of notice. Publishers at Quirk Books in Philadelphia spotted the blog and asked Chu if she’d like to write a book for them. The result is the pocket-sized reference guide covering more than 100 cookies from all over the world. Field Guide to Cookies includes traditional standbys like chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin to more exotic Indonesian pineapple cookies and South African soetkoekies laced with red wine.

Chu, whose father, Kee Hung Chu (M.S.’75, Ph.D.’78 ME), preceded her at Berkeley Engineering, traces her culinary journey to childhood. “Not only did I like eating sweets, but I liked to make them,” she says.

Malted Chocolate Cake.

Malted Chocolate Cake (Photo courtesy Anita Chu)

While at Cal herself, Chu tested recipes during study breaks and regaled friends with her homemade goodies. After graduation, she spent six years working as a structural engineer, but found that her love of baking hadn’t cooled. She took a six-month professional pastry course in 2005 at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco and became a baker at Bittersweet Chocolate Café in Oakland. She had returned to engineering as a part-time consultant when the book deal came her way.

“It was really a great opportunity,” Chu says. Dedicating the next six months to researching cookies, she baked them by the dozen and deputized classmates, friends and her pastry chef from Bittersweet as testers and tasters.

A moment of panic struck last March when she — and 50 varieties of her cookies — headed to Philadelphia for a photo shoot. “It was one of the most nerve-wracking flights of my life,” she recalls. Swaddling dozens of samples of her precious cargo in bubble wrap and packing them in a carry-on bag, she arrived to find that only one cookie was cracked.

A digital scale is one of her most indispensable tools. “Very engineering-like, I guess,” she says, and an indicator of how much emphasis she puts on the importance of exact measurement for achieving pastry perfection. Quoted in a December article in the New York Times, Chu extols the virtues of butter, likening it to the concrete used to form a building’s foundation.

She nonetheless admits to her share of kitchen flops. “I’ve had caramels that didn’t set. I’ve had cookies turn out flat. I’ve had meringues deflate because it was too humid,” she says.

But for Chu, baking is all about exploration. “My list of recipes never ends,” she says. Nor does her generosity when it comes to her finished products. “Whenever I make something good, my impulse is to share it,” she says. “You make a plate of cookies, and people are immediately happy.”