Filipino pastry chef Michael Miko Aspiras started young when we observed his aunt run a catering business. Even though he always wanted to be a chef, ending up on the “sweet side of the kitchen” happened by chance. From helping his aunt crush the graham crackers for a New York cheesecake as a child to being a Forbes 30 Under 30 and running his own business, Tasteless Food Group, Chef Aspiras has come a long way. He now works as the Executive Pastry Chef at Hilton Sydney while running his chain of restaurants in Manila.
Chef Aspiras spoke to HBR Ascend about what motivated him to be a pastry chef, his first entrepreneurial stint, and how he balances his full-time career while running his own business.
Rakshitha: You decided you wanted to be a chef very early on in life. What drew you to cooking?
Aspiras: I have realized that I had a calling in the kitchen. I was raised and lived half of my life in a large Filipino family. Wherein we had big family gatherings, often my grandmother cooked the meals. But it was my aunt Annie who really exposed me to the intense “work” side of cooking. She ran her own catering business when I was around 6 years old. I remember waking up on weekends to the smell of her freshly baked cookies. I would help her crush graham for her New York cheesecake and whisk her Caesar salad dressing. It was fun, nostalgic and it tickled my imagination. In my high school, we had a food technology subject instead of home economics that further enhanced my interest. And then, finally, I decided to do a BS-HRIM or Bachelor of Science in Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management Major in Culinary Arts at the College of Saint Benilde in De La Salle.
Did you always want to be a pastry chef?
Not really. I always wanted to be in the “hot kitchen side” making savory dishes. This is what I thought until the first year of college. I developed my skills as a savory chef first before I learned about anything pastry. One of the turning points in my early years in college was when I joined my first pastry competition in school, Young Hoteliers’ Exposition. I initially wanted to participate in a savory category but all the slots for that were already filled. So, I decided to join whatever slot was available and ended up in a cheesecake competition! At that time, I had no experience in baking. But I took on the challenge.
I practiced at home every day while developing my concept – a strawberry fondue cheesecake. During the elimination round, one chef even said that my entry was not edible. I thought I’d be eliminated but the judges gave me a chance and a spot on the final round because they said my concept was strong and they saw potential in me. With tons of practice, I finished the competition as the champion of the Best cheesecake category. It was an incredible experience and I have never looked back since!
You worked at some of the most renowned hotel chains before deciding to venture out on your own. How and when did you decide to start your own business, Tasteless Food Group?
I was working in Manila’s Fairmont and Raffles hotel in 2013. It was my 2nd year in the dual-hotel property and I had 5 years of work experience then. I was doing a consultancy job with Unilever Philippines when my now business partner Charles Paw offered me a chance to open a small dessert shop in (then) his developing food hall “Hole in the Wall“. At first, I was very hesitant because, like most chefs working in a hotel, I was very comfortable working 10-11 hour shifts, 5 days a week, participating in global competitions, and earning some money.
One day, I was talking to a (then) colleague, Kristine Lotilla, who was 6 years my junior and she told me about her dream of opening her own business. I took a leap of faith and discussed Charles’ offer with her, and we instantly decided to become partners! We both resigned that same month, and the rest is history. Now we have more than 20 stores and 7 concepts (including franchises) across Manila.
Was starting your own business something you always wanted to do?
I guess I can say it has always been a dream. But I never realized what it took until I was actually doing it. As a creative person and a Leo, I’ve always seen myself leading a team and inspiring people to do better. So, I realized I wanted to equip myself and do my best to build my portfolio towards becoming an influential pastry chef with the best credentials to back it up.
How easy or difficult is it to make a switch from working a full-time job to starting on your own? What were the challenges you faced?
First of all, nothing worth it comes easy. Especially, now, when everything is fast-paced. In the food industry, you have to keep up with what customers want and there are so many moving aspects of the business. When I started my first cookie store, Scouts Honor back in 2014, I was fresh out of a competition in France. I focused only on the creative and undermined the business side of things. My costs were too high, but eventually, I had to learn how to channel my creativity into a product that makes more sense and that satisfies my partners, the business, my customers and myself.
It has never been easy. Every restaurant opening is like undergoing a master’s degree over and over again, especially because our concepts were mostly if not exclusively original. From conceptualization to the product, location, purchasing, branding, training, operations, financial, development of the brand – it’s a lot of work.
You’re now working as an Executive Pastry Chef at the Hilton in Sydney and managing your ventures. How does it feel to go back to a “job” while running your own business? Why did you choose to do this?
Yes, that’s right. I’ve done the unthinkable! But it’s very refreshing to be part of a team again working to finish a certain goal every day. Working in a hotel is very different from working in a cafe or a restaurant. Not to mention in a different country with a very diverse and different culture. So, it has its own challenges, but ultimately I am building myself as a leader through the demands that the hotel presents to me. My goal is to live in and work in a bigger country. I started feeling like I was a big fish in a small pond in the Philippines. I want to challenge myself more while I’m still young. So, I decided to reset and go somewhere that has a bigger market for desserts. My dream is to be able to open my own restaurants in Sydney.
What’s a good place to start exploring a pastry business for a young chef?
At home! You don’t need to pay extra for rent (at least for most). You have control over the time you spend on baking. You can sell products online. I believe it is the best way to develop your entrepreneurial skills and your products at the same time and learn more about your target market without a huge capital investment.
What are a couple of things that young pastry chefs, especially those who’re trying to run their own business should keep in mind?
My advice would be to:
- Learn your target market
- Listen to your market
- Believe in your concept
- Do not complain!
- Be hands-on. Train train train!
- Do not lose hope when you face failure/challenges
Do you have a ritual that helps you feel inspired/energized during your lulls? How do you deal with the constant pressure to create something new every day?
Now I just live a life that is full of positivity. I have learned to channel all frustrations and negativity in a place where I do not need to deal with it and I can just throw it away. I’ve learned how to be fully giving and nourishing. I guess that way I find peace and becoming peaceful gives me more time to concentrate on improving what I do and what I have. I am constantly inspired by everything, and sometimes even the most random things, like a book I read, an interesting wall-art or just being stuck in traffic – absolutely anything! I have a very supportive husband and family who are always looking out for me.
What most people don’t realize is that working in a kitchen all day can also get physical taxing. How do you take care of yourself?
I try to get 6 hours of sleep every day and I go for a run every night. I also watch what I eat…unless we’re talking about desserts. I love desserts, whether it’s a Madeira butter cake, a slice of custardy cheesecake, or a store-bought cookie!
I believe that good mental health is directly proportional to good physical health. I do not treat my work as a job. It is my passion. I think being happy with what you do is key. If you are unhappy with what you’re doing, it’s either you have to turn yourself around or start looking for something different to do.