The most important – and astounding — thing to know about pastry chef Ankhana “Anne” Ward is that she grew up without an oven.
She nonchalantly reveals this tantalizing tidbit as an afterthought while she’s whipping up another almond mango cake for her newly opened bakery, which is, of course, called Pastries by Anne.
Her admission is a sweet amuse-bouche, and it takes us to Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, where Anne – she started calling herself this because Americans couldn’t pronounce her given name, and it really messed up her Starbucks orders — was born and raised.
And where she might very well still be had it not been for her parents, who met in California while in college.
“They always dreamed of coming back to America,” she says. “But my grandmother told them they should go back to Thailand and get married.”
Anyway, Anne didn’t bake because ovens are so uncommon in Thailand that she had never seen one until she immigrated to the United States.
“We only have propane tanks for cooking on stovetops,” she says as she scrapes the cake’s icing from a stainless steel bowl then takes a tray of canelés de Bordeaux out of the oven. “If you wanted a cake, you went to the bakery in the mall.”
Anne’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit.
After she graduated from college with a degree in journalism, she got a job as a TV reporter, covering consumer complaints and children’s events.
It was, she says, “a way to make enough noise so people paid attention” to important issues.
Although she loved the job – “I don’t like sitting at a desk” — her parents were less than thrilled that their only child was working late at night.
They persuaded her to take a daytime secretarial position at an advertising agency.
But Anne had other ideas.
While holding down that job, she opened and ran two internet cafes at a time when such enterprises were novelties.
She was just beginning to get bored when she decided to visit a professor friend who lived in New Orleans.
“My parents had had trouble getting visas, so I was reluctant to come, but my friend got me one,” she says. “I never wanted to stay, but because my parents wanted to come, I did and brought them over after a couple of years.”
Anne, a perfectionist who is petite, perky and personable, chose to live and work in New York City primarily because she doesn’t drive – “the roads are very crowded in Bangkok, and you can get stuck in traffic for two to three hours, so I never learned.”
Her first job, shortly after she arrived in 2001 and became an oven owner, was as a secretary for a picture-framing company.
When that job ended – the owners divorced and closed the company – Anne got an office job with Thai Airways then transferred to Singapore Airlines, which is where she was when the pandemic grounded everyone and everything.
“My job was very stressful,” she says, “so I started baking every night when I came home. It was soothing.”
In 2013, she began with box cakes, which were easy to bake and allowed her to become confident using the oven.
She was 36.
“I really wanted a KitchenAid mixer, but it was very expensive, and I drooled over it for years,” she says. “When I finally bought one, in 2015, I told myself that I was going to use it and wasn’t going to be intimidated by it.”
Anne became such a proficient and passionate baker that she enrolled in an eight-month course at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
As she’s taking the canelés de Bordeaux out of their fancy metal molds, she notes that they are her “obsession. They will always be on my menu, but I will be trying out different flavors of them.”
She chose weekend classes so she could continue her 9-to-5 daytime job with the airline.
As part of the course, she served an externship as a pastry chef with the celebrated Michelin-Starred restaurant Daniel.
Again, she chose a night schedule, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., that worked with her daytime job’s hours.
When she finished that, still uncertain of what she really wanted to do, Anne worked the night shift at the Italian restaurant Locanda Verde, leaving at 1 a.m. to go home to sleep before heading back to her main job.
The arrival of Covid spurred her to action.
“I asked myself, ‘What’s next?’”
Pastries by Anne, an artisanal bakery where everything is made from scratch and where flavor and texture, not sugar, are the main ingredients, was the answer.
“My recipes,” Anne says as she starts stocking the refrigerated shelves by the front counter with brownies, “are a combination of ones from cookbooks and ones I’ve come up with.”
Although Anne originally planned on opening the bakery in August or September, it took until the end of January to get all the permits in place.
The location, a shopfront on Ditmars Boulevard at 28th Street, had been vacant for at least 18 years.
To introduce herself to the neighborhood, Anne, who moved to Astoria from Brooklyn, gave out free samples throughout the summer.
Her opening caused quite a sensation – she sold out on four of the first seven days and garnered 16,200 views on Reddit.
Selling sweets to her new friends, Anne says, is the icing on the almond mango cake.
Which, by the way, is ready to be devoured.
Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling